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A tale of two buildings

A building succeeds without trying while another misses the mark despite good intentions.
by Steve McKee on November 26, 2010

Melody and I had a nice dinner out the other day in downtown Napa in a brick warehouse that had been a “grain-and-feed” building many years ago but had been cleaned up and converted into a restaurant. It was an old funky building being reused for something it wasn’t originally designed for and of course that made the place even more quirky and therefore enjoyable. “Celadon” was the restaurant’s name.

Half of the tables were outside in a big space with a four sided brick fireplace in the middle under a large sloping corrugated metal roof with big plants that enclosed one edge. This created enough shelter that the space felt both outdoors and indoors all at once. I love spaces like that – an unexpected “in between” layer that add richness to our world. We were ushered past the outdoor tables and the freestanding fireplace through a passageway in an old brick wall to the indoor eating area. I was sorry we were going to miss out on the outdoor dining, until we were seated inside and then I was delighted because we got to enjoy the funkiness of the inside space.

The eccentricity of the old building was put to good use in that way that restaurants do so well.  There was a ledge along the back wall used to display art and bottles, while a corner of the room with a sloped ceiling (due to a stair above) created a cozy alcove for a table. There were little spotlights on artwork and candles here and there. A long counter of a bar fit in along the other wall with orange pendant lights overhead that made for nice glowing color accents.  Away from the bar, a row of heavy wood posts were painted an accent color. These posts were spaced much closer than you would ever see in a new building, but each column created a place to nestle a table. Near the top of the big posts was a black steel rod from which hung soft fabric drapes, retracted in a swag against each column. This fabric added another color and texture accent, and also gave the sense that the experience of the space could be instantly altered with the flick of a wrist.

Restaurateurs are masters at using texture and lighting to make life just seem somehow richer. People love passing time in such spaces and the restaurants love letting people come and do so. Everybody wins with good design, wouldn’t you agree?

During the drive into Napa, we had noticed that right next door to our old restaurant building was a brand new building along the Napa River, barely occupied yet. It was huge by Napa standards and filled two city blocks while standing four stories tall. It had many different materials and a slightly staggered roofline and seemed to be trying desperately to look like ten or twelve different smaller buildings that just happened to all be touching.

But you could tell it was a big building trying to deny its true nature. It was weird looking, an odd duck that had no business landing in a city of delicate and nuanced buildings. How could Napa let this overgrown pastiche happen in the heart of their city? It felt wrong.

We’ve all seen these types of projects, especially in recent years – the big building that tries to look like a bunch of smaller buildings. Almost every city these days ends up with at least one of them in some form. Apparently they are the “look” of our times, in the way that the thirties produced art deco and the sixties produced avocado-colored appliances. Some sort of communal zeitgeist must lead to their creation. Developers want to maximize their building envelope with a large building. Meanwhile people want to live in human scaled villages. Perhaps this is the attempt to have it both ways.

But wait a minute. These buildings are not so large as to need a re-ordering of centuries of architectural principles. It’s possible to achieve livable buildings without having to Disneyland-ize them. Break the scale down in other ways, I say, by being sensitive to correctly proportioned elements like balconies designed for real habitation and colonnades designed for real user-friendly outdoor dining, not by doing busy color schemes and minimal balconies added like stage-set ornament.

Humans have a real need to naturally gather in cities. It’s built into our DNA in the way that fish swim or birds fly. Cities, even small ones, benefit from the diversity that results when buildings of different styles and attitudes from different eras end up together in the rich tapestry of a city. Can this diversity be created in one fell swoop in one building by one designer who simply staggers its building front in and out slightly and varies the colors and textures? Methinks not.

Later I found a website in which Napa residents discussed their new building and struggled to come to terms with it. A few proclaimed it to be “beautiful” and many complemented the developer for trying to do something with that part of town. (True, the residential upper floors will indeed add people and therefore pedestrians and vitality to the city center.) Others tried to figure out just exactly what was amiss with this odd building. One writer concluded that what made it seem wrong was that it had a roofline all the same height but at the same time was “too busy.”  Touche, mon ami.

Meanwhile, back in our quirky restaurant created from the retired “grain-and-feed” building, Melody and I were opting out of dessert. As we left the rich experience of the old building I was visually confronted by the half-assed attempt at architectural interest of the new building.

The contrast for me couldn’t have been more remarkable – the new building tried desperately to be multilayered and diverse but ending up just lying there, dead yet fussy looking all at the same time, while the older building that wasn’t even trying to do any of this, the building that was originally constructed to facilitate the loading of hay onto wagons, was hitting it out of the park.

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