Making the great public place: getting the most from Modernist and Beaux-arts design theories

A comparison between two competing schools of thought provides some insights. Consider the typical building designed under the influence of the Beaux-Arts system. A public building designed by a Beaux-Arts architect could generally be counted on for a rational distribution of functional relationships through the use of symmetry and clearly articulated circulation hierarchies. In the Beaux-Arts plan, “transitional” loggias, corridors, and foyers become, in a sense, the essential connective tissues of the building, and are often the building’s most memorable places.

By contrast, a typical modernist plan might diminish the hierarchy of the plan strategy of the Beaux-Arts in favor of a more universal approach to spatial definition, and seek to “break out of the box”, providing the possibilities of free-flowing space, uniting inside and outside. Unlike the Beaux-Arts, the modernist paradigm offered outside/inside connections as a more profound and experiential part of the building/landscape relationship.

Several recent projects by EE&K Architects look to learn from these two traditions and synthesize the best of each to provide “great places” in several buildings and establish a profound and grounded sense of site and program relationships. These projects are modern in spirit and design. Yet the lessons of pre-modern theories, such as the great Beaux-Arts plan, support the making of discreet “places” within the building. Working within modest budgets and/or programs that require efficient use of spatial and programmatic resources, the design of non-program “places” offer connection to exterior places, greater amounts of natural light, and the possibility of formal and informal exchange can bring greater purpose to the site and building program and a richer experience to the user.

Deanwood Community Center and Library
Deanwood Community Center and Library, in Washington, DC is organized along a “main street” which provides access to all of the buildings program elements, such as a natatorium, gymnasium, early child-care center and public library. The “street” is designed to be the most figural element of the buildings form, larger than a typical corridor and the place where neighbors will meet each other informally as they patronize the centers diverse activities. The street unifies the site and opens onto the main exterior courtyard. The large expanse of glass along the street allows the courtyard and the adjacent sports fields of the site to become a part of the “landscape” of the buildings interior.

School Without Walls
At the historic Grant School in Washington, DC the constrained site of the modernization and expansion resulted in two important non-programmed spaces: a roof terrace, defined by the walls of the historic school and the new addition; and the entry hall, a space with generous height designed with informal gathering spaces that engage the administration of the school with the student population as well as with the side façade of the historic building. In both cases, the newly “found” space, defined by the existing building and new additions becomes a place of sociability and exchange.