In a meeting on Thursday, Woodford Webb and Mayor Jim Gray introduced Studio Gang as the new architects charged with creating solutions for the Centrepointe block. Jeanne Gang described their design process for a crowd of about 300, and then shared architectural models and ideas in open discussions assisted by several of Studio’s architects.
Regardless of the outcome for Centrepointe, the briefing was great for Lexington because it introduced several hundred people to the kind of intelligent, inspired design thinking that should be applied to every building project. Most of the people in the audience had never been exposed to this sort of process and the Studio Gang presentation was a wonderful introduction.
Ms. Gang discussed some Studio Gang projects, several of which had “transformed urban environments.” She provided credible evidence in photos and drawings. Then she described her firm’s explorations of Lexington’s biggest design problem. They started with a macroscopic perspective and zeroed in on the block with carefully informed decisions, step-by-step. The outcome was a series of massing models, the favorite having two towers and multiple smaller buildings. So the design is still schematic – in its early stages with no details.
The Studio Gang proposal introduces a major tower and a minor tower to the site, rather than the enormous single tower of the earlier proposal. Placement and orientation of the towers was developed in response to sun studies, minimizing shadows cast on surrounding context and having the effect of dramatically reducing the apparent scale of the development. This strategy suggests a broader sense of environmental responsibility which is supported by other features. The design allows for pedestrian access to the interior of the block, improving circulation and increasing opportunities for interaction (which is what cities are all about). Green roofs proposed for many of the buildings would mitigate storm water issues and heat-island effect, and would, again, provide space for activity and interaction. Success of the Vine Street frontage will depend upon a complete reworking of that arid highway, suggested by an artist’s vision of the street with ample plantings.
My favorite qualities of the proposal were the ways in which it responded to the context. Unlike the earlier Centrepointe proposal, it appears that this project could feel appropriate to the city. A variety of building sizes suggests sensitivity to existing textures and that the block could be understood as an agglomeration that has evolved over time, rather than as the product of a massive imposition. Inviting local architects to design portions of the Main Street buildings serves this notion and is an ingenious way to create legitimately diverse frontages in the mode of the historic facades across the street. (This may also be an astute political move if it has the effect of preempting critique from the design community). At one point, Gang displayed a historic Sanborn fire insurance map, noting the visual texture of the buildings in the drawing and describing this as inspiration for envisioning a “pixellated urban texture” for the block. The images revealed that the firm had not only done its homework, thoroughly researching the place, but they were able to move beyond that with a poetic take on history, bringing it into the modern day in a relevant, yet abstract way.
Studio Gang’s objectives were to inform, foster support, and listen to ideas from “end users” – Lexingtonians. Ms. Gang’s presentation suggested inspired leadership and an informed team, and the invitation for discussion after the presentation was sincere. I found the two Studio Gang architects with whom I spoke to be on top of their game and very receptive. Great architecture depends upon interaction with end users during the design process. The meeting on Thursday is evidence that Studio Gang recognizes this fact and we all stand to benefit.