Designing for a Building’s Evolving Context

by: Kenneth M. Loretto, AIA, LEED Green Associate
Urban Planning
Contemporary architecture isn't self contained, it's responsive.

Recently, the office got together to watch a video of Julie Eizenberg’s presentation at the 2017 Monterey Design Conference. I had been in the audience that year, and it was wonderful to see it a second time. One of the things that struck me both times was her comment about Vitruvius’s famous summation of the three elements required for a well-designed building. She said: “You know, architecture isn’t just about firmness, commodity, and delight anymore. Those days are gone, kids. The challenge today is to realize… the structure to imagine is not just that of the building but that of the extent of place in which we live and work.”

In the first century BC, Vitruvius could imagine a perfect architecture independent of outside influences. But in our time, buildings are no longer seen as independent of economic, political, social, regulatory, and other forces. Eizenberg said that she sees her designs as consciously responding to all those factors. Contemporary architecture isn’t a self-contained entity, it’s responsive.

That struck home for me. And it got me to thinking. A lot of our work at ELS is about urbanizing the suburbs, which means we’re responding to a particular context, a context that’s always evolving. We want our work to last beyond the current moment, to play a role in the continued densification and transformation of the suburbs. So when we design, we’re responding not only to all the economic, political, etc. factors of the present day, but also those of the future.

One recent example I’ve worked on is Alvin’s Corner on Penny Lane in Campbell, California, not far from Campbell’s downtown. Our client asked us to turn a prominent but underutilized corner into a pedestrian-friendly residential and retail destination that would serve as the gateway to a larger residential master-planned community. Alvin’s Corner contains 39 apartments over 10,000 square feet of retail space, with 77 parking spaces in a below-grade structure. It’s located at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and the San Tomas Expressway, a classic suburban strip center environment.

Alvin’s Corner contains 39 apartments over 10,000 square feet of retail space, with 77 parking spaces in a below-grade structure

A huge fan of Irving Gill, our client asked us to bring Gill’s spirit into the project. That’s harder to do than you would think. Gill was ahead of his time. His work seems simple at first, with a simple color palette. His architecture is about the proportions of openings to solid walls, with a very minimal amount of detail. You appreciate it at first glance, and it just feels right. But the more you study it, the more you realize how sophisticated it is.

It was challenging to pull that off, given modern code requirements and contemporary construction methods and technology. But we were very satisfied in the end. Alvin’s Corner serves the front door to a district, a gateway for the townhouses behind, creating a sense of place in an otherwise nondescript setting, and setting a framework for the ongoing densification of Campbell.

Struggling shopping malls also offer great potential for redevelopment to help urbanize the suburbs. They often occupy excellent sites, and these bedroom communities often lack a downtown: they need a sense of place, a center that isn’t just commercial but also public, cultural, and social.

By developing underutilized mall surface parking lots and vacant anchors to add restaurants, shopping, and entertainment uses, it is possible to make density attractive in the suburbs. Creating a destination public space can help strengthen or replace dying anchors — if they target the demographics that best support the mall and associated uses. The large arterials and streets around malls offer capacity for additional uses, such as multifamily housing and office. All of these uses expand the hours of activity for the mall. Attractive outdoor spaces, entertainment options, and a restaurant row bring more people, which in themselves become an attraction.

One of our recent projects is an excellent case in point. In Newark, California, NewPark Mall was perfectly situated for densification, with its proximity to the highway and Silicon Valley. NewPark opened in 1980, but had been struggling in recent years. It was very inward-focused. A vacant three-story department store and its associated surface parking presented an opportunity. NewPark’s owner, the Rouse Company, brought ELS in to add a restaurant use to the ground floor and a multiplex cinema to the upper floors.

The idea was to turn the arrival sequence to the cinema into a show, giving the box a 30-foot-tall window wall, like a movie screen.

The existing department store building was a windowless box. It had a large truck dock and no public presence or landscaped outdoor space. My colleagues at ELS decided to crack open the box and enliven the street scene to make it pedestrian friendly. The idea was to turn the arrival sequence to the cinema into a show, giving the box a 30-foot-tall window wall, like a movie screen, that reveals the activities and people gathering inside. A dramatically stepped entry plaza serves as a “proscenium” in the space of a former truck dock.

A high canopy extends across the window wall and the entry and then drops down, framing views to a bamboo garden with sculptural seating. NewPark now offers the beginnings of a more urban environment, creating an active street life day and night.

Another exciting renovation I worked on was Tucson Mall in Arizona, originally built in 1982. The region’s population is anticipated to double in the next 30 years, so continued densification is in the cards. For our renovation, the defining idea was a scrap metal yard in the desert. We were inspired by driving through the city’s desert environment, where old, abandoned cars take on a certain haunting quality. We thought of the turquoise color of a 1972 Impala and brought that into the material palette, with Corten steel and concrete. That’s counterbalanced by the pristine white soffit floating above the new main entry. We were responding to the atmosphere of Tucson, creating something that is wholly of its place but anticipating a more urban and urbane future for the area’s surrounding strip malls.

Tucson Mall is wholly of its place but anticipates a more urban and urbane future

We’re currently working on the planning stages for the District at Latimer Square, a mixed-use project in Bloomington, Indiana. Bloomington’s downtown has retained many of its historic buildings from the early 1900s and before. About three miles from downtown, on the site of a former Kmart adjacent to the College Mall shopping center, Trinitas Ventures is proposing to create six blocks of housing, shops, and offices. As we envision it, the project would mostly consist of three- or four-story office and retail buildings, with a couple of taller, iconic buildings, like a hotel and a residential building. The street grid will draw on a downtown block structure. The master plan is designed as a flexible framework that may respond and adapt to future market demand.

During a design charrette, Bloomington’s mayor said: “You know, we look around Bloomington and see buildings that are 100 years old. And we can all think of the buildings that we care about. So as you’re doing this work, try to think 50 years into the future. What can we build that people will have that sort of emotional attachment to?” That’s the right attitude for densification.

It’s interesting, because Bloomington has a certain resemblance to the kinds of projects this firm started out with in the 1960s, when founders Barry Elbasani and Donn Logan were entering design competitions to revitalize downtowns. The urban design component of the firm was deeply important in the early days, and it retains a strong presence today. Ironically, the suburban shopping malls that sapped retail vitality from downtowns are now themselves becoming urban. To thrive, we believe they need to embrace the urban design principles that have made traditional downtowns so popular in the current era.

The days of architecture as an object in itself, unadulterated by any outside forces, are over. In our work, we’re urbanizing the suburban experience, responding to a specific context in each case, trying to create something that will last beyond the current moment. Shopping centers are huge, which means they offer opportunities to do great architecture. And if we design them right, as communities continue to grow and change, these buildings hold the possibility of further transformation.