Metropolitan areas are growing faster than suburbs for the first time in decades, as more and more people want to live closer to where they work, eat, drink, and play. As populations in cities continue to grow, requests for mixed-use communities are pushing architects and planners to think of master planning and design in new ways. Understanding this societal trend, architecture firm John Portman & Associates contends that mixed-use design is the fabric that enhances urban environments, and has created mixed-use developments around the world. This firm strives to design walkable communities that still accommodate commuter access, and balance local authenticity with opportunities to experience culture and entertainment. We had the opportunity to interview architect Gordon Beckman, Partner and and Design Director at John Portman & Associates, about the future of mixed-use and sustainable cities.
INHABITAT: John Portman has always emphasized the importance of urban planning and mixed-use design in his work. How does this translate to making cities healthier and greener, as well as reducing the carbon footprint of a given development project?
Gordon: The idea of mixed-use is a very natural idea. Our cities are, in fact, large mixed-use developments, and finding the right mix of uses is the first step on the list of how to make a sustainable city. Mixed-use districts minimize the need for automobiles or other vehicles and maximize the opportunities for people. Where the uses become synergetic, you don’t have to go far to get what you need. When you look at the great cities of the world—Rome, Paris, New York—the idea of being able to stay in your neighborhood, walk to be entertained, walk to your house, walk to your office, etc. all makes a great deal of sense. Many of these cities were organized around central open public spaces that relate to those districts. Think of New York City, where the broad boulevards run north-south and the narrow streets run east-west. The narrow streets connect to the river on both sides—that was the open space when the city was first planned. The boulevards were broad because they were in the city and not connected to the open space. In terms of mixed-use design and urban design, it’s critical to keep in mind these simple lessons and urban patterns that we’ve seen in cities throughout history. Each city is unique in its patterning and urban typology; learning from the various examples and applying this knowledge allows the continuation and creation of authentic urban spaces.
INHABITAT: When you say mixed-use, is this referring exclusively to live, work, play environments or does it go beyond to look at the big picture of land use and the long-term impacts of development on both the environment and human communities?
Gordon: At John Portman & Associates, we talk about sensible sustainability. It’s something this office has practiced for decades before LEED came along and before people tried to quantify it. It’s really a very natural way to react to things—think about where the sun comes from; think about where the wind comes from; think about how you create the best exposures for the building and the best exposures for the open places. These are all very natural moves, and if you look at cities throughout history, these responses were reactions to very real things. I was just in Greece a couple of weeks ago; there, the streets are intentionally narrow to increase shade and reduce the heat. Some of these things are very indigenous to the place where they occur. John Portman always says, “At the end of the day, it’s all about people.” It’s a natural statement; it’s a profound statement, but it’s a statement that says, “Yes, these are the places where we’re going to live.” Portman also has a concept that he calls the coordinate unit: People will walk if whatever they’re trying to reach is within 10 minutes of where they are. In my experience, people will walk even longer distances if it’s a pleasant walk. If it’s a terrible walk or a terrible neighborhood, people won’t even walk around the corner.
INHABITAT: How has your concept of mixed-use and sustainable development changed in the three decades you’ve personally been in practice? What about since the ‘50s when John Portman first opened the firm?
Gordon: Ideas about urbanism were very different at that time. It’s the time that Brasilia was going on in South America, the time that Corbusier was doing the radiant city approach, and those things were cutting edge, and they were fantastic experiments.
But I think there’s another experiment now that is beneficial and that’s the idea of the Italian hillside villages, where things are less sculptural, less single-use and much more integrated and dense. The radiant city was reactionary against the poor health in the cities in France. Brasilia was an offshoot of that as well, where it was all about making more open space and less density. As experiments, they were very powerful tools; people were reacting to what was going on around them in that period. People never really understood, though, what the impact of these wide, vast open spaces would be to the way we live. That has led us to the point where now, when we put on our “planner” hats, we think about how we can increase density, presence on the street, walkability, and this idea of authentic places.
Our thoughts around urbanism have gone full circle and are now a reaction to the urban ideas popular in the ‘50s and early ‘60s and the negative impacts of those practices. What we’re doing now is another experiment of sorts — integrating density, creating sustainable places, increasing connectivity and opportunities for interaction. In some respects, these are generational reactions. I can see someone going back 10 or 20 years from now and saying, “Let’s make a big open space.” There are, of course, very positive large public places. Central Park works as a big open space because it’s a series of connected smaller spaces, it has the density of people, and it has the powerful edges. Grant Park in Chicago is the same thing: It’s a relief valve for people, but it relies on having that hard urban edge and having a powerful contrast between what is the private space where we live and work and what is the public open space.
Image © John Portman & Associates
INHABITAT: Tell us about the most exciting project you have on the boards currently.
Gordon: We have a number of projects going on right now; each one of them is exciting — but exciting for different reasons. We have a couple of super-tall projects going on in China right now. One of the things that we talk a lot about here is how these super-tall buildings meet the ground, how they integrate with the city, and how they connect to the city. It goes back to this idea of the city as a three-dimensional network or web of life. These projects are significant — they’re 300 meters tall; actually, one is 400 meters tall. What we look for when we design these projects is how we can bring that urban life up into them. The idea of the vertical city has been talked about so much and been done so many times, but it really is how you can create three-dimensional connected public spaces. That’s something that we talk about not only for projects of significant height but also for much smaller projects. We’re doing two projects here in the United States that come to mind. One is an addition to The Westin Charlotte (a Portman-designed hotel) where we’re adding an office building to the block so that it is connected and integrated with the hotel.
So, in a sense, we’re taking an existing building and turning it into a mixed-use project. That goes back to all the life, vitality and interconnectedness that we talked about on the larger mixed-use projects that we do in China. In Denver, we’re designing a 212,000-square-foot hotel and office mixed-use project. I tell everybody in the firm that it’s the smallest mixed-use project we’ve ever done. But it occupies a very significant corner in a new part of Denver, and what it brings to this block is that it will be activated 24 hours a day because of the hotel. The office and hotel functions are mutually supportive and have a synergistic relationship. Both of these projects look at how we integrate open space on the vertical level, so on the upper levels, we have various combinations of winter gardens or terraces and connected vertical spaces. This type of thinking is what we do on a daily basis, so I don’t often stop to consider it — it’s just how we operate.
INHABITAT: The idea of living buildings, of integrating plant materials into roofs, walls and interiors — and a greater blending of the landscape and biological processes with the built environment, in general — receives a lot a fanfare in ‘green’ architecture circles these days. How does the reality of what’s being built match up to the vision?
Gordon: The word I continue to use here is authentic. When we do consider landscape and the integration of landscape with the built environment, we do it with a real meaning and a real idea behind it. This calls to mind the Expo project that we’re doing in Shanghai right now on the old exhibition grounds. The city has asked us to redefine the area so that it can be maintained as a vital part of the city. There will be four separate hotel buildings, which if we built right on the ground, would be looking at these exhibition halls right in front of you. Instead, we lifted the podium over the exhibition halls and created this garden platform that has a view of the Shanghai skyline. At the lower level, the ground plane is opened up and becomes a public open space that is all connected through a series of shops. At the upper level terrace, it becomes a large garden, which is not only for the hotels but also for the public. So in a sense, we created twice as much public open space as what existed on the site before. I think that’s a huge contribution to any urban environment, especially a dense city like Shanghai.
INHABITAT: It’s not always easy to get innovative projects completed as designed, whether for fiscal or political reasons. What is the secret to success in this regard?
Gordon: All the projects that actually get built according to our designs are really the result of all the people involved. If you have a good client, a good architect and good contributors —by that I mean that these are not projects that come from one person’s hand — then you can see successful results. These are projects that are touched and influenced by many people — projects that are taken on in a very collaborative way. All the ideas are laid out, and the good ideas survive and the bad ideas get put away. I don’t even want to call them bad ideas, but maybe the inappropriate ideas, or the ideas that are not ripe enough to happen at that time, get set aside. I think that’s the real key, and it goes back to our focus on people. We create our environments.
Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and then they shape us.” And I think that’s really the key: having a great team, a great owner that really wants to do something special, and then you can just go and work your tail off and get to the point where you can achieve something that’s authentic, that’s right for the place, that has a typological diagram that is not typical, that goes outside of the box. For example, John Portman really changed the way hotels are viewed. Today, they’re considered public gathering rooms as much as they are a place to sleep. One of the things that we’re doing differently now to build upon his original idea is that we’re opening up these atriums more to the street, more to the public. We’re blurring the edges between the inside and outside of the buildings, so the public space merges with the built environment and the urban context.
INHABITAT: What aren’t architects doing now that you wish they were? Where do you see the profession 10 to 20 years from now?
Gordon: That’s a very interesting question and one that can be read in a multitude of ways. One of the blessings that we have right now is the technology available to design projects. The tools that we use have evolved quickly and they will continue to grow more powerful and change the way we think and work. As long as architects keep the fundamental design process in mind and not just focus on what we’re able to do with the technological advancements, we can go far very quickly. We’ve seen that happen in the last 20 years. I think one of the things the industry is addressing now — to the benefit of everybody — is that we’re doing much more collaborative work. That is huge! The more people you can involve with better ideas about physics, structure, materials, sustainability, etc. leads to a more integrated physical environment. An environment that reduces redundancies, that is more compact, more environmentally friendly reduces our footprint and increases the well-defined and -programmed public spaces. A simple example: If you look at a parking lot, how many times do you see it full and how many times do you see it empty? The basic function is there, but there are smarter and better ways to provide and integrate this function into the city, to reduce its impact on the street and the fabric of the city. Simple ideas of shared parking that have been mandated in some cases — and just make sense in other environments — are smart outcomes of what we see as wasteful. That same idea can be applied to mixed-use projects so that rooms aren’t sitting empty and are always active or shared by multiple people.
Throughout time, architecture has explored the dematerialization of the exterior wall. Beginning back with Roman and Gothic architecture, you see the exterior building wall gradually fading away until, now, we’re able to do it with a single sheet of glass. Those building technology improvements and advancements are enormous. Looking back at Mies van der Rohe projects that were never built, you can see where he theorized and thought about an all-glass building — a visually lightweight project constructed with a minimal amount of material, sustainable in the sense of minimizing the components of construction and allowing those components to create the aesthetic. These ideas — minimizing material usage, multiplying the functionality of what we need, thinking of density as a positive thing, creating defined public spaces — have the potential to vastly improve our quality of life.
We talk about energy and comfort relationships, but it’s not just about saving energy, it’s about creating more human comfort. And by human comfort, I’m not just talking about air conditioning or hot and cold; I’m talking about visual comfort, physical comfort, working comfort, and resting comfort. It’s the ability to have buildings with very little artificial lighting by taking advantage of the daylight through the exterior wall, maximizing it and minimizing the need for artificial systems. Systems such as under-floor air distribution and mechanical systems require much less fan power, much less heat or air conditioning, yet at the same time create a much more comfortable environment. You don’t have noise from the ceilings and you won’t have air blowing down on your head but just rising naturally from the floor. These are all technical things that have been developed, not necessarily by architects but by others, and it’s a matter of how we integrate these advancements in the most sophisticated way.
A successful project begins with a strong purpose and a clear vision of what can be achieved, embraced by all involved. It must be a collaborative process that includes the owners, architects, engineers, material developers, and the people putting the parts together, along with countless others who influence or contribute to the work. The success of these collaborations determines the quality of the places and cities in which we live.
All images © John Portman & Associates