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Urban Architecture is Back

by Dennis Marsoun

September 3,2004

It’s funny how you look at something every day and not notice it, until suddenly, it smacks you right between the eyes. Last week it hit me, suburban architecture!

There is a difference between suburban and urban architecture. In the purest sense, suburban architecture is designed for the automobile, while urban architecture is designed for the pedestrian.

This is not meant to be anti-car, but just to show the differences in style. Suburbs developed because they offered space. Buildings were built set back from the roadways, surrounded by either a large grassy expanse, or a sea of asphalt. Ground level (as opposed to street level) would have a central entrance in front, a delivery entrance in back, and, in many cases no windows on the first floor.

In the city, space is at a premium. Zoning codes dictate how close a building can be to a roadway, and because of the cost of dirt, most developers use every inch for the building footprint. Street level (as opposed to ground level) features any entrances. Most of the parking is pushed underground, and storefronts and restaurants line the frontage, taking advantage of the heavy foot traffic passing by.
As urban renewal bled many cities dry during the 50’s and 60’s, the architecture that was in vogue was suburban. Let me name a few notable examples of suburban architecture in Uptown Charlotte: The Charlotte Observer; The CMS Board of Education; The Hal Marshall Center; The Mecklenburg Aquatic Center; The Manor School on First Street.

None of those buildings are pedestrian friendly. Additionally, while they are surrounded by grass, it remains unused. Contrast that with recent, or current construction, such as:

1. Fifth and Poplar Apartments: it extends to the surrounding streets and has a large and pleasant courtyard, complete with fountain and swimming pool. All parking is underground, and 1½ sides are lined with retail.

2. Gateway Condos: The units come to the street. In this case, parking is on the inside of a three-walled development. Also, restaurants and retail lines 2 ½ of the four sides.

3. Johnson & Wales: Both the residential dorms as well as the academic centers are right on the street. In fact, one of the features of the cooking classes will be the classrooms with street exposure for cooking.

4. ImaginOn: This eco-friendly building is also to the street. It is surrounded by glass, and invites, no, it demands that people to look into what is happening on the inside.

5. Charlotte Arena: Unlike Bank of America Stadium, it is closely wrapped on three sides by streets, and a rail line on its fourth side. Retail is an integral part of the building, and with the accessibility directly across from the transportation center, should enjoy a vibrant atmosphere.

Urban architecture is back. Enjoy the walk.

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