Saturday, May 26, 2012

Architecture & Motion: Newton Rules

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton was a deep thinker and a master at making connections, although not to architecture. His first law of motion states, in part, that an object at rest continues at rest while an object in motion continues in motion. Using this law as a premise, perhaps we can make an architecture connection. To connect this law to buildings, static objects, may be a stretch, but to make a connection to a building's users is a topic worth exploration.

Never have a building's users been more at rest than in the present day and age.  To a great extent we have placed our buildings in the suburbs or exurbs where we, the building's users, typically drive long distances and park in large lots directly in front of the building.  This allows for a short walk to the elevator and eventually to our air conditioned office, where we spend long days in our service sector jobs, sitting in front of a computer and talking on the phone.  We may break for lunch, get back in our cars and drive to the McDonald's for a burger, fries, and a coke.  At the end of the day we reverse the direction of our commute and return home, where we might occupy the lounge chair, order a pizza and watch a little television before climbing in the bed and starting the routine over the following day. Unfortunately this lifestyle, the American Dream, has led to some unanticipated consequences.  Obesity has become a major public health problem, leading to significant increases in chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancers.  There are plenty of culprits to choose from, depending on your point of view - the developers, big oil and the auto industry, the food service sector, or simply the countless Americans who have made their own individual choices.  I suggest that there are two additional culprits that we don't usually think about, the designers - urban designers and architects.


We, the designers, must learn to see the forest as well as the trees.  If we are to contribute to solving this problem in a significant way, we must learn to get the building's users in motion.  A recent publication by a group of New York City commissioners suggest simple and helpful guidelines for making our communities and our buildings more active.  The guidelines are based on a "growing body of research suggests that evidence-based architectural and urban design strategies can increase regular physical activity and healthy eating." Following are examples of projects in New York City which were designed to set bodies in motion.

One of the most successful urban park projects in recent years is High Line Park, designed by landscape architects James Corner Field Operations and architects Diller Scodifio + Renfro.  The park is constructed on an abandoned 1-1/2 mile stretch of rail line located twenty-five feet above street level.  Motion is a primary design consideration, whether walking, running, or bicycling. A combination of pathways link a series of destination nodes, which may be green spaces, overlooks, or ingress/egress points. Wide, easily navigated stairs at these ingress/egress points lead to the street level where one can find access to public transportation, as well as to a variety of markets and restaurants fresh fruits and vegetables.

Urban Design - High Line Park

The New York Times Building completed in 2007 by Renzo Piano is a wonderful example of how a skillful architect can encourage motion within a building.  Though a large building, the transparency of the facade gives it a light and airy appearance, in contrast to some of its hulking neighbors. It also displays the hustle and bustle of the newspaper business.  Once inside the building the abundance of natural light and the miserly use of solid partitions enliven the spaces.

New York Times Building - Street Facade


New York Times Building - Newsroom

The open stairs, accentuated by red panels, are placed at both ends of the newsroom and connect its various floors. The visibility that the openness allows encourages walking and the use of stairs. Spaces containing unassigned tables, chairs, and computers allow for impromptu meetings among the staff.

New York Times Building - Cafeteria
The building contains ground floor retail space that the occupants frequent.  In addition the building contains many amenities such as a cafeteria, which become well known destinations that encourage activity. Many of these amenities are filled with light and life.  Absent, or at least minimized, is the desire of the staff to park it in their cubicles for hours on end.  A commendable outcome - I'm sure that Newton would agree.

This post explored the connection of architecture and motion and argued that buildings and neighborhoods can and should promote physical activity.  The case studies in this blog were clearly urban.  In the next post we'll venture into rural America and explore the connection between Architecture and Agriculture.....One of a Kind.