Changing Levels, Connecting Spaces

Ladder stair ramp elevator

Four devices for changing levels. Each is a design with degrees of sophistication, investment of resources, and implications for its users. Ascending a stair burns less calories than climbing a ladder. Ramps of decreasing gradient can be more efficient yet again. Elevators require little apparent energy, and lots of invisible resources from elsewhere (in that “Where does milk come from, Mommy? From the store, Johnny!” sort of way).

The larger resources required to design and build the ramp as opposed to the ladder are invested now for future energy savings each time the ramp is used.

Part of the ramp’s value lies in this aspect of  “paying it forward.” More intensive still, like much of our 20th C infrastructure, is the elevator. The larger resources needed for that device, to hold it in readiness and operate it at our whim, are a cost out of sight and mind.

The elegance of the ramp solution is measured in other ways as well. Ladders require both hands and feet. They reinforce the ape in us. Stairs require that you carry the things you are taking with you, while ramps more gracefully admit the possibility of strollers and children. Ramps respond with access for all instead of a few, and avoid the sustainability issues of the elevator.

Yet for the designer who crafts the connection between levels there is even more possibility. Each solution articulates a different relation between the levels, and adds its own history and vocabulary to the discourse. For instance, as Rem Koolhaas expounded some years back in Delirious New York, the elevator makes possible the notion of many “ground floors” stacked one on top of the other, each a separate world of its own. The elevator is the “Beam-me-up-Scotty” transporter that disconnects you from one world by closing its doors, and, like magic, introduces you to another upon opening them again.

A ramp, however, can explore the opposite end of the connection spectrum. By simply lifting and continuing one plane into the other (instead of intruding a separate device like elevator or stair between them), it questions whether there are really two levels at all, or just a variegated landscape through which we move. The elevator reinforces the separateness of levels, while the ramp addresses their interdependence. The designer may choose and craft these elements in the overall building design to communicate a particular point of view.

The careful crafting of relationships distinguishes design from other methods and processes of making. In a world increasingly filled with “things”, investment in the rich possibilities for their relation is less valued, or worse still, put at the sole service of their sale and private consumption.

At the scale of the City, our experience of relationships and ideas is now dominated by a sort of “monkeys-on-a-typewriter” urban design process. For many decades we have seen our streets and public spaces only as engineered connections between thousands of private destinations A and B, with new growth repetitiously stamping itself across the landscape. Routes for commuting, for example, are not carefully designed experiences that explore our culture’s relationship between work and home. They are “time-outs” between these two worlds; a long ride in an often crowded elevator.

So if the expressways and the major arterials of our commute are the debilitating “elevators” of our story, where are the sustainable “ramps” that more subtly explore and articulate relationships? Let’s follow one example, the deliberate use of curves in our streetscapes, to contrast two very different ideas of public value that such a design tool can reinforce.

Curves In Suburban Design

In the suburban context the curvilinear layout of streets is a highly sophisticated device that organises the experience of a “natural” landscape to reinforce each home as a distinct monument in its setting. The view through the windshield effectively frames house after house as the moving car “pans” along the curving crescent. Each driver values this experience separately, since he is concerned with one address only, his own. And yet the design accommodates all experiences equally.

Whereas a straight street can accent only the privileged address at its end, the curve monumentalises each house in turn, and accords all homeowners special, yet equal, distinction.

The crescent accomplishes an equally sophisticated experience when the street is viewed from the house itself. Because of the curve, the prospect up and down the street is closed, rather than open to the world beyond. This reinforces the special status of the home in relation to its context, since this address is literally in the centre of the homeowner’s perceptible section of streetscape. No suburban house is “just around the corner”. All houses are equally at the centre of their streetscape.

The curvilinear street was adopted in early suburb design by landscape architects such as Frederick Law Olmstead at the end of the 19th Century. From their work in parks and cemeteries, these designers knew exactly what relationships such gradually-revealing paths are capable of articulating. The crescent supports an idea of urban experience in tune with 20th century North American culture: neutral public space organised in support of private monuments.

In contrast to the suburban crescent, and its designed inversion of publicness, there are curves in our historical pattern of streets that celebrate common and shared values. They enrich our now all-too-private lives with some of the experiences we find in great cities.

A simple illustration of the intent of our forefathers is the experience of moving through the bend in King Street at the end of Waterloo’s core, at King and William. Have a look round the google link! With subtlety and simplicity the curve creates two framed views, sets a boundary to Waterloo’s downtown that reinforces its central place in the community, and distinguishes Waterloo from its Berlin neighbour. When the bend is approached from Kitchener, a church is presented, and the importance of spiritual values in our public relationships is highlighted. On the opposite approach, the curve is used to draw attention to a public garden and its monuments. The device of the bend is combined with public control of the adjacent lands so that our shared values are communicated to each passerby. Next time you drive through it, take a moment to look for the signals it sends.

Whether our journey is a simple change in level or a trip across town, careful design enriches our experience and offers literate commentary. Our traditional and suburban streets use design to present coherent but contrasting statements about the nature and purpose of public space. We would do well to read and debate the merits of them, rather than simply follow their lead.

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One thought on “Changing Levels, Connecting Spaces

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