Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Look at Shared Courtyards

            As housing becomes denser, providing meaningful outdoor space becomes increasingly difficult.  Shared courtyards present a chance to create a valuable amenity with an economy of space.  The word “amenity” is important because it is development-speak for something that sells real estate.  The neighborhood swimming pool is an amenity, as is the golf course or the country club or the guarded entry gate.  These are high cost items that add substantial value to the real estate.  In an urban situation the space for amenities is extremely limited so there is an incentive to make more out of every square foot.  Courtyard’s can be a strategy for getting light and air to apartments, but they can also be important amenities that enhance quality of life.  They can provide play space for children where private yards are not an option, they can be a place to hold community events, a contemplative place to get away from family or roommates, a stunning view from ones apartment, and a place to cool down on a hot summer day.

A Beautifully remodeled courtyard in New Orleans, a city with a long tradition of urban courtyards.  Who wouldn't want to live here?

             I have been keeping a folder on my desktop for a few years, where I collect images of these types of spaces.  I am sharing a few of my favorites here.  The most successful examples are not only visually stunning, but are highly tuned to strike a balance between usable shared space and privacy for the surrounding units.  There is a similar balance of formality and informality as well as functionality and aesthetics.  When done right, courtyards are an amenity you can take to the bank.  A courtyard can be to a courtyard apartment building what a golf course is to a golf course community.  But with one critical difference, the golf course is an added extra, while courtyard usually something we have to build anyway.  

An everyday example
Another one from New Orleans

An informal courtyard in Spain.  Here the ground floor units have porches that act as a buffer between shared space and private space.

The courtyard leaves something to be desired, but the porches are great.

This one is from Savannah.  The entire surface is pavement yet the courtyard feels lush.  Modern courtyards are often built on top of parking making major plantings expensive.  Here is some evidence it can be done cheaply and done well.

A similar theme here, all pavement yet filled with green.  a

I have struggled to find good contemporary examples, but this one by Mithun is quite successful.  More pavement might have made this space more usable.

Some nice things are happening in this courtyard.  However the building looks like it sank into the mud about three feet.  Raising the ground floor units a few feet goes a long way towards achieving privacy.  Accessibility requirements in multifamily housing make this strategy difficult, but it can be done.  Raised patio's or porches might have made a much more exciting edge to this courtyard.  Unfortunately the developer chose to buffer the ground floor units with some dense plantings that, when they grow up, are going to block a lot of the light and views of these apartments.
This is a high end condo building in Manhattan.  There is a lot of thought and money put into this courtyard, but it still feels a little institutional to me.  Notice again the dense buffering of ground floor units.  Not the most elegant solution.
A nice start, but the architecture is not helping the courtyard here.

And finally, here is an old building with a new courtyard.  It feels a little stark with such young plantings and without any furniture, but no doubt it will mature with time and use.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Efficiency of Disorder ... An Interesting Case Study.

Chuck Mahron, who writes the Strong Towns blog has pointed out that efficiency and order are two very different concepts that are often confused.  He uses the traffic intersection as an example.  Streetlights, crosswalks, and clearly defined travel lanes all make the intersection orderly, but they don't necessarily mean anything about efficiency.  Sometimes the disorderly intersection, the one that forces people to slow down and rely on judgements and instinct can be more efficient.  Here is an interesting case study from the UK.  If you haven't seen it this video is worth watching.  

Monday, August 26, 2013

Vernacular Housing in Montreal ..The Three-Decker

Close up view of stairs, landings, and balconies, the vernacular language of
 the city.

Recently I went on a short trip to Montreal.  It is a beautiful city, and one of its charms is this type of vernacular housing.  It is a type of three-decker (stacked flats) that feels a lot like a row house.  My girlfriend and I decided to forego the hotel experience and try AirBNB. We got a room in one of these three-deckers in the Mile End neighborhood with a balcony overlooking the street.  Montreal is a low-rise city and even from the third floor we could see several miles to the church towers of the old town.  It was a wonderful experience.  I have never been on a trip where I spent a lot of time in the hotel room, but when your room is on a vibrant residential street and has a balcony with a view of the city, it changes the equation.  We enjoyed several bottles of wine and a few meals on the balcony watching life go by.  We watched the downtown fireworks on Candada Day, and watched commuters bike past over breakfast.  

Street view showing our room and balcony.

Mile End, along with many of the city’s inner neighborhoods, is made up almost entirely of three-deckers.  The neighborhood was developed extensively in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a very dense streetcar suburb.   Streets in this area of the city are strikingly regular with buildings built relentlessly to a setback line.  Cornice lines are set within a tolerance of a few feet and facades are flat. Rarely is a street lined with trees. There is a no-nonsense quality to this area of the city that is partly a product of the need to create affordable working-class housing and partly a reflection of the city’s French heritage.  Much like New Orleans, Montreal is more embracing of European style urbanity than its Anglo counterparts.  Having come to Montreal after spending several days in Toronto, this was especially apparent.  By comparison, Toronto’s classic row houses with their bay windows and elaborate gables seem a little silly, as if they are gyrating in place in an attempt to imitate a more suburban dwelling. 

Three-deckers showing a cut-in stair landing 
A typical three-decker with external stairs and balconies

Staying in a three-decker gave me an inside look at how these buildings work.  In many respects these apartments are more like a house than what most Americans are used to. Units have an independent entrance, light on several sides of the building, a generous amount of porch space and a small yard shared by the three apartments.  The anatomy of this type consists of three stacked flats, in an L-shaped arrangement that allows light and air into every room.  Each unit has a small balcony in the front and a larger rear porch that is set in the crux of the L.  The most interesting aspect of this type is the system of vertical circulation.  The ground floor apartment is accessed directly from a small stoop while an external stair leads to the second floor apartment and a door to an internal stair that connects to the third floor unit.  Each apartment has private outdoor space in the front of the building and in the summer time these spaces are used extensively.  On the ground floor this comes in the form of a terrace that occupies the six to eight foot setback while the second and third floor have a shallow balcony opening off the living room.  This arrangement affords an independent, street-facing entrance to each unit, and generates a unique aesthetic of steel balconies, landings and stairs set against masonry facades.  On more prestigious streets these elements are an elaborate display of craftwork. 

A contemporary row of three-deckers.  Some of the minor details have 
changed, but the type remains the same.

Montreal’s neighborhoods have continued to develop without fundamentally altering the three-decker type.  The modern examples I noticed have larger windows and presumably a more open floor plan, but in most other respects are no different from their predecessors. Probably the main reason this type has persisted is that it is cheap to build and uses expensive urban land effectively (nearly twice the density of equivalently sized row houses). Small buildings are often easier to accomplish where large streams of capital are not available.  A builder can put up a three-decker without incurring a lot of debt then sell it and repeat the process on the next lot. But as economical as these buildings are, they also add up to dense, attractive neighborhoods with a very unassuming scale.  

Three-deckers create an attractive streetscape and transition seamlessly 
with small commercial buildings.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

About Me

I am an emerging professional in the field of architecture. I received my Masters from the University of Oregon in 2013 and have been in the profession since.  In my past lives I have been an artist, carpenter, furniture maker and avid observer of cities and architecture. Most recently my interests have centered on urbanism and new forms of urban housing.

About this Blog

This blog is a place to discuss observations on architecture and urbanism.  Blogs have played a significant role of advancing the conversation on urbanism in the last several years and I hope to further that conversation here.  Architecture and urbanism are two sides of the same coin, and this blog will be a place to straddle those two worlds.