I am occasionally asked for design input on entirely new projects that are located in sensitive, historic, portions of a community. Often this is work on vacant land but sometimes it involves the demolition of a structure, usually one that isn’t historic.
There are three ways to approach “infill” as this sort of work is termed. The first is a knee-jerk reaction is to build something that is visually similar (or identical) to the existing historic character, matching the volume, materials, and exterior treatments. These imitative buildings “fit in,”. At their worst, such projects try copy history and, of course, they fail in most ways. More frequently they are designed so that they don’t draw much attention one way or the other. We call such structures “background buildings,” since the whole point is that they won’t compete or overshadow the historic structures. That is fine, and often appropriate, but isn’t exactly an opportunity to make a statement or explore exciting design.
A better approach to an infill project is a hybrid, perhaps matching the historic scale, rhythm and mass of the historic character, but utilizing new materials that clearly differentiate it from its surroundings. This approach can be lots of fun, visually, but there is a fine line between cloying imitation and creative expression and it hard to do well so only a few try.
And finally, because the site is perhaps discrete though adjacent to the historic core, there is an opportunity to truly be creative and create what might well become a future landmark. Good design is timeless, of course, and adds significantly to the character of a city. When you get the opportunity to work on what could be a future landmark, and you have a client and team that approaches the project from the standpoint, you get to take a risk. When the risk pays off, everyone wins but, since it’s a risk, everyone (usually the regulators) get really nervous, which is why most clients end up in less visionary scenarios.
For the past year or so I have been working on what could be a future landmark, to be built near but not entirely within the core of a historic business district. Stay tuned!