“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

A PROPOSED NEW CITY HALL FOR WILLIAMSBURG, VIRGINIA


A recent design project provided the StudioAmmons design team, of which we are a part, with an unmatched opportunity, not only to make great civic architecture, but to aid in the definition of an important new urban space in the beautiful, restored colonial capital of Virginia. We present here a design intended to transcend the unconvincing and thoughtless “traditional” building projects in evidence in the suburbs surrounding the historic city center.  Although StudioAmmons was not selected to design the building, the design process provided a valuable opportunity to explore appropriate forms for civic architecture in the present day. 

The proposed building was intended to: 

  • provide a dignified place for the legislative functions of city government
  • act as an engaging and flexible place for cultural events and ongoing exhibits
  • reinforce the framework supporting the civic and cultural life of the city
  • contain the ingredients of sustainability
  • acknowledge and embody the local ethos to ensure long-term vitality
  • set a convincing model for new building in the Williamsburg area, that it is possible to make fine buildings that model themselves on the best that has come before.
Existing Stryker Building (1967)


The Program

The project involved replacement of the outmoded Stryker Building, a centrally located city government building that houses the Williamsburg City Council Chamber and other offices of city government. The building was constructed in 1967. In addition to a meeting room for the City Council and other boards and commissions, the proposed new Stryker Center would add public meeting and exhibition space, as well as offices to augment the current public library facilities.

The program suggested the form, plan, and architectural detail of the proposed design.  The local context stresses, not only responsiveness to local tradition and history, but an economical use of the most durable and environmentally responsible materials to achieve a sustainable result that complements, not only the location on the emerging City Square, but the city as a whole. 

The best connection with the architecture for which Colonial Williamsburg is so widely known can be found in an expanded use of the same effective architectural design methods used by the builders of those structures and further developed by designers of the principal public buildings in U.S. cities.  The role of the civic authorities in the region, as well as precedent in the historic courthouse on Market Square, former seat of government for both the county of James City and the town of Williamsburg, indicated the use of a monumental form and a suggestion of that dignified and sober architectural order, the Ionic. 


The proposed “city hall,” not only the meeting place of the city council, but the venue for civic debate and exhibits of art and history, responds to the historic and contemporary nature of the city on several levels. It achieves this result by its siting in relation to the growing city on a wonderful civic plaza, its historical models, its materials, and its floor plan, without mimicry or irony.

An important civic building like this will draw indirectly on the scale and form of Virginia's colonial courthouses, but the design should also incorporates knowledge developed in the design of nineteenth- and twentieth-century civic architecture.  Building materials, particularly the elements of brick, allude to local tradition, while the painted character of masonry contrasts with the many derivative Colonial buildings in the locale and directly relates the building to the impressive Community Building that dominates the square by its location at the center of the east end. 


The building takes as its cue the five-hundred year tradition, seen in disparate examples from Renaissance Italy to twentieth century Boston, of orienting government buildings on a civic plaza and of mediating the connection between those buildings and the public square by means of sheltering porches or arcades. These intermediate structures represented the accessibility of civic institutions and serve, not only as transitional places, but as markets for ideas as well as goods. 

The Community Building, City Square, Williamsburg VA (Carlton Abbott, architect)

The Urban Setting

In a well-ordered city, new buildings are carefully placed within intentional urban patterns in order to support a robust civic life. The new City Hall should take its place within the overall pattern established by the city at the center of civic life. It should neither dominate the square by its architectural form, nor should it give no indication of the importance of the its role, but it should join with the other buildings around the square to create a balanced whole reflective of the city’s shared ideals for a strong, wise, and just community. 

The Stryker Building currently does not relate well to its most immediate context, the remarkable urban amenity known as City Square. It faces instead towards Boundary Street, a busy street that bisects the square. City Square was created in 1999 within the nondescript grid on the northern edge of the historic district and forms the heart of the city’s 23-acre Municipal Center. It represents a very successful attempt, engineered by architect Carleton Abbott, to carve a new urban place out of the desert of parking lots and back lots that formerly provided the only context for the Stryker Building. 

The square unites the various forms and styles of the city’s civic buildings, from the low bulk of the Williamsburg Public Library on the south to the axially placed Community Building at its east end. Its planners also included a series of smaller urban gestures, built and unbuilt, that seem intended to complete the definition of City Square by enclosing its long sides.


Williamsburg's Municipal Center, just north of the historic district, with the City Square
 at the center. The Community building is the prominent cross-shaped structure to the
 center right. The Stryker Building is at the upper left, just north of the square. The Public
 Library is at the lower left.

In our view, the new Stryker Center should fulfill two important urban requirements:

1) It should serve as a symbolic seat of government appropriate to the city’s civic heritage
The proposed building would house the City Council Chamber, designed to seat 100 persons for regular meetings of council and other government bodies and as a well-equipped venue for other community events, such as lectures and concerts. Its architecture should support its purpose and it should serve as a worthy heir to the buildings housing Williamsburg's historic civic institutions.

2) The building should act as an activator and full participant in the ongoing definition of City Square
The new Stryker Center, correctly handled, should assist in structuring City Square as a successful civic plaza. It would provide essential definition to the northern edge of City Square and it will clarify the public value of the plaza by making larger connections among civic institutions. The Stryker Building would join, functionally and visually, with the Public Library and the existing Community Building to make City Square an active and appropriately unified public place.

The proposed new Stryker Building shown in orange (StudioAmmons).

Bird's eye view of the proposed Stryker Center (watercolor by Richard Worsham for StudioAmmons) 
Perspective of the Proposed Stryker Center looking NW (Richard Worsham for StudioAmmons)

Site Analysis

City Square occupies an important location on the functional map of the city. It is placed at the heart of the 23-acre Municipal Center, a complex of city government buildings that are sandwiched between Colonial Williamsburg and twentieth-century residential areas associated with the nearby College of William and Mary. The award-winning public green was created in the late 1990s by carving out streets from a grid of lots on the east side of Boundary Street and on the west side from parking lots owned by the city and the public library. Interestingly, the southeast corner of the Boundary Street at the southern edge of the square represents the northwest corner of the 1699 city of Williamsburg.

The central green is cut in two by Boundary Street, a busy thoroughfare that cuts across the city at the west end of Duke of Gloucester Street. This division into two parts gives a definite character to the square. Rather than forming an intrusion, the street gives citizens exposure to the unifying value of this civic green space and reminds them of the many activities that take place there. The eastern half corresponds to the Community Building and its key role in the life of the city, while the western half corresponds to the two institutional expressions of civic life that flank it, the Council Chamber and the Library, mediated by the leisure zone of the fountain and trellis. The central green is bounded by fictive, granite-curbed streets that lie on public land and is flanked by single lines of trees. The city has provided lots for development on the north side of the square and controls a similar narrow lot on the south side.
North and South Sides
The north side of the square is characterized by the pre-existing green lawn of the Stryker Building that lines the west side of Boundary Street and the tightly spaced buildings that conceal the parking garage that was built at the same time to serve the Municipal Center. The existing Public Library occupies the southwest side of the square across from the trellis and fountain. Two additional lots along the north and south side of the street are intended to be the sites of buildings designed to enclose the square and screen neighboring structures from view.

East and West Ends
Most significantly, the east and west ends of the green are book-ended by major civic elements that effectively close off the ends of the rectangular piazza. At the east stands the dominating form of the Community Building, which by its symmetrical form and axial location, is clearly the most important building in the entire municipal area. It shows, to the users, that the cultural and imaginative lives of the citizens carry the highest value in civic life.


Library Plaza

At the opposite end of the square is Library Plaza, a rambling public pavilion which incorporates a trellis in the form of a deconstructed eighteenth-century house frame and a naturalistic fountain. This feature effectively forms the square’s western end and conceals a municipal parking lot beyond. This public amenity seems intended to serve, not only as a fair-weather picnic trellis, but as an idealized representation of the relationship of the citizens to their historic context in Colonial Williamsburg.

The Envelope
It is important to emphasize that the buildings, not the streets, form the actual edges of every fully realized square or piazza. In this way each, this urban square can be seen as
the central hall of the Municipal Center or as a large urban room, out of which open the various public functions which join together to make it a single civic place. The volume of the square can be accentuated by blending materials so that the textures and colors minimize the difference between the streets and the central area. In this case, however, the central area is a green lawn intended more for visual gratification than active use as a public venue. Even so, the essence of a traditional square or piazza is its sense of enclosure. Most American squares fail in this regard because they are too large or too open at the corners. City Square has an opportunity to reinforce its form by strengthening its edges and the Stryker Building can act its part to achieve this goal.

Building Placement
A reorientation of the Stryker Building towards City Square will not give it in the most important position. The Community Building retains that character. Like the Public Library, which faces it across the green, the Stryker Center takes on an important supporting role in the larger structure of the Municipal Center. In addition to a new inflection toward the square, the building, in order to establish its volume, is aligned with the other buildings on the square’s northern edge. It is also be placed close to Boundary Street so as to create a dynamic contrast with the openness of the square.

It is very important for the building to join in establishing a northern edge for the square while, at the same time, expressing its relative importance in the civic life of Williamsburg. This is achieved by establishing a well marked, but not too strongly emphasized, entry centered on the western half of the square, in order to balance axial and edge-creating lines. In order to establish its presence, the building should be fully on the square, and not permitted to run past its visual ending point at the Library Plaza Trellis.


The building signals its important role as the official home of city government by an advanced central pavilion and pediment. This feature announces the building’s importance without limiting its contribution to the square as a whole and acknowledges its counterpart in the Public Library directly opposite. In addition, by not advancing beyond the outdoor pavilion which forms the effective western wall of the square, the new building establishes a northwestern corner for the square. 


Floor Plan, Proposed Stryker Building

Building Description

The program for the replacement of the Stryker Building by the City of Williamsburg suggests the form, plan, and architectural detail of the proposed design.  The local context stresses, not only responsiveness to local tradition and history, but an economical use of the most durable and environmentally responsible materials to achieve a sustainable result that complements, not only the location on the emerging City Square, but the city as a whole. 

The proposed Stryker Center is structured as a composite form extending around three sides of the central Gallery or gathering space. The primary entry is from the south through a public loggia linking exterior and interior. It is located convenient to primary and more distant parking areas. Secondary entrances give access to a shallow courtyard on the east side. A staff entry to the library offices is located on the north end and emergency exits are placed on each side of the council chamber. A hipped roof defines the central spine of the building and visually connects the south facade with the body of the building.


Buildings with complex public roles often take composite forms, and the proposed City Hall is no exception. The building partakes of at least two of the most basic building types, the regia and the theater. The regia, or seat of government, most often appears as a rectilinear building divided into smaller rooms for various governmental purposes, arranged to surround a courtyard or hall. The theater, a place where citizens are able to gather to visualize a better civic life, is usually given a semi-circular shape so that everyone present can engage with each other in the activities which take place there. In this case, the Council Chamber makes use of the theater form. As in most successful examples of similar kinds of buildings, the combination of the two building types, if handled well, can make a stronger result. An example of a similar composite of two types can be seen at Williamsburg's Colonial Capitol, where two theaters join to form an H-shaped regia and flank a central loggia. 


While buildings that embody the regia is often the most important building in a town and is sited in a free-standing location off the street grid (like the Colonial Capitol and the old James City County Courthouse) here the free-standing position has already been granted to the Community Building, a formal composition taking yet another form, that of the templum, at the center of the square’s eastern end. It indicates, by its position and formal type, that the community  honors most highly the gathering of citizens for organizational, private, and educational events. It recognizes that the beneficial activities of citizens, rather than the act of governing, is at the center of Williamsburg’s civic life. 



Gallery looking north (Richard Worsham for StudioAmmons)

Council Chamber looking NE (Gibson Worsham for StudioAmmons)

The Gallery or lobby is placed at the center of the east side of the Stryker Center. It is lit by tall windows facing Boundary Street, which provide a visual connection between passersby and the activities in the center. The gallery is the tallest room in the building. 

The proposed “city hall,” not only the meeting place of the city council, but the venue for civic debate and exhibits of art and history, responds to the historic and contemporary nature of the city on several levels. It achieves this result by its siting in relation to the growing city on a wonderful civic plaza, its historical models, its materials, and its floor plan, without mimicry or irony. and is treated with carefully designed moldings. The Council Chamber, with its semicircular form, extends from the west side of the building and incorporates a semicircular seating layout for both council and the audience. An outer ring provides circulation space and standing room for overflow at events. Modern audio-visual systems are controlled from a booth next to the podium. The Council Work Room, which doubles as a meeting room, connects directly with the seating in the Council Chamber. Short corridors connect the Gallery with the Council Chamber and give access to service rooms, the public toilets and a catering kitchen.

The three meeting rooms, large, medium, and small in size, are grouped around the Gallery. Flexibility is the keyword: the largest room can be sub-divided by a sliding wall if needed. The large and medium meeting rooms can be accessed from the exterior by means of the south entrance when the rest of the building is closed. The catering Kitchen is nearby. Each meeting room is provided with capacious storage for equipment, tables, and chairs. The Library Executive Suite is located in the north end of the building. The clerical staff will staff the services desk in the center of the north end of the Gallery and the adjacent Library Offices Waiting Room. Each of the five offices has a window and access to the office workroom. The Executive Suite has exterior access through a staff entry from the north.

Architectural Design Overview
  • A site near the sidewalk at the northwest corner of Boundary Street and City Square that will reinforce the north edge of the square.
  • South and east walls that provide strong edges to the square and to the west side of Boundary Street to make a strong contrast between the square and the thoroughfare that bisects it.
  • A site axially related to the western half of the square
  • A porch or loggia over the sidewalk, joining the building directly to the urban space of the square, encouraging participation in the events within and without. It acts as a porte cochere to provide a covered drop off at the entry.
  • A projecting semi-circular wing on the west economically expressing its role as the council chamber.
  • A shallow courtyard opening off Boundary Street providing light and outdoor space and supporting the central Lobby or Gallery.
  • Provision for expansion to the north along Boundary Street built into the design.
  • Economical use of circulation space in the building, reducing construction costs. Due to this sensible use of circulation space, the design is 1,000 square feet smaller than the previously submitted project, representing a cost savings of as much as $400,000. 
  • A white-painted brick exterior to provide a clear connection to the Community Building and, like it, appropriate differentiation from the many Neo-colonial buildings in the area surrounding Williamsburg.
  • Simple, carefully proportioned, traditional details to make essential connections with Williamsburg’s place in American urban history.
  • Legible, elegant building form and floor plan that connects with the architectural heritage of the city.
  • Permanent and technologically sustainable materials result in ease of maintenance over time.

StudioAmmons made this unsolicited submission to the City of Williamsburg in 2012. The proposal, in the development of which the members of Urbanismo took part, was presented as an alternate design, proposed under the Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act of 2002, as revised in 2007.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

TALKEETNA, ALASKA: "WHERE THE ROAD ENDS, LIFE BEGINS"

Talkeetna, Alaska, has been many things: supply station and winter base for prospectors, miners, and trappers in the area around Cache Creek, a port for riverboat shipping, and a  railroad depot on the Alaska Railroad midway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. It is located 85 miles above the sea at the head of shipping on the shallow Susitna River. Today it has attained new significance as the primary jumping-off point for climbing expeditions to the summit of Mount McKinley in the nearby Alaskan Range. The development of the town’s story is wrapped up with the transportation history of the remote Alaskan wilderness. It involves foot travel, water transportation, dog sled, horse, rail and airplane. 

Remarkable view on July 3 of the summit of Mt. McKinley, usually concealed by clouds.
Main Street looking west from the Town Park with Nagley's Store at center.
A recent visit to the unincorporated town of Talkeetna (pop. 876) revealed remarkable continuity of form between the early Alaska railroad town and the tourist depot that it is today. The town is made up of a Main Street that extends from the station to the river, paralleled by Front Street to the north and First and Second streets to the south. It is crossed by streets named A, B, C, and D. Flooding and erosion have reduced the town by two blocks to the west, but what remains shows the kinship of Talkeetna with planned towns around the world. Information here is derived from exhibits at the Talkeetna Historical Society and the National Register form for the Talkeetna Historic District.

David Lawrence Cabin (c 1920)
Prospectors arrived as early as 1896 with a gold rush in the area around the Susitna River. The tiny port of Talkeetna was established by the Alaska Commercial Company in 1910, soon after the discovery of gold on nearby Cache Creek in 1906. It served as a supply center for miners who spent the summers on their claims and the winters hunting and trapping. The supply center closed in 1912, but the town’s use as a home base by miners in the Yentna District lasted until the end of the mining era during World War II. 

In 1916, the Alaskan Engineering Commission, a federal agency responsible for building a railway to open up the interior of Alaska to development, selected Talkeetna as the location for a construction headquarters, station, and post office. With the completion of the railroad in 1923 the town lost a significant section of its population, but its purpose as a supply center was sustained. From 1920 to 1932, the Alaska Road Commission maintained a road crew in Talkeetna, building and repairing 22 miles of wagon roads and nearly the same number of miles of sled road giving access from the depot to the back country all around.

Map from the National Register form for the Talkeetna Historic District [National Park Service]

The AEC used its authority to plat a grid of eighty lots in 1918 and sold them to merchants, freighters, and miners. The town previously consisted of informal lots flanking a route running back from the river landing. Many occupants were able to establish “preference rights” to purchase approximately half of the lots since they had already made improvements to them. In 1920, the population included 53 men and 17 women. 19 of the men were miners, 5 were trappers, 7 worked for the railroad, and 22 were involved in commerce. 

The main intersection and the commercial center (at least since the loss of the western end of town to erosion in the 1940s) is found where Main Street is crossed by D Street. One corner is occupied by a triangular park, probably established by the Alaskan Engineering Commission in 1918 as a site for the rail-related buildings. Such parks were commonly included in post Civil-War town developments in order to allow for additional railroad buildings and to impress visitors by ordering and ornamenting what would serve as the gateway to the town. 

When the 30-foot-wide Talkeetna Village Airstrip opened in 1938, it was positioned immediately adjacent to the town as a continuation of D Street, so that airplanes could readily load supplies from the trains and take off directly over Main Street. This new transportation center may partially account in part for the importance of the intersection of D and Main streets.       

Fairview Inn, Talkeetna, (1923), view from intersection of Main and D streets on July 3.

Not until 1964 was Talkeetna connected by road with the outside world. The streets were unpaved and the buildings fronted directly onto the streets, probably with boardwalks in heavily traveled sections. A section of boardwalk has been maintained in front of Nagley’s Store. The rough and even primitive character of the edge between lot and street is what gives the town its peculiar historic atmosphere. Although the streets have been paved, the lack of sidewalks and presence of wildflowers and native shrubs give the sense of continuity in time and place.   

Street edges in Talkeetna

Ole Dahl Cabin #1 (c 1918)

Nagley's Store (1920/1945)
Of the thirteen historic buildings built between the late 1910s and the 1930s, most are located along the Main Street. As a town with limited functions and restricted demographics, the number and variety of civic and other specialized buildings was limited. There was no school until 1936, when the Alaska Territory built a one-room school house (now the town’s museum). There was no church and the only public building for many years was the railroad station. The Fairview Inn, the only hotel, was built between 1920 and 1923. It stands across the street from Nagley’s Store, built by Horace Nagley out of reused parts brought in by barge in from an older supply station about 1920. It was relocated in 1945 from the lower part of town after it was threatened by erosion of the river bank. 

The Frank Lee House (1917), known after 1940 as "the Talkeetna Roadhouse," a longtime headquarters for Mt. McKinley climbers, located on the corner of Main and C streets.
Detail of logs at the David Lawrence Cabin
All of the early buildings, other than the depot and the Fairview Inn, were built of logs. Many of these have v- and square-notched corners that are protected by boxed corner boards. A two-story, gable-front log house was built in 1917 on the corner of Main and C streets by Frank Lee, a river freight operator. At 21’ x 32’ feet, it is one of the largest. It was converted into an inn and restaurant (“the Road House”) in 1940. Other houses include the small and low-ceilinged (13’ x 20’) typical “trapper’s cabin” built by Ole Dahl about 1918 and the David Lawrence Cabin, which measures 15’ x 20,’ and the second Ole Dahl House of c 1920, which was built after his marriage and measures 20’ by 26.’ By the 1930s, houses continued to be built of log, but were supplemented by frame buildings like the school.