Urban Frames: Housing and Office Mixed-Use Development
Inhabiting Palo Alto is an experience straddling worldly urbanity and American sprawl. On University Avenue, the town’s main street, there is distinct character, human scale, lush nature, and pedestrian friendliness in its neighborhoods. These traits, sought after amongst designers searching for meaningful placemaking, are unevenly present even in this famous municipality, globally known for being the epicenter of the tech industry. To give an image that is both distinct and belonging to its place is our response to raise the diffused quality of living in Palo Alto and what drives our housing proposal.
Living and working merge into this compact urban scheme, a microcosm of streets and courts, permeable to pedestrian circulation, yet impervious to cars except at its edges. Courtyards are voids filled with collective energy, where the community can perform the rituals that make a city what it is. Our design response to the mix of office and housing hinges on the potential the courtyard offers for human contact, leaving unaltered provisions for privacy and identity for each dwelling. We believe in the courageous insertion of the new within an established pattern. To the system of alleys forming the network of movement in Palo Alto, this project proposes an intervention of bold stylistic consistencies despite their functional diversity nested in the identifiable urban tissue. Functionally, two separate parts- one for the residential units of various cuts, the other for office space- sit on two levels of parking below grade. Integrating working and living was an objective that steered the treatment of all the exterior facades. Their design grammar is intelligible and cohesive: an array of thick cubic frames painted white rests on a travertine podium, gently cantilevering from its edges. While the solid base is sparsely pierced in the residential portion of the project to provide privacy, the office ground level is completely accessible from the pedestrian level.
But it is in the coexistence of axial perspectives and non perspectival arrangements that this scheme displays its full spatial richness. The classical and the modern syntax of space making are uniquely organized so as to defy any closed reading of this scheme. To the earthbound footprint solidly anchored to the ground, the large expanses of glass make of technology a platform for lightness and hypnotic lighting. And if office and housing are in plan clearly marked functionally, they are undeniably enmeshed into the architecture as one idea of city making, as it was in the pre-industrial world. Dynamic views of these frames hovering on the traffic below point to nuanced changes in the enclosure to signal the places where to work and those where to live.
These distinctive volumes, conceived as an architectural ensemble, articulate their own skyline against the pronounced horizontality of Palo Alto. They occupy a quarter of city block, offering to the local community a restrained Mediterranean modernity, disciplined and relaxed at the same time. Its cubist massing lets coexist individuality in multiplicity: each unit has a recognizable presence while being fully integrated into a total vision. A sense of domesticity steers the design to acknowledge the smaller scale, while retaining the confidence of the architectural language. The stacking of frames suggesting a parade of double height spaces bestows a sense of hierarchy to this compound. They are grand in their urban presence, yet intimate in how they relate to the architecture. Earth-bound, yet light and powerfully extruded to a majestic height, these voided boxes are the markers of an architecture with no back of house: all elevations are meaningfully relating to their adjacencies. This boxy geometry reinforces the corners of the lot, making of axiality a flexible rule for a lively architectural composition.
This is a new design language in the architecture of Palo Alto. The ins and outs of the vertical planes cast shadows against a datum of stone rarely encountered in the area. There are formal permutations with constants that texture the surfaces, balanced by a restrained material palette of stone, concrete, and glass. Hardscape and landscape knit together the building footprints into a continuum in the manner of an old European city, an effective idea tested in centuries of urban design practices. Outdoor spaces at mid-air are evocative of balconies where the spectacle of city life can unfold as in the century past. To invite pedestrians to inhabit any architecture is to coax them into an experience filled with interest, safety, and surprise. An environment where to gather, share, retreat, entertain, nurture, reflect, work, and function. In a nutshell, a place.