There is a reason that penthouses reside on the shoulders of tall buildings. Perhaps it is a social remnant of feudal society when kings towered above serfs. Elevation is associated with power, wealth and high status. What did we do when our towering symbols of world trade came crashing to the ground? We envisioned an even taller Freedom Tower designed to pierce the sky higher than any other building in the world. Or more simply, it could be the awe of height we aspire to. From above, we can see farther distances and observe everyday life as though we were removed from the heavy burden of gravity that weighs on our shoulders as we toil in the streets. The issue of building height may seem like just one of many factors that architects must deal with during the design phase, but many times it stands as the largest obstacle to getting anything built at all.
A building that stands out of context in its location can be an eyesore that even a child would be able to identify on “Sesame Street’s” “One of These Things is Not Like the Other.” Local neighborhood residents often react to any nearby proposed building of any height taller than four stories based on that fact. They often fear that the structure will be imposing, massive and ugly and will block the sun to their front porches. Conversely, many developers and planners praise taller buildings for creating density and hubs of interaction.
Take, for example, the recently finished apartment complex on State and Washington that houses Buffalo Wild Wings on its ground floor. Much conversation went on between the developers and the City of Ann Arbor about the building’s height alone. Should it match the existing State Street faAade that harbors mostly two- and three-story structures? Should it extend 10 stories high to facilitate much-needed, high-density residential, spawn other downtown density and, of course, maximize rentable space for the developer? Should the design even consider the future surroundings like the Thayer Street building now under construction and the proposed North Quad? In the end, a building permit was issued for an eight-story building. Take a look next time you stroll by Zanzibar; I will let you be the judge of how well it works.
Lying amid this back-and-forth argument of building height is a single issue: the relationship between a tall building and its surroundings and whether it can be reconciled. Naturally, walking on the sidewalk along a commanding monolith building is intimidating, and architects have a long history of dividing tall buildings into strata that work on each level. This methodology dates back to the 15th century when Alberti wrote his treatise on architectural procedures. Different, rustic materials were assigned to the ground floor exteriors that usually housed shops and commercial activities to ease the transition between human scale and city scale. This practice proliferated during the Industrial Revolution when steel was introduced into high rises, and buildings grew in height. Even today, walk along downtown Ann Arbor’s Main Street and feel the comfort of shop fronts that extend awnings over pedestrian areas. The ground levels usually cater to more public uses and accommodate the walkers and automobiles so much that we rarely glimpse at the continuing stories above, although we are cognizant of their presence. All of these ideas stem from the nature of erecting tall buildings. Forget style, decoration, and any other architectural factor for a minute, and realize that many times the most design-intensive efforts lie in the fact the buildings have a z-coordinate.
Now we turn to the University and its construction of the new Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy building designed by New York’s Robert A.M. Stern Architects. Located on the corner of State Street and Hill Street, the five-story brick and stone building will act as the new State Street entrance to the University when heading north toward Central Campus. From the north, the building looks very moderate and nicely aligned with the height of the existing Law School. However, the main entrance for the building is on the southern side, where the ground elevation steeply slopes downward. The simple change in topology creates a dynamic change in building height, making the structure seem imposing. In fact, the building gets even taller to the south as the building’s entrance is accentuated by large pillar-shaped masses. Anyone stepping out of Big Ten Burrito can feel the presence of the new building that now reigns over the State and Hill intersection. It makes the pedestrian feel small by comparison.
I concede that five stories is not a lot of building and that the design seemed to be well-intentioned and appropriate. The University also needed a better doorway to campus in that direction. So I probably would have been all for the “prominent” position of the building to “serve as a symbolic gateway to Central Campus.” Yet when I was walking from Campus Corner to the Union and gazing across the street, the building just felt wrong and out of context. Houses and businesses in that area, now dwarfed by the construction, will feel like ants compared to this University structure. In architecture, height may excite, but for those on the outside, it can appear threatening if not treated properly. The public policy building, if nothing else, is a powerful statement merely by its pure size, and especially in public policy, being powerful is OK – depending on whose side you’re on.
Austin enjoys the view from his penthouse. He can be reached at email@example.com.