Wide buildings ripe for use for wide-open workplaces

Several recent high-profile deals for large Chicago buildings suggests spacious floor plans are in:

The recent deals demonstrate how perceptions of those buildings and others with ultrawide floor plates, such as the Merchandise Mart and the former Apparel Center next door, have evolved. Long considered inefficient albatrosses, with too many large columns and not enough natural light, the buildings today are coveted by employers such as technology and creative firms.

Wide floors allow firms to have hundreds, or even thousands, of employees together on one floor. Open layouts and abundant meeting areas are designed to promote collaboration.

As a result, seven of the 17 largest new office leases in downtown Chicago since 2012 have been in buildings with floors of at least 50,000 square feet, according to a study by Chicago office leasing broker Matt Ward of Newmark Knight Frank. Those deals of 200,000 square feet or more include relocations or large-scale expansions within a building.

“This thinking of different floor, different planet is finding its way into every boardroom,” Ward said. “The idea of us getting out of our offices and being together is seen as a necessity in today’s business.”

The trend continues toward open floor plans where employees can interact and discuss ideas beyond their immediate isolated tasks, both theoretically leading to an outpouring of creativity and cross-pollination. This evolution of office design is chronicled well in Cubed.

At the same time, I have read about enough feedback from workers in response to these open plans to know that this is not universally beloved. The open plans limit privacy and inhibit focus. Some of the organizations that went to radically open plans later had to scale back to once again provide some more private spaces.

It would be worth going back to some of these wide structures in a few years to see how firms have organized the large spaces differently.

Argument: Apple’s new HQ is anti-city

Build a massive new headquarters in the suburbs surrounded by artificial berms and you may just open yourself to charges that you are anti-city:

You can’t understand a building without looking at what’s around it—its site, as the architects say. From that angle, Apple’s new HQ is a retrograde, literally inward-looking building with contempt for the city where it lives and cities in general. People rightly credit Apple for defining the look and feel of the future; its computers and phones seem like science fiction. But by building a mega-headquarters straight out of the middle of the last century, Apple has exacerbated the already serious problems endemic to 21st-century suburbs like Cupertino—transportation, housing, and economics. Apple Park is an anachronism wrapped in glass, tucked into a neighborhood…

Except when you have a statement building like the Spaceship, the circuit can’t complete. If Apple ever goes out of business, what would happen to the building? The same thing that happened to Union Carbide’s. That’s why nobody builds these things anymore. Successful buildings engage with their surroundings—and to be clear, Apple isn’t in some suburban arcadia. It’s in a real live city, across the street from houses and retail, near two freeway onramps….

In the early days of the project, reports suggest Apple wasn’t willing to participate in “community benefits,” financial or otherwise, and Cupertino’s city council didn’t seem too willing to push one of the city’s biggest employers and taxpayers. The mayor at the time tried to propose higher taxes on the company, but the city council didn’t support the move.

Over time, though, Apple committed to giving the city some money to help with traffic and parking. “We had to bring them into our world. They don’t do urban design. They don’t do planning. We needed to talk to each other,” Shrivastava says…

So what could Apple have built? Something taller, with mixed-use development around it? Cupertino would never have allowed it. But putting form factor aside, the best, smartest designers and architects in the world could have tried something new. Instead it produced a building roughly the shape of a navel, and then gazed into it.

This is an interesting juxtaposition to the steady stream of stories in recent years about how tech companies and other companies hip to the changing times are moving back to cities. Why would Apple construct such a structure and do so in the suburbs? I wonder if it has to do with control and secrecy. That may refer to the technology present – a building like this keeps it away from the public – but could also refer to providing employees with few reasons to go elsewhere. Facebook tried to do something like this by providing a Main Street all sorts of amenities so employees would want to stay (or wouldn’t have to leave). If you have your technology and employees wrapped up in one massive (and impressive) structure, you can exert a level of control few companies could dream of.

I also wonder if only a few companies could get away with this today. Apple is so prestigious and wealthy that it can do lots of things differently than others – such as trying to move back to the city to attract and retain younger workers – without much loss.

Finally, the article includes a quote calling structures like these “white elephants.” Imagine in ten years that Apple decides to move to a newly constructed skyscraper/megatructure in San Francisco. How could a suburban community deal with such a building? Many suburbs have a hard enough time with a vacant grocery store building, let alone a idiosyncratic large structure like this.

Hasn’t architecture always been political?

The committee that selected the most recent Pritzker Prize winners makes note of the political statement made by the architects:

Historically, the Pritzker Prize, founded in 1979 and sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, veers away from tough issues and towards celebrity. Often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architecture, the award honors a body of work over any singular building. That means it typically goes to high-profile designers, like Shigeru Ban, Jean Nouvel, and Zaha Hadid. Last year’s award was almost an exception. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for clever work on low-income housing, won. But fame preceded the award: he had already done the TED talk circuit and hosted the Venice Biennale.

It’s not the job of the Pritzker Prize jury to make identity politics out of the award. But right now, it’s hard not to. Here’s part of the jury’s citation, explaining the choice to award RCR Arquitectes:

“In this day and age, there is an important question that people all over the world are asking, and it is not just about architecture; it is about law, politics, and government as well. We live in a globalized world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that, because of this international influence, we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs. They are concerned and sometimes frightened. Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both. They help us to see, in a most beautiful and poetic way, that the answer to the question is not ‘either/or’ and that we can, at least in architecture, aspire to have both; our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world. And that is such a wonderfully reassuring answer, particularly if it applies in other areas of modern human life as well.”

With this, the jury has landed on a remarkably safe political statement, one that straddles the schism between protectionist and inclusive ideologies. Consider RCR Arquitectes’ choice to run its shop in a town of 30,000 people, instead of the nearby metropolis Barcelona. It’s quaint in that way—practically mom-and-pop. Yet, the firm’s three architects work collaboratively, building open structures that anyone can enjoy, the jury says. It’s a much lighter declaration than choosing, say, a woman like Jeanne Gang or an Iranian practice like Admun Studio.

Maybe it is noteworthy that this particular prize made a note of politics but architecture has arguably always been political. Those colossal buildings of ancient times, the Great Pyramids or the Colosseum, were intended to project power. (Some authoritarian leaders of recent centuries have pursued similar projects. See the altering of Paris in the 1800s as just one example.) Or, Jeanne Halgren Kilde explains how religious buildings demonstrate and reflect power. Even the imitation of more traditional architecture in McMansions is intended to project something about the owners.

This does not mean that the average resident recognizes all of this. Indeed, some architecture might be intended to avoid connection to politics. But, we shouldn’t be surprised that the construction of edifices – critical to social life – both reflect and enact political dynamics.

(To read more of how this might play out with religious, read my co-authored piece titled “When Bricks Matter.”

More unusual conversions of buildings to housing in Chicago

Here are a few examples in Chicago of converting solid older structures into residences:

Developers have never shied away from turning the remnants of Chicago’s past into residences—see the omnipresent warehouse-turned-loft projects across the city. Conversion treatments are now being found where they are less expected: A former Jewish orphanage in Wicker Park is now a single-family home. The old Sears store on Lawrence Avenue in Lincoln Square? It’s likely to become a 40-unit apartment building. Most impressively, a landmarked church at 2900 West Shakespeare Avenue in Logan Square reemerged in November as a 10-unit condo building. Other similar projects are in the works.

The reason for repurposing instead of demolishing is simple: The quality of old construction often surpasses that of today’s standards. “Most of the brick structures that were built in the postfire era used high-quality materials such as Chicago brick,” says Greg Whelan, a Redfin real estate agent. “Intrinsically, these buildings have high value because they don’t make that brick anymore.” Plus, existing structures bypass height restrictions dictated by modern zoning laws and solve the issue of the lack of vacant land in the most desirable neighborhoods.

These projects fix problems for developers. And the quirks of unconventional buildings appeal to homeowners. In the former church, bell towers allow ceilings, supported by original steel trusses, to soar as high as 30 feet. Slate from the old roof was repurposed as tile in the lobby. (There are plenty of modern features, too, including floating vanities the bathrooms and quartz countertops in the kitchens.) The exterior looks much like it did when the church was built in 1908, with dramatic arched Gothic windows and regal stone detailing around newly built balconies. Three of the 10 units were still available at presstime for between $480,000 and $650,000.

Presumably there are some limits to which older buildings get converted. Although this article doesn’t mention it, I assume a big factor is money: will the conversion provide a sufficient return on investment for the developer? Also, cities won’t necessarily allow anything to be converted to residences. It likely helps if the structure is already in a residential location (common for churches) and is a building that the neighbors like (as opposed to an eyesore or mismatch that even a conversion can’t fix).

I’m still intrigued by the conversion of religious buildings into residences. The architecture of such buildings is often conducive to groups (which would be limited when converted into multiple units) and intended to provide a physica connection with the spiritual realm. How exactly does this architecture fit the tastes of homeowners? Can you easily reduce the spiritual architecture to its component pieces like large windows and high ceilings? See an earlier post about converting Chicago churches into residences.

Quick Review: A Burglar’s Guide to the City

Joining the subjects of crime and architecture, A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh is an interesting if not repetitive read. Some thoughts about a book that would intrigue many general readers:

  1. Manaugh’s main argument is that criminals – burglars in particular – see buildings and cities in very different ways compared to architects. While architects assume people will use the correct entrances and the rest of the building as it is intended, burglars are always looking for unique ways in and out of buildings which leads to going through walls, roofs, and floors. Additionally, the locations of buildings can significantly affect burglary – such as the banks right next to highway on and off ramps in the Los Angeles area. In other words, these criminals are hackers of the built landscape.
  2. Manaugh talks to a number of law enforcement people and records some interesting insights. The best people he talks to are from Los Angeles as he travels with the helicopter crews and tries to see the city from above as well as spot criminal activity from this vantage points.
  3. Oddly, Manaugh doesn’t spend much time talking to architects. Do they think they should pay more attention to possible criminal behavior? Do they need to change how they think about buildings? He does talk to one creator of safe rooms.
  4. Overall, Manaugh seems a bit in awe of the burglars who can see the landscape in the ways that no one else can. He basically admits this at the beginning of the last chapter – he likes heist films – and admits at a few points that the vast majority of burglaries are connected to drugs.

This is an interesting read and those who like examples of daring criminals – such as those bank robbers who build tunnels under bank vaults, emerge from the floor, and escape through water tunnels on 4x4s – will find plenty to like. Yet, Manaugh doesn’t go far enough to connecting of how architects and city planners should respond or even if they should – perhaps this is just collateral damage of living in American cities today.

“Forty Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today”

Manhattan’s zoning code is complicated and there are a number of buildings – many built prior to 1930 – that would not meet current standards:

New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados. Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city…

New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. Just in March, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio won approval for a vast citywide plan that would encourage sleeker, more affordable developments…

Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today…

Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York. In a way, the zoning code helps to preserve such architectural diversity. The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. I particularly like the two examples of buildings cited in the story where it is clearly shown what would have to change should the buildings be subject to current standards.
  2. It is not entirely clear but it looks like this article credits zoning for protecting a lot of these older buildings. If you wanted to purchase an older building, tear it down, and build a new one, the new structure would not be quite the same. This means that zoning acts as a kind of historic preservation. Of course, we could ask how many older buildings are too many?
  3. There are calls to overhaul the zoning code to make it simpler. One of the problems is that different areas of Manhattan want different standards. Even though New York City the global city, many of the building decisions are local and residents want some control. Think of Jane Jacobs’ efforts to save Greenwich Village and certain structures during the 1960s. A more vanilla zoning code would make things simpler but could hinder local character.

Just how much historical preservation is too much?

The source of this information is on one side of the issue but it is an interesting question to consider: just how much historic preservation of buildings is too much?

New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Act was intended to protect about three or four “historic districts”—Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, etc.—preservationist James Van Derpool told the New York City Council in 1964. That’s all “anyone had seriously considered.”

The Landmarks Act  was passed the following year thanks in part to Van Derpool’s testimony. A half-century later the city has protected 138 historic districts. Nearly a third of the structures in Manhattan have been landmarked. As I argued in a Reason TV video published last year, entire swaths of New York City may as well be encased in a life-sized historical diorama. Out-of-control landmarking is undermining the process of creative destruction that made New York, well, New York…

What justifies these two designations? Landmarks Commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan was left straining. She lauded the Pepsi sign for “its prominent siting” and “frequent appearances in pop culture.” The Park Slope blocks are part of an area, Srinivasan explained, that “owes its cohesiveness to its tree-lined streets, predominant residential character, and its high level of architectural integrity.”

If “prominent siting,” “tree-lined streets,” “residential character,” and “architectural integrity” are grounds for landmarking, what’s to stop the Commission from declaring every square inch of the Big Apple too precious to ever change?

Here are the two sides of the issue:

  1. The preservationists will argue that buildings and streetscapes need protecting because (1) capitalism and free markets tend to bulldoze meaningful structures for current residents and future generations in pursuit of progress and (2) residents of particular places should expect that features of the location that helped draw them there should remain there.
  2. Reason and others would argue that such restrictions limit the free market, stopping progress and natural processes of neighborhood change. Such regulations constrict the market for property which can drive up prices as well as freeze areas in time even as the world has moved on to better things.

Perhaps there is some middle point or range where both parties can get what they want? This opinion piece suggests nearly a third of Manhattan is simply too much but where is the empirical evidence to support this? Is Manhattan development suffering because of this? As is common in social life, neither side will likely get all that they want – no such designations vs. always having to get approval from the neighbors when building a new structure – so some compromise should be reached.

It would also be interesting to look at the level of historic preservation in wealthier vs. poorer areas. Can more of Manhattan be saved because there are resources to do so versus an inability to save many noteworthy structures in poorer American neighborhoods because there are few organizations who could handle the burden? In other words, perhaps historic preservation is an issue largely faced by wealthier communities who can afford to protect some of their gloried past.