August 2012 Archives

Kearney armory 1
The former National Guard Armory at Kearney, Nebraska, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's not really all that spectacular or unique in its own right -- it probably has or had several twins in other locations, since it was a Works Progress Administration project. But it's a good example of the durability of Art Deco and Streamline as architectural styles. This building, now more than 75 years old, still has a clean, attractive design. 

One of the attractions of Art Deco is that it avoided the gaudy over-decoration of previous styles (that gaudiness being a sin of commission that was committed again in later styles), but it also gave, simply, a "look" to its buildings. Whether in the interest of reducing construction costs or of conforming to the modernist or international styles, many buildings lack any sense of style. They are purely functional -- to a fault.

Form should follow function, to be sure. But that does not mean that a building, set about to achieve a particular function, has to be dull and lifeless.

Kearney armory 2
A building can be thoroughly functional, but still have some life in it. Here, that life shows up in little details, like the three stripes embedded in the concrete above the entrance -- or even the small arch they appear to push into the sky. It shows up in the small indentations that surround the window frames. And it certainly shows up in the rectangular pedestals at the corners and along the long stretches of wall. These "little things", as they might be dismissed, break up the monotony of long, flat walls, and add depth to the shape of the building. They're not excessive -- but they're just enough to give the eye something to enjoy. 

And that's important, because people have been seeing this building day in and day out for more than 75 years. It occupies both physical space over the land where it sits and psychological space in the minds of the people who encounter it daily. It was worthwhile to reward them with something that says the designer cared enough to give them something at which it would be worth looking.

Signs demand quick comprehension

Wayfaring sign at the Houston airport
This wayfaring sign appears just outside the exit from the rental-car garage at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. By definition, most of the people retrieving a rental car from an airport are people from out of town -- so it's at this kind of location that clear wayfaring signs allow drivers to quickly comprehend essential information in order to make safe decisions.

It's pretty clear from this sign that downtown Houston is to the left, and the airport hotel is to the right. But why leave the "Airport Terminals" section floating in the strange limbo? Sure, after a few moments of inspection, it appears clear enough that the terminals are to the right. But not at a split second's observation -- and that's not a good way to treat drivers who have just gotten off (often long, uncomfortable) commercial flights in a new city, and who may easily be disoriented as to which way is north (especially after emerging from a sheltered parking garage with no reference to the sun). 

This sign could be fixed easily...move the right-hand arrow up. Or duplicate it (one each beside "Airport Terminals" and "Airport Hotel"). Or draw a single line between the "Downtown Houston" line and the "Airport Terminals" line. Or add some space in the same location. Or change the background color behind the locations in either the right-hand direction or the left-hand one. 

But this? It simply fails the basic need for swift, unambiguous directional communication.
Platte Valley State Bank - Grand Island, NE
Great features of this bank building:

1. The thoroughly solid look of it. This building looks serious, sober, and permanent.

2. The use of natural colors in the construction elements. The sandy color and the muted brick color aren't trendy, which means they'll probably still look good many years from now.

3. The angled cornice. Cornices don't get their due in contemporary American architecture -- lots of buildings are designed as pure boxes. These cornices aren't very dramatic, but the way the wall angles before flattening into the roof provides a pleasant visual break (and probably hides gutters to carry rain off the roof).

4. The use of cool materials. There aren't a lot of trees around to provide shade, so the use of brick and stone probably helps keep the building reasonably cool.

What might be missing:

1. Windows. It's a bank, after all, so there may be security concerns involved (this particular corner may very well house the safe-deposit vault), but there aren't a lot of points of entry for light anywhere around the perimeter for the people inside to see the lovely sunshine and blue sky of the day.


The Platte Valley State Bank in Grand Island, Nebraska, was designed by Wilkins Hinrichs Stober.

That's the way to get feedback

Bathroom attention switch
Seen in a number of different locations. Should be seen everywhere. Here's why:

1. It provides instant feedback on a matter that requires quick attention. A dirty bathroom quickly succumbs to the broken window effect. A little bit of mess left behind by one user leads others to become a little more careless, and soon enough it cascades into a full-blown disaster. People can't be asked to carefully throw out their paper towels in a restroom full of graffiti and mildew. Someone who notices a mess can use this switch to instantly alert someone with the ability (and responsibility) to clean up.

2. It reaches people at the right level of anonymity. It's like a whistleblower hotline -- the reporter doesn't have to undergo the potentially embarrassing process of reporting the problem face-to-face with an attendant (which inevitably will begin with, "I didn't leave behind the mess, but..."), nor are they required to make any kind of heroic stand by confronting the people who created the mess. In fact, the level of effort required is so low that a person would have to be nuts to not use the switch if the bathroom is, in fact, messy. Nobody has to get the attention of a staff member or wait in line to talk to a cashier. Just flip a switch and walk away. It eliminates the inevitable diffusion of responsibility that can happen when "everyone" can see the same problem -- and thus nobody does anything about it.

3. It communicates the right tone from the top. The presence of the switch alone telegraphs that the management or ownership anticipated even before construction began that bathrooms can become messy, and took steps to keep that from becoming a problem that would inconvenience their customers. When a customer flips the switch, the staff is actually getting a message from management that a priority has emerged.