Context Planning Through Building Design

by Ron Quicquaro, AIA, LEED AP

As architects and designers planning structures, we are often tasked with solving multiple design goals simultaneously.  Along with meeting space and other programmatic needs, function, adjacencies, cost and life safety requirements, our projects strive to be pleasant and positive environments to live and work within.  On the exterior we focus on the scale, articulation and “approachability” of the mass through detail, fenestration, and materiality.  In many cases I believe we often lose sight of the equally important goal of the remaining outdoor spaces left  by the new building form. This poses questions like;  how does it work and respond to improve the surrounding context?  Or, through the analysis of sightlines and the “leftover” spaces left by the structure, how does it enhance our neighborhoods and urban settings?

The newly constructed Connecticut Institute for Communities Health Center (“CIFC” )in Danbury, CT, we worked hard toward meeting this goal in addition to the others.  The 4 story, 40,000 square foot Corporate Office and Health Center in the heart of Danbury’s downtown first works to reconstruct the existing “Street Wall”. (See Diagram a.)

The face of each side of the street that form walls aggregated by the side by side grouping of seperate buildings. Together, their overall scale and proportion form a pleasant environment where both pedestrians and vehicles can co-exist through well designed sidewalks and roadways.

Secondly, we addressed the inherent characteristic of Main Street where it splits from a two way road separated by a narrow planted island to form the professionally designed Elmwood Park. A small gem of Green Space well worthy of celebrating through the built environment.  This change, already marked by the tall elegant spire of Saint Peter’s Church, was reinforced by the corner placement of a second, less prominent tower, yet boldly marking the corner of Main and Boughton Street. The combination of the two towers, creates what I call a “coupling” effect where each supports the other framing views down both Boughton and Center Street while reinforcing the gateway to Elmwood Park. (See Diagram b.)

Design Study: View Down Center Street.                Design Study: View Down Boughton Street.

Many of architecture’s most notable and studied structures and spaces are successful due to the unity of the form and the spaces created around them, from ancient roman piazzas to many of today’s carefully crafted contiguous indoor to outdoor spaces.

While we may not be able to solve all the goals our buildings strive to achieve perfectly, it’s important to add the complementary relationship between positive and negative spaces and how they can respond sensitively to the neighboring context to the list.

“White space is to be regarded as an active element, not a passive background.” — Jan Tschichold