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On the disappearing top floor

Don O’Keefe at Architecture Richmond takes on a particular urban architectural feature of our era:

In recent developments around town, a new design trend has emerged. Architects of residential buildings of modest heights, as little as three or four stories, are opting to change the facade material of the uppermost floor, and sometimes create a slight setback. The effect is often to cheapen the structure, exposing the main facade for what it so often is: a veneer.

[…]

… we are curiously uninterested in progress in the urban realm. New buildings must conform to the image of past, an image we all admit was created by a deeply flawed society. Today, a developer trying to build a four story structure in an ordinary townhouse neighborhood is flattened into a caricature of capitalist greed. But would anyone hate a four story building from 1910 simply because of its height? Of course not. It would be celebrated as the landmark of the neighborhood.

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The U.....nion Hill
The U.....nion Hill
3 years ago

Dan just nominated himself for most condescending progressive of the new year. Other nominees include Meryl Streep and Melinda Byerley.

Marc Kaplan
Marc Kaplan
2020 years ago

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Sarah La Mere
Sarah La Mere
2020 years ago

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Vanessa Elke Dieterly
Vanessa Elke Dieterly
2020 years ago

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ralph on 22nd
ralph on 22nd
3 years ago

I’ll second the nomination……

Jasmine Barber
Jasmine Barber
2020 years ago

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Jason S.
Jason S.
3 years ago

hmm. Strong in irony, that comment is. Blinded by the dark side you have become.

Lee
Lee
3 years ago

I think the “vanishing top floor” tends to look a bit silly, but primarily because it shows up on buildings which are designed as “abstract references” to the surrounding historic structures rather than being built in true historicist styles. This phenomenon is the invention of architects, designed to appease the architectural review commission and/or to fit into a preservation agenda gone awry. Architects only need to look in the mirror to figure out who to blame for this sort of nonsense.

Urbanist
Urbanist
3 years ago

“time is on our side. Many of our fellow citizens may look to the past for answers to today’s problems, but in historical terms, forward is the only direction there has ever been.” – from the full article

I think Don makes a good point. Lighten up, embrace some change or we’ll be stuck in mediocrity (and no, it wont hurt your property values)

Taschi Zorn
Taschi Zorn
2020 years ago

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crd
crd
3 years ago

Why isn’t anyone linking this to the new Citadel of Hope buildings? Those plans have this same issue. Would like to hear from folks about this, thanks.

ray
ray
3 years ago

I have no idea what this “caricature of capitalist greed” is which Mr. O’Keefe refers, but I think the upper floor setbacks look good.

And I’m a forward looking traditionalist who embraces progressivism in the context libertarian socialism.

The U.....nion Hill
The U.....nion Hill
3 years ago

Rather than fully understand his opposition’s concerns he makes broad assertions on their lack of intellectual sophistication. So that all opposition is based on irrational fear and ignorance of basic economics.

Jason Sewell
Jason Sewell
3 years ago

The top floor setback appears to be part of the same design language that has brought us the plague of “whimsical” juxtaposed façades that are all the rage. See the condos near the Whole Foods Market in Shortpump for an example. They will not age well.

Dave Seibert
Dave Seibert
3 years ago

This is a cool conversation. I love that we have this neighborhood of builders and idea people that like to discuss these type of things! I don’t currently have an opinion on this topic but am enjoying hearing from those that do.

WarGibFA
WarGibFA
3 years ago

We had a concrete-sided top floor slapped on a very respectable brick building across from ours, down on 21st and Main. When you chance to look at one of those things on a daily basis, it’s an absolute eye-sore.

David
David
3 years ago

My issue with the architecture of these large developments coming into historical neighborhoods is that they are generic – they look just like the other contemporary multifamily dwellings that are going up around the country. I think a developer could get away with structures that lack character if they are consistent with the size and massing of the neighborhood. Likewise, they could get away with a larger building if it has the quality and interest to be a “landmark of the neighborhood” (in the words of Mr. O’Keefe). But a development that is both inconsistent with the neighborhood’s scale and… Read more »

urbngrilla
urbngrilla
3 years ago

The “vanishing 4th floor” is part of the developer’s response to exceeding the 28-ft maximum building height for new structures in the UB Zoning classification.

This building as drawn requires a Special Use Permit. UB Zoning tops out at 28feet which would allow for only 2 and one-half stories (above grade). Alternatively, the half story could be enclosed space for mechanical systems, or a rooftop garden, etc.

The optimal structure, in this UB case (without a SUP) would be English basement with windows above grade, topped with 2 above grade full stories.

Bill Hartsock
Bill Hartsock
3 years ago

#10. – Dave, you’ve never expressed an opinion on anything.

Pay Attention
Pay Attention
3 years ago

While I agree the plans are devoid of character and have no reference to the archictural character of the neighborhood, I’m glad something is actually being built. That said, I think you’d be hard pressed to make a convincing arguement that this is an ‘abstract reference ‘ as Lee suggested above. It won’t ruin the neighborhood to build it, I just wish they would practice better awareness in their design planning and maybe pick a better architect.

Amazed Observer
Amazed Observer
3 years ago

What an amazing collection of architects and builders have assembled in this comments section! Truly this is an incredible brain-trust of gifted doers leaving their valuable opinions here. The only thing shocking is that you’re able to take a break from all the incredible architectural marvels you must be building to come bless us regular folk with your insights!

mary
mary
3 years ago

According to Architecture Richmond’s web site, Don O’Keefe currently lives in Tokyo and enjoys walking and spending time with his family. I don’t know if he’s using the royal “we” when he claims our curious lack of interest in “..progress in the urban realm.” Again, is this the royal we or is he gathering the rest of us into his world view when he states that the image of the past is “…an image we all admit was created by a deeply flawed society.” His brief bio on Architecture Richmond also claims “He has worked in and out of Richmond… Read more »

Richardr
Richardr
3 years ago

Just read the full piece and it is much less pompous than the out of context quotes. It is amazingly easy to get riled up about words out of context, and less easy to read the words of others carefully and find common ground. Some good comments here though, density should come in great packages, not disguised as something else. The author does suggest that we are all to blame in this.

Frank p
Frank p
3 years ago

It’s not wrong for a building to change character as it meets the sky. It softens the edge and makes the building seems more human-scaled to me. It also creates a transitional space between inside and outside both visually from the street and practically for the buildings users. You all are nuts.

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
3 years ago

?The illustration above is one of the better looking mashups. . Are they supposed to be retrofuturism? If so, they fail. These cheap, industrial looking, cookie cutter buildings going up all around us with checkerboard panel siding and popup top floors, as others have mentioned, will not age well. Think of it as the similar trend in the late 1950s and early 1960s with “Jet Age” or the correct term, “Populuxe” styling, which not only looks dated and out of place today, but are often quickly torn down. If you buy a house that has a 1970s designed kitchen, do… Read more »

Pay Attention
Pay Attention
3 years ago

RE: #16 – Amazed Observer:

I don’t think anyone here is claiming to be an architect or builder. We just happen to care what our neighborhood looks like. Rather than trying to belittle and discredit the people sharing their voices, try contributing something worthwhile.

Now back to my legos, I mean, mastery of architecture as a relational art form.

Bryan Brodie
Bryan Brodie
3 years ago

“New buildings must conform to the image of past, an image we all admit was created by a deeply flawed society.”

if you’re going to ‘throw stones’ at flawed ‘glass houses’ of the past, remember to extrapolate to the present day’s ‘deeply flawed society’…

Ugh
Ugh
3 years ago

Whatever your opinion on 4th floor setbacks, I would hope the progressives among us could get behind some good healthy criticism of slow-moving, often progress-halting neighborhood associations who seek to just sit in a circle and try to keep people out more than anything. Not an architect, but all I read in the news is how these associations want to stop building this and keep people from doing that.

Lara
Lara
3 years ago

To #19, Frank P, I totally agree. Does it make everyone feel special to read way more into this trend than necessary? In the original article, the example photos show the top floors as having social areas/penthouse apartments (possibly pools in the rear?)… and the setback is to accommodate this outdoor space, given the small footprint the building occupies. The facade being different at the top… who really cares!?

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
3 years ago

@4 Lee “This phenomenon is the invention of architects, designed to appease the architectural review commission and/or to fit into a preservation agenda gone awry.” . First, let me say something I missed before. I am sure that the architects designing these buildings most likely live in one of the West End cookie cutter Levittown-esque communities so have no real appreciation for history. . The C.A.R. seems to be only a ghost of their former self. 5-10 years ago, they kept a high profile and were vocal about designs submitted. Where are they today? Probably because some of those questionable… Read more »

Eric S. Huffstutler
Eric S. Huffstutler
3 years ago

@24 Laura, I think a couple of things are happening here.
.
First, the look. Most are contrasting rather than complementing or matching so stick out like a sore thumb. I get what people are saying about just matching the floor with what is below rather than recess them. You could simply create a hollow wall surrounding common rooftop areas so that all of the façade matches.
.
Second, the C.A.R. guidelines have a height maximum for structure profile to match the surrounding structures. The “recess” is just cheating so, where else where they cheat?
.

KK
KK
3 years ago

Personally, I like the design and the tapered look of the top floor. Overall I think this property will be positive for the neighborhood and I hope it’ll continue to spur Church Hill’s resurgence.

Lee
Lee
3 years ago

@Eric – There are four schools of thought, more or less, regarding appropriate infill in historic neighborhoods and additions to new buildings. Direct imitation, Innovation/Invention within an existing style, Abstract Reference, and Direct opposition. They are pretty much what they sound like. Imitation: Buildings that adhere exactly to an existing style or copy an existing building. Invention within a style: Copying existing style/strictures, but adding atypical elements (The College of William and Mary and Market Square shops in Williamsburg are good examples of this, as they incorporate Italianate details into Colonial designs). Abstract reference refers to buildings that have similar… Read more »

BAF
BAF
3 years ago

I think the building being proposed looks a lot better than what is there now…

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