Sunday, December 12, 2010

New City Jail, er, Senior Center on tap

Last week I attended a meeting on the proposed Hudson Senior Center. The meeting brought out over 30 seniors as well as a number of local officials, including Mayor Richard Scalera and Common Council President Don Moore.

The Senior Center is to be built as an addition to the existing Youth Center building at Third and Union Streets. If well conceived it promises to be a boon to seniors as well as others using the building and this part of Hudson. But from what can be discerned about the project at this point, there are many reasons for concern. Chief among them are a weak design concept and, I believe, an unrealistic schedule.  

The existing building (above) is not a classic beauty; it is rather brutish in scale and is not in the best of repair. It appears that some detail has been stripped over the years and replaced with mismatched brick. The upper windows have been replaced with bronze aluminum storefront while the front entry was mismatched with anodized aluminum. Nevertheless, it is a building of substantial presence in Hudson, and it lies at a significant entrance to our small city. As such, the addition needs to give far greater respect to its location than the proposal (below) allows. The addition put forth is badly proportioned (squat height, a meager 8’ ceiling on the first floor, windows more scaled to a suburban split-level than a public building, oversized rather than standard brick, and more) and arbitrarily detailed. Note, for example, the quoins pasted onto the corners of the addition and the dentils applied along the cornice line; no such features appear on its predecessor.
Existing Hudson Youth Center. Senior Center addition will be at left.

Proposed Senior Center: Cherry Alley elevation
I have to think that these aesthetic problems point to some more elemental problems in the design process. How carefully have the needs of the building’s users been considered when, for example, this proposal was put forth without benefit of a single meeting with the seniors’ group? How practical can the design be when it was created without knowledge of the specific programs that may/should/will go on inside? To what extent did the designers put themselves in the shoes of the elderly when they didn't think to put an overhang above the door? How much study was made of the relationship between the seniors and the youths who share the building? What opportunities and problems was this found to present? The apparently unaddressed design issues go on from there.

To be frank, this is what happens when a city hires an engineer instead of an architect to design a building. I do not mean this as a swipe at my colleagues in the engineering profession. Engineers can do things that architects cannot do; thank goodness for that. But the opposite is true as well; architects do things that engineers cannot. We are trained to work closely with a building’s users to uncover the core issues--practical, psychological, historical, material, all the rest--that need to inform the design process. Only after some real understandings are attained do we move the process forward. Crucial to this process is an understanding that architecture is not something that gets applied to a building after it is "engineered"; if anything, it is the other way around: The engineering of a building is but one of many concerns the architect integrates holistically into the design process.

As for the schedule, the mayor said the building will be ready next fall. Buildings can be designed and built in this time frame, but most often the process takes much longer. In fact, the more one rushes a design and construction schedule, the more things are likely to cost. The city will have to hire the first available contractor instead of taking time to find the right one. Cost increases during construction will be more likely, as oversights are discovered as a result of having rushing the design process. ("Oops, I didn't realize we'd have to relocate that utility pole...")

At the risk of parting with a cheap shot, I found myself wondering what this building will look like in three dimensions, so I Photoshopped the engineer's drawing onto a photograph. I then asked myself, if I were to drive by this building unawares, what would I guess it was? The only answer that came to mind was the city jail.

This isn't the right image for our seniors or our city. So before we walk farther down this path, can we all take a deep breath, step back, and engage the design process the right way?
New city jail? A three dimensional view generated from the engineer's drawing


  1. When are the people who decide on these things going to consider the neighborhood? In the pictures provided there is no parking. Union Street is virtually impassable to two way traffic and Third Street has only a few spaces on a very busy and commercial street. Do we want our seniors walking blocks in the rain and snow to get to the center?

  2. TCH, I asked the mayor about parking on Thursday. He said there would be spaces set aside in the municipal lot very nearby--on Cherry Alley, kitty-corner to the center. I don't know how if this means these spaces will be reserved during events at the senior center.

  3. Yikes, thanks for the photoshop image. I do hope the City will reconsider and improve the design so it will look better than that. Galloway actually did a reasonable job with the two buildings across the street (now Verdigris), for once. I hope the city will reconsider the image on that important cross street which has improved so much from prior years (also thanks to Carrie Haddad and Lili & Loo, and Jim Cummings who renovated, rejunvenated and cleaned up two very ugly corners.

  4. I am told I jumped the gun on my critique, i.e., that the rendering was done only for the grant application. I will try to learn more about this and report back ASAP.