Monday, June 19, 2017

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 20

To finish this series of blogs on my urban design work in Maine, here is an article from Maine Home and Design ( https://mainehomedesign.com/aia-design-theory/1948-the-poetry-of-place/ ) articulating my approach to architecture and couple of sketches from my student thesis long, long ago; a mixed use project on Union Wharf in Portland incorporating urban spaces.



The Poetry of Place

Architect Michael Belleau’s favorite Emerson quote is from the essay Nature: "Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all;...". This transcendent state involves both a heightened awareness as well as a sense of peace within. Belleau says his work seeks to create such an opportunity for his clients. “When I begin designing a project my goal is to create a poetic condition- a space that the client would describe to a friend in poetic terms because no other terms would suffice. This involves manipulating light, space, materials, history, so that one is allowed to feel uplifted and moved to positive emotion inside.” MH+D asked Belleau to elaborate.

Q: HOW DOES AN ARCHITECT DESIGN A POETIC PLACE?
A: First, an understanding of what “place” means and how our senses process our surroundings is necessary. For me, “place”, is both a regional term in that there is an implication of a larger geographic area distinct from another (New England vs. Deep South), and an idea of a precise smaller definition so that you know when you have entered and when you have left (The Old Port or the inside of a cathedral). The former involves geography and culture, the latter as well but for me can also be a specific neighborhood, building site, or one space. When I was a young fisherman working on a dragger off Cape Cod I stood on a regionally crafted purposeful vessel full of construction detail and imbued with local culture. In Kenneth Frampton’s essay, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance”, he argues for the creation of buildings which are of their place, reflecting the local culture as a way to avoid the placeless quality of so many modern buildings and the kitsch of so many postmodern buildings. We see this placeless effect and kitsch in generic places like chain stores and restaurants and parking lots and logos that fail to change as we move from one end of the country to the other. As Gertrude Stein said: “There is no there, there.” Frampton however, addresses the design of buildings and how they can both participate in the local culture as well as the universal culture. By using materials, construction methods, programs, which are local, and some universal properties such as the industrial process of manufacturing. It’s no surprise this approach is the most sustainable as well because we need to use the common sense climatic building techniques of the past with the building science advances of the present. When I teach I have my students read this essay.

Q: HOW DO OUR MINDS PERCEIVE PLACE, ESPECIALLY IN AN EVER-CHANGING ENVIRONMENT?

A: When my first son learned to walk on the steps down to Camden harbor, I felt a very distinct sense of place. Often a pattern of some kind- like a string of row houses or a group of piers- can define a distinct place. Patterns are sought by the mind to interpret our surroundings. How our senses process our surroundings is key to understanding how architecture can create poetic places. Architecture is the stage for one’s interaction with space and objects around them. Our minds process the information taken in through the senses and send reactive signals to our bodies for physical response and to our minds to create emotions and stimulate pattern searching. It is the architect’s responsibility to create spaces that provide appropriate emotional states and patterns for the pleasure of the mind and comfort of the body. When my children walk to school their feet fall on ever changing brick pieces with various colored plant debris while moving through a space filled with building volumes, trees hovering above and paths that bend opening up new vistas. Every new day brings different colors and weather and modifications to the day before. The world is a constantly mutating organism, each pattern of growth and decay changing so that no such fixed state exists. This is true of our thoughts individually and collectively. Every interaction of one thought with another changes each thought into a new mutated one. The sciences of chaos, complexity, fuzzy logic and fractal mathematics attempt to identify the patterns of growth and change. Architecture must allow us to feel comfortable in the world we find ourselves. Thus, the places we create should allow for thoughts of constant mutation, recombination, dissolution and birth. My work seeks to harness this energy to enhance the users quality of life.

Q: WHAT IS A PROJECT EXAMPLE WHERE THIS IDEA CAME INTO PLAY FOR YOU?
A: I designed a little studio addition to a farm house in Cape Elizabeth for Guggenheim fellow and Princeton faculty photographer Jocelyn Lee. We have primal safety instincts to gravitate to the cave or the tree and this project creates a sort of tree house effect by hovering up and away from the rest of the house. Our regional culture feels comfortable with gable roofs and wood shingles. Our universal culture is comfortable with ribbon horizontal windows that allow broad uninterrupted views of the landscape in back of the house, the obvious “place” which the project focuses on. And when walking up into the studio space a sense of a distinct “place” is apparent. The structure further displays modern traits by cantilevering out in two directions; there are frameless glass window corners, and one set of glass doors below lies across an end of the volume above. On the other hand the roof is of plain old corrugated metal. The studio commands the back yard, the play space below creates indoor/outdoor connections and a deck above and behind the hovering studio allows access to nature from the large multi-dormered attic level of the original farmhouse. Architects can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary even in small projects. I often pass by small beach cottages and imagine how they could be transformed from the banal to the wonderful.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 19

Portland Maine waterfront with proposed new buildings in black strengthening the existing piers as streets fabric, etc.
(Continuing with my July 2010 Maine Sunday Telegram article proposing a blueprint for a successful approach to development on Portland's waterfront...) Using historical analysis combined with a form-based approach, I suggested we treat the piers as streets with buildings along the sides of the piers. Using the Thomas block as an example of how to build on that side of Commercial we could make a continuous 4 story wall of mixed use space with storefronts at grade. Then the piers could have a street running down the middle and buildings on the sides with waterfront use on the pier level and provide as much public access as possible. Great read for those who care about building better places to live especially those with waterfronts. Here's the article text second half:

...It is clear the most crucial aspect regarding development on the piers is that a street run down the middle of them that imitates the streets of the Old Port. This means sidewalks on both sides, or a totally pedestrian street wide enough to drive down and walk alongside moving cars and nothing at the end of the pier at the end of these ‘streets’ to block the view. These ‘streets should be mandated public access corridors as the piers are private property. Buildings could line both sides of these streets to a height of 2 or 3 stories without blocking out too much sunshine or overwhelming the ‘feel’ of the old established building fabric. Buildings should be required to build to the sidewalk edges to make the ‘walls’ to these street ‘hallways’. Open air breaks in these buildings for view and pedestrian access should occur at mandated intervals to allow people to see the ocean from the ‘street’, walk to the pier’s long edges from the street, and to break up the potentially long building walls. It is this human scaled pre-industrial fabric that generates the livability we enjoy and thus, attracts the income we depend on.

Since ALL uses except marine ones can be accommodated anywhere else, it is natural that the ground floors of most space on piers beyond the depth of a Thomas block size building be reserved for marine use only. Piers are built to function as a way to allow boats to pull up alongside them- for marine use. Once that space is handed over to non-marine use, the whole logic of the city begins to fall apart and our sense of place unravels. We passed the marine only zoning law because we panicked when Chandler’s private condominiums and gated street went up. We instinctively knew the whole city as a place was at risk. Seafood restaurants with moderate income menus like the Porthole and Becky’s feel natural to us on the ground floor as does a fish market. It is the ground floor of the buildings that we interact with and which provide us with a sense of place. On the other hand, I’m not sure it makes much difference on the floors above whether there are restaurants, offices or concert halls. The exception is residential which can cause problems when condo owners act naturally territorial leading to lawsuits and which cannot be changed to a different use if the public changes the zoning. There must be a way for property owners to make a deserving profit while the greater good and Portland’s long-term interests are preserved.
Believe it or not this is a pier- Custom House Wharf.

If we write the zoning in such a way as to get the street space the way we want and the form of the buildings similarly creating that street space- public space- then Portland will always be the best experience we can get. This means writing a form-based code instead of a function based code. Zoning language should emphasize that use requirements may change to accommodate public interest but that building form requirements will stay. This actually stabilizes the owner’s long-term viability as they can build the form and fill it with whatever use is approved at any point in time.

Finally, the actual pier edges running along the sides should be well thought out to allow a certain amount of public strolling. This is easy if an 8 foot strip along the water is open for walking along, exceptions made for actual work such as unloading fish, etc., which would pose a danger to the public. Thus, the public could walk along most of the waterfront edge for a magnificent experience and lure tenants better than any brochure owners could come up with.

So we see that the solutions to our needs at our waterfront are simple: a street down the middle with no building to block the end view; buildings like Thomas Block along Commercial Street with storefront on ground floor; a human building height along piers; access to the edges; marine only ground floors; and buildings on either side of the ‘street’ that meet the sidewalks.

It is the unique street space that we love in our city. Pier streets have always been Portland’s essence.

Michael Belleau is principal of Michael Belleau Architect, an architecture and urban planning firm in Portland. He has worked since 1992 on Portland urban design issues, writing many articles for this paper. He is a fourth generation Mainer, former fisherman and Portland resident and can be reached at www.michaelbelleau.com or his blog: www.mainearchitecture.blogspot.com.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 18

Historically Portland's piers acted as extensions of the streets with buildings on both sides only with water underneath.


In 2010 Portland Maine's waterfront code and future was a big topic and having analyzed it from the beginning of my career, I wrote this July 2010 Maine Sunday Telegram article to lay down a blueprint for a successful approach to development there. Using that same analysis as my thesis combined with a form-based approach I suggested we treat the piers as streets with buildings along the sides of the piers. Great read for those who care about building better places to live especially those with waterfronts. Here's the article text first half:
My July 2010 article and excerpt.

 Portland Piers Are Streets

By Michael Belleau copyright 2010
Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

July 7, 2010

When we walk down to Portland’s waterfront and stroll through the fabric of the Old Port or meander along Commercial Street, our senses are focused inevitably on the water. The smell of the ocean when the weather warms up and the sounds of boats and birds beckon but the site of the water is what we yearn for. Our visual connection to this place is constantly broken by buildings and then re-established through view corridors. Views from a distance are balanced by walkways along the water’s edge. This variety of water view experiences is what makes Portland itself a distinct place. In order to answer the question of how to build here we need not get too complicated. We just need to acknowledge the deep structure formed by history here that has worked all along.

A map of Portland in 1690 shows just three roads: one along the shore (Fore St.), one going from this one up hill (India St. now), to one along ridge (Congress St. now). When Captain Moet burned the city down in 1775 piers had begun to sprout along the waterfront, a few of them aligned with the streets coming down from the spine of Congress Street. By 1823 many more piers had sprung up, most of which were extensions of the cities street fabric coming down from Congress Street, across Middle and Fore and out into the harbor. Starting at the west end and moving east we can see streets becoming piers at the streets State, Anne, High, Center, Cotton, Cross, Union (the largest wharf, Union Wharf), Plum, Exchange, Market, Silver, Willow, Deer, Moose, Tyng, King (India), Hancock and Monitor. Tyng Street actually went out into the water as a pier and came to an end at an ‘L’ intersection over the water with Thames Street’s pier extension!

As these piers grew longer they began to differ little from the same streets on land with rows of buildings along both sides of a street at the center of the wharfs except the back of the buildings were at the waters edge with ships tied up. The street fabric of Portland was one of the city running right out into the sea.

The Portland experience was of walking down a street seeing the water at the end, and as you approached that end, glimpsing the water on both sides between buildings and realizing you were over the water. If you walked along the waterfront down and between wharfs you could experience a myriad of building forms, views, wharf edge depths, site lines, people, ships, etc. However, as with many human scaled environments, the Industrial Revolution inadvertently removed a large portion of this experience.

In 1852 the railroad tracks to Montreal were laid across the wharfs out in the water close to land. This line of tracks became Commercial Street when the water between the tracks and Fore Street was filled in. The crenellated outline of the waterfront edge was replaced by a monotonous straight one. Piers still multiplied (I count 36 total from 1866 map) and grew further into the harbor while railroad track spurs ran out down the piers to expedite the movement of goods. The new tracks divided the waterfront into a city side and a wharf side. You knew if you were out in the water and if you were not because you had to cross the monotonous tracks first. Mystery and intrigue, essential components to the heightened urban visual and spatial human experience began to evaporate.

Now, with trains long gone, we see the gradual restoration of the street fabric of Portland especially down at the east end of the waterfront. Commercial Street has become a sort of Main Street of the waterfront area. 100 Commercial St., the Thomas Block, exemplifies the kind of building form we generally enjoy along the water side of this street. At four stories it is not too tall, curves along the sidewalk forming a wall to enclose the street so that we experience the street as an outdoor public room, and has storefronts at ground level to engage the pedestrian and provide a sense of safety and activity. We can use this building as a model for development along the water side of Commercial Street to the depth of the Thomas Block. It is the building overall form that we wish to guide to meet our collective needs, not strictly the use.

Next post will have rest of article and diagram explaining concept.