We have often discussed how streets are our cities’ most important public spaces, and the crucial role that the building “edge” plays in defining the street as a space. Even in a city like New York, known for its finely detailed and variated storefronts, one occasionally comes across the exception: above is the AT&T switching tower (21 stories, 10th Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets, completed 1964) whose facade is a windowless box clad in brick and stone. While its abstract geometry at times seems a worthy foil to the more humanly scaled buildings around it, nonetheless it fails at the ground level, where pedestrians are greeted with a blank wall.
Needless to say, a telephone switching center (with its floors largely occupied by temperature-sensitive machinery and technology, not people) is always a tricky design within an urban context. Another typology that’s often challenging is the academic building: balancing needs for security and controlled teaching environments with community engagement can be difficult. At the Cooper Union‘s new building on Cooper Square and East 7th Street (above; architect Thom Mayne of Morphosis, 2009), the ground floor contains exhibition gallery space and retail uses along the sidewalk, to engage the public with the building. Likewise, the upper portions of the building skin reveal the interior through different levels of transparency. Initially controversial to the surrounding neighborhood, this project in the end manages to embody the college’s elevated aspirations for the future, while still being permeable and engaging.
A few blocks south, an NYU building has renovated its formerly forlorn plaza setback into a landscaped court filled with benches and low walls for sitting (above, Mercer Street looking north to West 4th Street). This modest intervention creates a mixing zone where the public and academe come together.
Once Birmingham finally gets the indie cinema it deserves, it needs a bar/cafe similar to that found at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (view from the bar out to West 65th Street, above; the Juilliard School is across the street). Views out to the street, and from the street into the cafe, illustrate the power of an engaging street edge.
Back on 2nd Avenue North in Birmingham, the small storefront of Beta Pictoris gallery (above, between 25th and 24th Streets) is an excellent example of how well-lit, engaging storefronts can energize the public realm of the street. Better storefronts lead to better foot traffic. And better foot traffic means more business. Which leads to more storefronts. To keep urban momentum going, you’ve got to maintain that edge.