Quote of the Issue:

"We are told that our works should express the spirit of our age but the best works of the past have always proved the contrary."
                             
Leon Krier

CIVITAS

The Broadside of Civic Design and Politics

Our Motto:

You've got to hack your way through a lot of lunchmeat in this world.

No. 44
Published in Saratoga Springs the third Wednesday each month (or when we feel like it)
Sept. 15, 2004

Special Architecture Edition

     In recent years, Saratoga Springs has made great progress in urban design. The continuing infill of vacant lots has been dramatic and impressive. Few cities of any size have downtown redevelopment as robust as Saratoga's. The Railroad Place project has resulted in an excellent new street and will continue to get better as buildings are added. Park Alley on the northwest side of town is a fine addition to an existing neighborhood and a model for other additions. The quality of the architecture within the current phase of civic improvement lags behind the quality of the overall urban design. Commercial builders are still stuck with many of the bad habits and practices of the 20th century, especially the perfunctory treatment of exterior details and the cartoonification of style. This special Web edition of Civitas is the first of several that will address some of these issues. -- Jim Kunstler, Editor.

New Courtyard Marriot Disgraces City

      How did a hotel that looks like a forensic pathology lab get past the Design Review Commission? You can practically whiff the formaldehyde from the parking lot.
     
The building is clearly an off-the-shelf design from Marriot's filing cabinet of tried-and-true highway strip buildings. In fact, it kind of resembles a filing cabinet from this angle. The expanse of blank wall, the stupid little windows, the dull split-block base, and crummy entrance (with crummy door) denote a profound lack of respect for the public realm. Message: We don't give a shit.

      Don't bother arguing that this picture only shows the least important side of the building. It's the most conspicuously visible side coming from the city center. Anyway, all sides of the building should matter -- especially considering the fact that the building was designed to stand alone on its lot.

 

    Let's examine the back of the building -- which is the side facing the neighborhood, by the way, since the front faces four lane arterial Highway 50. The utter lack of artistry is amazing for a place supposedly built to attract visitors. Note the gray split-block section with crummy industrial windows, poorly positioned, poorly proportioned and horizontal instead of vertical, and note how awkwardly the whole thing meets the ground in a weed patch. The bottom windows are the same size as the top ones -- no sense of the ground floor as a clear 'base.'

    What's the deal with those cartoon iron balconies on the second floor? The gray mass of concrete block between the first and second floor is ugly and devoid of meaningful decoration. What is that dark, dreary area to the right supposed to be? Is it an entrance? If so, the guests are being asked to enter an architecturally ambiguous area. Sociologists would deem this dark entranceway an ideal setting for rapists.

 

               

Side elevation

Rear elevation

The Riggi House: A Critical Analysis

    Over the two year period of construction, a furious reaction erupted over the Riggi House on North Broadway.

     There are plenty of legitmate grounds for criticism of it, but most of the objections voiced by local citizens were off the mark or just plain foolish.

     We will first make a distinction between legitimate grounds for criticism and illegitimate ones.

Legitimate Grounds for Criticism

  • Poor Proportioning
  • Cheesy materials
  • Excessive or inappropriate ornament

See discussion below

 

    Not legitimate Grounds for Criticism

  • Too big for its lot. It's a city house, not a country manor in a rural landscape. Many other houses on this end of North Broadway occupy an equal proportion of their lots and are equally large buildings. The Quad Graphics corporate house across the street (Greenfield Ave) is as large and occupies even more of its lot than the Riggi house. No complaints have ever been made against the Quad house (because it is a quietly elegant building). The sentiment against big houses is generally fatuous. Saratoga is full of big houses that are beloved landmarks: the Batchelor mansion, the Palamountain house. Nobody is complaining about them. North Broadway is Saratoga's street of mansions. That is where the largest houses in town are. This is where they belong.
  • Too close to the sidewalk. The build-to line of the Riggi house is identical to the house on the lot north of it. The Quad Graphics house is even closer to the street. As an urban house it is appropriate to have an active relationship with the public realm, i.e. the street and the sidewalk, and the people strolling on it.
  • Too expensive. No complaints have ever been made about the expense of other mansions on North Broadway -- and none of them were built cheaply.
A note on style. Many objections have been made to the Riggi house's style, as though style itself was a bad thing, especially anything with historical overtones. That's just silly. Saratoga has houses in many different styles. North Broadway in particular offers a broad array of styles, from Italiante to Queen Anne to Beaux Arts. There has been no complaint previously about the coexistence of these very different styles. In fact, they lend tremendous visual reward to the street and give the town its character. It's really a matter of whether the details are done well and with conviction. Nor is fanciful exuberance itself bad. Nobody complains about the Batchelor mansion, which is a fantasia of towers and turrets. Why? Because for what it is, it's done well. If the Riggi house has a style, perhaps Cartoon French Eclectic covers it. In general, the building suffers from being squashed down too low. This is probably a result of mandated city height restrictions. If so, these regulations are stupid and ought to be changed. Ideally, height regulation should be expressed in stories not in feet. Limiting houses to three or four stories would solve the problem. But limiting them to 35 or 40 feet makes it impossible to design a decent-looking three story house. We believe this is the case with the Riggi house.
  

     
     Notice the dormer on top has no visible roof. It's all front and no top. Worse, the stones meet the sky with no transition at the edge. Bad.
     Notice the ornament in the window arch, some kind of jive molded cement intended to signify "carved stone" while avoiding the expense of the real thing. It's both over-complicated and illegible. Ornament is great, but cartoonification only draws negative attention and ends up showcasing cheapness.

     This is not a stone house, by the way. It's a wood balloon frame with a few
steel beams and plywood cladding. The "stone" cladding is technically known as veneer. It's actually thin slices of stone glued to the underlayment of plywood.

    

      This balustrade is beyond-belief stupid. The individual balusters are supposed to denote "columns supporting a rail." They're not supposed to be touching each other like passengers in the subway. Crowding them together like this is a gross error in proportioning. Since they're right over the entrance portico the error is very conspicuous.

     The balusters are also made of some kind of cast concrete material. The excessive decoration on them adds visual noise to the crowding.

     The result of cumulative errors like this can be the mistaken idea that style itself is a bad thing. When the parts are done badly, the sum of the parts suffers and the whole thing looks bad.
     

   
 

    

    This heraldic eschutcheon on the corner of the property probably drives people crazy.

     Putting your monogram in the public's face like this is just plain vulgar. Especially if you're not Napoleon.

    Save it for your tea towels.

      We like the formality of the landscaping. The enthusiastic geometry. It's pleasant to be able to peer through the fence and view the axial walk and planting beds. It evinces generosity to the public realm. The view terminates in a rewarding glimpse of the pool house and its arched door.

     

 

 

      The iron gate is excessively complex and protrudes awkwardly above the cornice line of the roof while it's shoved downward by the balcony. The lamps are over-decorated. That said, it's still a pleasure to walk by, look through, and glimpse the fountain within the courtyard. 

 

Conclusion: The Riggi house is a somewhat vulgar, poorly-designed house that has an urbanistically favorable attitude to the street and a lot of generosity to the public walking up and down that street. It's best feature is its landscaping. The life-size horse sculpture (not shown) is an unfortunate piece of cartoon kitsch. The fountains in front are pleasant. Eventually, the furor over the house will be forgotten.

Witt House on Clement Street -- a discussion

   

      
      As with the Riggi house, a lot of people are complaining that this house by developer John Witt is "too big." That's not the problem. There are plenty of bigger houses within a stone's throw of this one. The Home of the Good Shepherd one block away is at least twice the size and nobody has ever complained about it. Why? because it's a beautiful building.
     The problem here, as with the Riggi House, is in the proportioning and decorative details.
     Starting from the top. The "tower" at right lacks conviction. It's squashed down. If you're gonna do a tower, do a real tower. Give the roof some pitch, some height! Put a really exuberant ornament on top! Do not make a nearly flat roof, unless it's a 'widow's walk' and if you do that, do it right with balustrades.
     The cornices, or roof overhangs, are stingy.
     The ornaments are poorly thought out. Notice there are only three real roof brackets under the cornice (arrows). It doesn't make sense structurally or decoratively.

   

    These odd pendant ornaments are supposed to denote "brackets," we think. They lack dimension and clarity. They don't connect to the soffit. They don't "read" as anything. They are also way too small to be comprehended from down below on the street.

      

     The decorations around the window are cartoon applique. The windows themselves would have made better visual sense if they were properly recessed within real dimensional frames. The diagonal tension braces are obviously fake and gratuitious.

     

      Cupola on the garage. What are the diagonal braces doing on the ventilation louvers? They're not structural. They don't signify anything. They just make for visual 'noise.'

     The roof overhang is too stingy. The copper tower is like a hat on someone's head. It needs at least a little bit of 'brim'.

    Are these decorations supposed to denote "balcony?" If so, this kind of cartoonification should be avoided. The tilted brace-like ornaments are also puzzling. Breaking up the space on the wall into so many small units -- including the change of materials from clapboard to shingle -- is unnecessary and over-complicated. The windows would look less cartoonish with more individual "lights" or panes.

The expanse of bare clapboard is excessive. The result is a dreary and boring look. The facade would have benefited from a loft window above the garage doors. The tiny diamond-shaped vent under the gable bracket is not enough, and seems redundant given the ventilation provided by the cupola.

 

Park Alley, around the corner from the house under discussion, is a fine addition to the northside neighborhood. Garage doors facing the street have been minimized. Porches are substantial The build-to line relatively close to the front creates a nice "street wall." The street detailing is still a bit raw, but it will improve over time, especially as trees are planted.

The Brause Building on Broadway

     It's big and clunky but it's a big improvement over the crummy parking lot that occupied this space for half a century. Big as it is, it's still not as large as the Grand Union Hotel, which occupied the block for a hundred years until it's tragic demolition in 1953.

     The new Brause building is also not beautiful the way the Grand Union Hotel was. It's a homely, boring "background" building that meets the basic standards of urban design without any exuberance or joy. One reason it's so dissapointing is the horizontal window motif, which unfortunately emphasizes the extreme horizontal massiveness of the building. It would have benefited tremendously from vertical windows and other added elements, such as real balconies and interesting roof treatments.

      An attempt has been made to "break up" the visual boredom of the thing by dividing it into seperate bays. But the attempt is half-hearted and the bays themselves are boring. The ground floor retail will be a welcome addition to our main street. They may be chain stores now, but some day they will be other stores, perhaps locally owned. Don't get too hung up on that issue. The age of national chain retail will soon draw to a close.

    The tower on the southeast corner of the building sucks. It utterly lacks conviction. It's a skeleton, a ghost of an architectural idea, an empty gesture. A clock is not going to improve it that much.

It should have been an occupied space, a wonderful room or suite that you could look up to and see the lights glowing inside on a winter evening, and wonder what was going on inside. Towers symbolize social hierarchy and our silly-ass culture tries to pretend that social hierarchy doesn't exist. This conflict gives the developer an excuse to avoid the expense of building something really exuberant and beautiful.

 

       The building is supposedly being built for a single tenant, a financial services subsidiary of a major investment firm. We'd be concerned that the coming years of economic austerity around the developing global energy crisis will be a bad time for the financial services industry. In fact, we boldly predict that the tenant will not last there five years. The building should have been a mix of apartments and smaller office suites.

      Oh well. . . .

There is an epidemic of half-assed, half-hearted towers around Saratoga. Here's another one on West Avenue:

The building is just a plain box with some cartoon add-ons. It's an attempt by the owner to avoid the responsibility of delivering beauty to the public realm by way of architecture.

The Window Problem -- A Case Study in Standards of Excellence
As Seen in the Saratoga Arms B & B Addition

This is a window on the old part of the building. See how emphatically vertical it is. Notice the decorated lintel with brackets and moldings. A lot of skill, thought, care, and expense went into the design of this element. It was designed intentionally to be beautiful!

Here's a window from the new addition to the same building on Walton Street. Observe the institutional-looking lintel over this window -- like something you'd find in a veterinary office. No thought, skill, or care went into it. It was designed only to "get the job done" and no more. That's not good enough. A window is more than a hole in the wall.

Continuing development on Railroad Place

On the whole we're impressed with the way an excellent street is taking shape on what only a few years ago was a forlorn and neglected strip of weeds.

Creating a satisfying street is all about using building fronts to define space, becoming the "walls" of an outdoor public room. These buildings accomplish that well. They certainly could have been more expressive, but they're not bad, and they connect agreeably with the street.

It's particularly significant that they are residential apartments. They will bring life to the center of the city, and customers to the businesses there. On winter nights, the lights will be on in the upper stories.

Remember, the luxury housing of one era is the affordable housing of the future.

Considering what our culture had produced previously -- e.g., the 1986 strip mall on Congress Street -- this building is a tremendous leap forward in appropriate urban design. The scale of six stories is fine. It allows for a lot of residential density without being physically oppressive.

We're not crazy about the steel pipe columns, which smack of the industrial worship (and construction short-cuts) of Modernism. The windows in the central rounded bay "read" too much as horizontal. They should have been composed of more emphatically vertical elements.

The penthouse sits a bit awkwardly on top without any decorative gesture. The change of materials in the bays between the fourth and fifth floors looks a little queer.

The ceilings could have been more generous.

Phase Three of the Railroad Place development. This apartment building being put up by Bonaccio Construction illustrates a fundamental principle of good design in very simple form. Buildings need to clearly express a sense of having three distinct parts: base, middle, and top. This humanizes them and invests them with 'aliveness.'

Notice how clearly and well this is accomplished in the 19th century building on River Street in Troy. See how expressive and exuberant the decoration is, especially around the windows. This building actually has fewer stories than the one at left, but the ceilings are more generous so it looks grander. Note how vividly interesting the roof is. We have a way to go to get back to previous standards of excellence in our own culture.

Advisory to readers who shop
at the Price Chopper on Railroad Place.

We've noticed twice during August that posted prices for items were considerably lower displayed on the shelf than when rung up at the checkout register. A flask of maple syrup was more than 50 cents higher at the register. A shopper who is not paying strict attention could easily be chiseled by this practice. When the management was informed of this, their response was surly.

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