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Neighborhood Ensemble

A firm of Maryland urbanists prizes diversity, sustainability and history.
By Dan Cooper

In many meticulous restorations and historically inspired new-construction projects, the caliber of the craftsmanship and the customization materials involved frequently dictate that these residences are beyond the reach of all but the wealthy. However, there are architectural firms specializing in building affordable housing that are passionate about creating authentic period detail and design. One such firm is Silver Spring, MD-based Torti Gallas and Partners, which is devoted not only to revitalizing urban areas, but also to adhering to a respect for historic design and bringing this to mixed-income neighborhoods. Founded in 1953 by Jack C. Cohen, FAIA, the firm originally helped to build the suburbs of Washington, DC. It was responsible for creating more than 300,000 residential units, to the point where, in 1972, The Washington Post named the firm the "Architects of the Suburbs." The company prospered until the recession of the early 1990s, when it floundered, dropping from 165 to 37 people, and, at the worst possible time, experiencing the death of its then president, Jack Kerxton.

At that point, architect John Torti, who had joined the firm in 1973, became the firm's president and, along with Executive Vice President Tom Gallas, stepped forward and boldly changed the direction of the firm. Their mission was to reverse the damage done to traditional neighborhoods by suburban sprawl and the automobile. As Principal Robert Goodill notes, "after World War II, we forgot about what made our neighborhoods great." The firm's mandate, in its own words, is "a new dedication to urban design and architecture which resembles that of the best traditional American cities and towns." This symbiosis between urban design and architecture became what the partners term the "inextricable link," and is a key concept in their approach to every project.

Design Charter
Today, the company employs over 150 people, most of whom work in the main office in Maryland, along with newer offices in Los Angeles and Istanbul. They've completed projects in 60 cities in 22 states, and are responsible for the design of over $18 billion in construction, creating over 375,000 residential units and 600 communities while winning 65 national design awards in the past 10 years. Throughout this process, the consistent theme of historicism and respect for architectural context pervades their work.

While wholeheartedly embracing the tenets of New Urbanism, the members of the company felt that something more was needed to spell out their roles and responsibilities.

"We're members of the Congress for the New Urbanism," comments Goodill, "and we adopted its charter, but added to it to make it more meaningful for us. We wanted to be able to talk to each other and critique each other about our principal body of work."

Indeed, it is an inspirational document, concurrently idealist and pragmatic. Signed by all members of the firm, framed and posted in the entry of their offices, The Design Charter is the touchstone for every project they turn their attention to, and not only does it honor the history of design and respect for the buildings of the past; it places equal emphasis on the built environment's role in society and on the planet.

In its quest to rebuild the nation's neighborhoods and communities, the firm not only had to consider the basic function, but also the aesthetics of their work. "We noticed that we were winning urban design awards, but not architecture awards," notes Gallas, and this prompted the company to study not only the function, but also the appearance of their buildings. Much effort was put into researching and authentically recreating historic design, and avoiding the superficial lip-service often paid to historical styles that diluted the overall quality of the finished buildings. Attention to detail is stressed, especially within each period, as evidenced by just this small subsection of the firm's Charter on External Facades:

  1. Building facades should have a parti. That parti should include:
    • A rational pattern of elements based on rhythm and hierarchy including a clear strategy for the use of an even or odd number of bays
    • A hierarchy of windows
    • A clear definition of the external surface of the building as wall, frame or skin
    • A thinness or thickness of elements appropriate to the external surface
    • A response to the environmental conditions and local climate of the site

Perhaps these standards seem obvious to readers involved in the field of traditional design or preservation, and yet the number of ill-considered, allegedly historical structures that dot our landscape confirms that many architects are not as concerned with authenticity as Torti Gallas.

Building in Cities
Creating historically accurate elevations within a tight budget is a common dilemma that those charged with remaking urban neighborhoods face, and the claim that architectural detail costs too much and prohibits/impedes good design has become a litany, to which Goodill responds: "We take a lot of care in the appearance of the affordable housing we design, and it can be made very appropriate in a neighborhood ensemble, which to us is more important than the individual house. In these cases, because of the density, the pressure is off of us from the traditional house with its four exterior walls. In an ensemble, the side walls are party walls and not visible, and the rear elevation doesn't need as much attention, so you can spend your dollars on the front façade, saving them for where it has the most impact."

In keeping with the way many neighborhoods evolved, Torti Gallas attempts to vary the exteriors within a given project to relieve the visual monotony that typified earlier housing projects. "You might have 30 different buildings in a neighborhood," says Goodill, "and let's say you have $20,000 a unit allotted for each front façade. In some cases, you'll spend $14,000 on a front porch, while in others, you'll spend $4,000 on an upgraded vinyl-siding color, like a darker/richer color instead of the cheaper white or gray. On other buildings, you'll spend it all on a brick exterior. We can't afford to make them all brick, because in affordable-housing neighborhoods, we have to work within a set budget."

As one of the largest architectural firms devoted to New Urbanism, the scale and variety of so many projects requires fragmenting into divisions charged with each type of density. "The firm is organized to operate by the scale of development from lowest to highest density groups," says Tom Gallas. "We literally mirror the transect, an urban design tool that organizes community in layers from rural to urbane, and we're organized to respond to each of those scenarios."

"For example," adds Goodill, "the parking strategies are different, and how the trees are planted, whether in rows or randomly, as well as the sidewalks being curved or straight." Thus, all of these considerations are incorporated into the actual design of the architecture itself to create a holistic neighborhood ensemble.

"Most of our work is two-thirds public/private partnership, such as military housing or HOPE VI [a HUD program intended to revitalize blighted public housing projects and transform them into mixed-income communities]," adds Gallas. "The city or federal government provides the land or resources and we work with private developers to design and construct the projects. In the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, we are involved with the WMATA-owned Metro sites: the government took the land, created the infrastructure for the subway transportation system, and leases the land for development for 99 years. We join with the developer to provide competitive design and financial programs that are financially, physically and socially viable."

As a firm typically tasked with building for the many and not the few, the architects find themselves focusing on those who previously have had little say in their built environment. "We've held community charrettes in tougher, typically under-privileged neighborhoods where the residents are shocked to actually have someone ask them what they want," says Goodill. "The world now expects community involvement, and we love community engagement and hosting the neighborhood charrettes. This creates pride of place among the residents, whether or not they're owners or tenants."

"Building in cities," adds Gallas, "you're always working in somebody's backyard, and how we address this is an important part of understanding the sense of community-based approach and consensus building. We seek to educate the community and then use their input. In essence, we're holding the pencil, but they direct us. I like to think that when they leave at the end of a charrette, they feel that it was their ideas that were used. This is so important as it improves their sense of ownership, and thus improves the long-term viability of the neighborhood."

Trans-National Urbanism
Martin Luther King Plaza in Philadelphia is an example of the firm's efforts to rebuild inner cities and establish pride of place. "This is an area just ten blocks from Market Street in central Philadelphia," says Gallas. "We created these varied façades, and they look like traditional Philadelphia rowhouses, when in actuality, some of the apartments are split by floors. There are handicap-accessible units that are situated on the first floors of several buildings, while we've put other units above them." What is so striking about this, to the passerby, is how well the variation in construction and texture re-creates an older urban neighborhood, and not the typical housing project from previous decades.

The designers at the firm obviously have a love for the subtleties and nuances of past urban multi-story architecture as well. The "Ellington" in Washington, DC, named after entertainer Duke Ellington, who often performed in the area, was constructed with yellow brick and a staggered façade, a form predominate in the 1920s and '30s. To create a transitional corner that melds into three-story residences on the adjacent side street, the elevation transitions into the "warehouse" section, which includes a clever detail of a vertical, illuminated sign reminiscent of the fonts of that period.

Military housing is a type that seldom received any attention as it pertained to the needs and wants of residents. Oft-neglected, and at best perfunctory, there was little concern for occupants save a roof over their heads while they fulfilled their duties. Recently, there has been a sea-change in the military's approach to this, and the renovation and construction of military housing has become Torti Gallas' forte: "The U.S. Military has a program now where they've privatized all of the housing on military bases," says Gallas. "It's been given over to private developers, and we're part of the master development team that designs, finances, builds and manages the family housing. We took it to the military and said ‘Why not have traditional neighborhoods for our military families?'"

"It doesn't matter how interesting the assignment is for the serviceperson, if their family is unhappy with their living conditions, they may move on and not re-enlist, which is a real concern in an all-volunteer military," Gallas adds. "For example, at Fort Belvoir [in Virginia], we created a main street with shops on the first story, and residential units on the floors above them. We brought the façades of the buildings right up to the sidewalk and street, putting the parking behind the buildings, and pushed the big-box stores down to the far ends of the town. The families were so happy with this arrangement that they insisted that the next phase of construction was built in this manner." This attention to the creation of true, walkable neighborhoods designed in historic and indigenous regional styles is far removed from the bleak tract housing with which many are familiar.

Many of the firm's projects focus on re-creating city or town centers in high-density areas that experienced tremendous urban decay. In the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC, a sprawling project named Poplar Point is underway, linking an underprivileged neighborhood with the waterfront of the Anacostia River. "There was simply this Metro station out in the middle of nowhere," says Goodill. "It was a commuter park & ride, and we've designed this new development to deck over the highway and connect the riverfront with the older urban area."

Torti Gallas' success has led it to sites around the globe. "We have an office in Istanbul, and are in the midst of designing a massive project in Dubai," says Gallas. "We're working within the concept of Trans-National Urbanism: How do we take New Urbanist principles and apply them in China, Africa, South America or the Middle East? To what degree do we embrace their culture and belief systems instead of simply taking the U.S. to these places?"

In Bahcesehir, Turkey, for instance, the firm was commissioned to design a large-scale mixed-use project on a 170-acre hillside site, complete with 2,320 apartments and villas and 90,000 sq. ft. of commercial space along with parking. Unlike the traditional Western complexes built nearby, which are typical glass and steel urban blocks, the firm designed the buildings to take advantage of the hillside and the prevailing winds to provide cooling breezes. The terraced units reflect the more indigenous, traditional architecture of greater Istanbul.

Stressing Sustainability
Torti Gallas also stresses sustainability of design and construction in its charter, and Gallas frankly admits that it took a while to come around to this point of view – and the inspiration emerged from none other than the company's interns. "As a firm, we were not a forerunner is making our buildings sustainable," he says. "We came to it somewhat tentatively, around 2000, and it was a grass-roots process led by interns, who said that we needed to become more sustainable. The principals were somewhat resistant, but the interns pushed back, and they insisted on the revision to our design charter." The intern's requests were met, and vindicated, as sustainability has become a buzzword within the entire industry.

"We try to incorporate things like green roofs to provide water for the toilets and solar panels and sunshades to reduce energy consumption," says Goodill. "Not only do we provide housing, we've also made the world a better place by preserving natural resources."

"Another principle that we stress here is the concept of diversity," Gallas proudly states. "We're a 55-year-old firm, and from day one, Jack Cohen believed in the diversity of his employees. He hired black architects when it wasn't popular to do so, and several black-owned architectural firms have been created from our ranks, with whom we have great relationships. We're a truly international company; our staff represents 23 countries and speaks 18 languages. We engage their cultures and experiences, and their creative and innovative thinking, which is very important to us."

While cognizant that an architectural firm must be profitable to prosper, and at the risk of sounding utopian, it's heartening to see such a large partnership remain true to its goals of improving the built environment and the lives of its residents, many of whom would not ordinarily have a choice in the function or aesthetics of their homes.  

 

 

 
 

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