Designing Successful Neighborhood Squares. Part 7. Facades, setbacks and stepbacks

By Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard

The building façade is the “face” of the building. Like the face of a person, it may be friendly or hostile, open or closed, facilitating contact through windows that open, balconies and doors, or preventing interaction with sealed windows and blank walls. Facades around a neighborhood square should create a welcoming atmosphere in the public domain, emphasizing human scale, enhancing the experience of the space, and facilitating communication.

As Goethe said, “architecture is a forgotten language” – it speaks to us at an unconscious or preconscious level. It uses metaphor[1] to communicate non-verbally by conjuring up similar fundamental human experiences. Colors, tones and quality of light communicate on an emotional level. Lines and shapes communicate on the intellectual-cognitive level. Textures, materials and fine detailing communicate on a sensory level, inviting touch. The appropriateness of relationships between the details of a building, the design of the building as a whole, and the building’s larger context (neighborhood or city) conveys an intuitive sense of “rightness”[2].

During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the ruling elite imposed new facades and porticoes to hide the individuality of the medieval merchants’ shop/houses. ((See Ascoli, Vigevano, etc.) These town beautification programs were not achieved democratically, but expressed the power of the ruling lord or bishop. Similarly, the magnificent plazas of Spain, created by royal decree as a fitting venue for the king’s Royal Progress to the city and a place to pay homage and celebrate, were designed to express the power of the king. All buildings were the same height and all façades except the town hall were identical, no matter that there may have been many different owners of the buildings behind the facades. (See Plaza Mayors in Salamanca, above, Madrid, Valladolid, etc.)

In a somewhat more democratic society, variations in detailing and height of contiguous individual small buildings around the square acknowledge the rights of individual building owner, and the value of social diversity, even while they all accept a social contract to be good neighbors.  

Today, the challenge to create a hospitable square for the neighborhood requires a fine balance between two extremes - the all-powerful developer/architect who may be in charge of designing a complete new square, and the individual citizens, whose identity still needs acknowledgement and expression.

Principles of Modern architecture, combined with a modern global economy suppress individuality and impose an impersonal, functional aesthetic that may trade more easily in the global market. But the essence of a thriving community is that every individual is known as a unique person; the community succeeds when each individual learns to restrain from extreme self expression that can disturb others, and when the community as a whole is resilient enough to accept differences.

The public realm is the place where this social learning process takes place. The architecture of homes surrounding the public realm can play a role in allowing some expression of the diverse population living there. At the very least, windows, balconies, and roof terraces permit this self expression: one window may always have a vase of flowers, another a cat, one may have blinds, another curtains; on one balcony there may be a hammock and trailing vines, on another a barbecue, table and chairs – important cues to the residents’ values, and a chance for self-expression.

Hundertwasser House, Vienna

We may not be ready to accept the degree of individual creativity that Hundertwasser advocated in his public housing for Vienna by painting every apartment a different, vibrant color (immensely popular with residents and tourists), but we no longer live in Corbusier’s time when the architect can forbid residents to hang curtains.

And yet, this level of suppression of residents’ identity is exactly what many modernist condo buildings attempt to do by glazing the whole façade with reflective glass, sealed windows, and minimizing balconies and other detailing that could help sculpt and articulate the façade at a human scale. Flat, all-glass facades diminish the human scale and are unsuitable as a frame for a neighborhood square. Buildings around a square need articulated facades that cast shadow patterns that change subtly from morning to evening, that facilitate gentle self-expression, and that enhance interaction between the public and the private realm.

Designing buildings around a square is not so much an architectural exercise as an exercise in the design of a theater, in which the paving is the stage. Surrounding buildings must be designed as both settings for the audience, with balconies providing loges and boxes from which to watch the drama of social life on the square, and as part of the set design that allows residents to play an active role in the drama of everyday life when they play the guitar, eat supper, or call to a friend from their balcony.

Architects involved in this challenge must be more interested in creating settings to support people’s lives, than in designing in the latest trend or having their work admired by professional colleagues. As de Botton says[3], “… it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be” and this is especially true for architecture designed to support community. The design of a community square is not a task that should be placed in the hands of a “starchitect” intent on furthering his or her own fame.

Human scale:
Building facades must emphasize the human scale:  floor levels can be articulated by balconies and windows designed for human use. The size of dwellings can be articulated by vertical elements between units.

All architectural elements must be designed to a scale that relates to the pedestrian eye level, and the pedestrian speed of movement. Up to the 5th floor, detail, intricacy, texture and subtlety in wall textures and façade modeling can be appreciated by the human eye. At the same time, the architecture must not be chaotic. It should provide rhythm, and repetition (with subtle variations).

Building materials and detailing must be designed to appeal to tactile and visual appreciation at close range. These buildings will be seen close-up. The sculpting of window and door trim and molding can be appreciated. The warmth of a material such as wood or brick can be felt.

Buildings around the square should not be designed the way a building seen from the freeway might be designed, as a broad pattern of façade shapes and colors seen from a distance.

Long facades should not not emphasize horizontal lines, which lead the eye into the distance, and draw the pedestrian forward. They must be divided into segments that emphasize vertical elements, drawing attention to the ground floor, and helping to hold people in the square.

Ground floor façade:
We use all our senses to interact with the street level façade. To a height of 15’ we appreciate textures in the building materials, detailing of windows and doors, patterns and designs in brickwork or tile. Our eyes are engaged and our mind is stimulated by appropriate detail. We are tempted to touch polished marble, warm brick, or weathered timber to appreciate the grain. 

Children pay attention to architectural details at their eye level. They learn about the world by confirming what they see through touch. Architectural detailing at their level will engage children and elicit their affection for the building.  

Ground floor facades should maximize permeability and visibility from inside to outside and vice versa. Shopkeepers, waiters and cashiers should have good views onto the square. From the square, especially at night, it should be possible to see people inside the restaurants, and diners should have a good view of the square.

In fine weather, to further improve interaction between inside and out, part or all of the windows could open to the square. There are numerous ways to achieve this: sliding walls or windows, concertina windows, windows that pivot upwards like garage doors, etc.

There should be no blank walls or sealed glass facades facing the square.

Permeability above ground floor:
Facades should be designed to bring residents to the interface between interior and exterior, the private and public realms, to encourage interaction between people in the square and within buildings, and to provide “eyes on the square”. To achieve this, facades should include balconies, bay windows, large windows and roof terraces.

Windows should be designed as apertures in the wall surface to “frame” people and to draw the eye.  Windows to the square should be openable, and allow inhabitants personal expression. Sills and ledges permit potted plants, or a cat to curl up in the sun.

Bay windows should be designed to project into the square to allow residents to look down to the left and right to see activity in the square close to their building. Window seats facilitate interaction between private and public realms by making inhabitants visible to those on the square, and facilitating non-verbal interaction even when the window is closed.

Balconies allow residents to become actors in the life of the square, in addition to being an audience. In a temperate climate, they should be large enough that residents can sit outside, eat a meal, and spend time on the balcony, with some protection from climatic extremes.

Recessed balconies provide an outside area but limit social interaction. Projecting balconies allow better communication with those on the square, and with their neighbors. Ideally, balconies should provide for both options by being partially projecting, partially recessed.

Arcades and setbacks:
Arcades can extend the use of the square during inclement weather, and into the months when the climate is either too hot or too cold, creating a sheltered indoor/outdoor space open to the square. Restaurants can apply for permits to use part of the arcaded area for limited outdoor dining on rainy days but tables should not block passage. This area belongs to the public, and cannot be totally privatized.

Columns help provide a vertical emphasis to the façade. Without them, a long cantilevered façade emphasizes the weight of the building above and can seem oppressive. Arches between columns also help to  psychologically “lift” the building above. Having eschewed curves, modernist architects rarely tolerate the arch, deeming it decadent, irrational or too female a shape to be taken seriously.

The arcade or portico dates back to the ancient Greek stoa, the columned row of shops facing the agora. It was from their favorite location for discussion in the shade of the stoa that the “stoic” philosophers received their name. The Romans followed this building form in their porticoes around the forum. The porticoed piazzas of Bologna are said to have been where teaching took place in the Middle Ages, giving rise to the establishment of Europe’s first university in 1088.  

In Mediterranean countries such as Spain (Salamanca), Italy (Vigevano, Ascoli Piceno) and southern France (Uzés, Mirapoix shown right), arcades provide cool shade from the summer sun. North of the Alps, in Switzerland (Bern), the Czech Republic (České Budějovice, Nový Jičin, Kroměříž) and Poland (Poznan, Zamosc), arcades give protection from the snow and rain, rendering shops and businesses around the square easily accessible even in the most inclement weather. Many arcades are still intact, wide enough to accommodate not only pedestrian traffic and social life but also outdoor cafes in summer, and shelter for outdoor displays for the shops in winter.

One needs to use caution in the use of setbacks (ground floor facades set back below the building without supporting columns) because they raise three challenges to the hospitality of the square, namely, the dis-ease that a cantilevered building without visible support can engender; the uninterrupted horizontal line that draws attention into the distance; and the reduction in the size of the square’s opening to the sky regarding sight lines (see Proportions). While setbacks appear to increase the size of the square as measured on the ground, the cantilevered building may substantially reduce the experienced size of the square. Setbacks that are, or seem to be supported by columns are more hospitable.

Solving the cantilevered building dilemma: Bonifatius Stirnberg.

Humans have an instinctual fear of ducking under something heavy that does not seem to be supported and that might fall on them. When a department store in Darmstadt constructed a monumental building on Luisenplatz with a cantilevered stairwell they discovered citizens avoided passing beneath the cantilever and were unwilling to enter the store. Sales remained low until they hired a sculptor, Bonifatius Stirnberg[4]. He designed what appeared to be a giant building-sized screw jack holding up the cantilever (though it did not actually touch the building). It attracted citizens by including figures from a well-known Darmstadt farce on a revolving turntable. Suddenly, sales picked up.

If buildings are taller than 5 floors, they should step back above the 5th floor to reduce scale and increase light in the square. This rule of thumb is helpful for two reasons: keeping the tops of the buildings within normal sight lines for someone in the middle of the square; and allowing sunlight on the square.

Stepbacks provide the opportunity for 6th floor roof gardens and terraces that increase the value of penthouse units. Bushes, vines and trees on green roofs and top floor terraces help to insulate the building and offer an attractive connection between the building and the sky.

Hundertwasser House, Vienna

[1] Crowhurst Lennard, Suzanne H. (1979) Explorations in the Meaning of Architecture. Gondolier Press, Woodstock, NY. P.4.

[2]  Crowhurst, Suzanne H. (1974). A House is a Metaphor. J. of Architectural Education, Vol. XXVII, No. 2,3.

[3]  Alain de Botton. (2008) The Architecture of Happiness. Vintage Books. P. 13.

[4]  Bonifatius Stirnberg. (1987) Sculptures for Towns.Sepia Verlag, Aachen.