Northampton Architecture Scene
Incredible Hulk Comes to Conz St.
By Edward Shanahan
Now that public outrage over the design of the proposed Hilton Hotel adjacent to Pulaski Park has simmered down, let’s move south to 115 Conz Street and consider a work -in- progress at the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
That would be the hulking structural mass that as been plunked in front of the newspaper offices and is being readied to house a new printing press that’s on its way here from Italy.
“I swear to God, that’s the first building that’s ever scared me,” said local architect Tristram Metcalfe with his penchant for understatement.
Asked by downstreet.net to take a spin by the 7,000 square foot addition now under construction and offer a professional judgment of what he saw, Metcalfe ticked off several criticisms: “It’s way out of scale, it needs fenestration (windows), the overhang has no function” and “it’s ugly as sin.” On the other hand, he said the addition “tried to copy some of the details” of the original building, which is good.
Metcalfe strongly supported our layman’s opinion that the very size and placement of the addition overwhelms, almost conceals completely, the existing building, which was constructed originally as a First National supermarket, and then renovated to become the Gazette’s new home in 1975 when the newspaper moved from Armory Street in the downtown.
Another architect, Kenneth Jodrie, who is a resident of Fruit Street near the Gazette, when asked for his view, replied by e-mail: “As for what is currently being built down on Conz Street – it looks like what it is – an enclosure for a very large piece of equipment designed by people who are all about the equipment, not the architecture.”
He said the addition “adds nothing to the architectural integrity of my neighborhood.”
When plans for the new addition were first publicized, one letter to the editor of the paper was critical of the scheme because it would alter, if not destroy, the lines and form of the old supermarket building, which the writer said was a fine example of 1950s commercial design.
In other words, the supermarket building had architectural merit, and changes should try to preserve rather eliminate essential features of the overall design of that earlier period.
Responding to criticism of the addition, Gazette publisher Aaron Julien said, “it’s as nice as you can expect,” given the need to accommodate a multi-unit printing press. “It is what it is,” he continued, adding, “I don’t think the existing building was particularly lovely; it was a supermarket.”
As for the size of the addition, Julien acknowledged that he, too, was surprised by how huge it is, especially when experienced from the inside. But the new press required such a massive addition.
He also pointed out that the Conz Street Housing next door is a much taller building. And the area is zoned for commercial use, so the Gazette addition is not out of character and contributes to the future economic growth of the city, he said.
Moreover, he said the newspaper company spent a substantial sum of money to assure that the addition would be “pleasing” to the eye from the outside. From his standpoint, “it’s a darn nice building, it’s good looking, pays homage to the existing building and it’s a lot nicer than we were required to build.”
On the issue of local architectural guidelines, Wayne Feiden, city planning director, wrote in an e-mail message to downstreet.net that except for the central business district, the Elm Street historic district, Hospital Hill and some “big box” commercial projects – “we do not have design standards anywhere else in the city.”
He continued: “There is a very weak section in zoning about compatibility with the area, but it is not the same as a real design or architectural design standard.”
As if to emphasize that point, the planning board took less than 25 minutes last March 8 to review and approve what was described then as a $10 million project, including the cost of the new multi-unit press. One source said that the figure has since grown to $12 million.
Architect Jodrie, a long-time member of the planning board, said he had been “supportive of the concept of design guidelines. I believe that the environments we inhabit, built and otherwise, have an indisputable impact on the quality of our lives. And, I believe that the members of the community have a right to determine the form of their built environments.”
Yet, he acknowledged that his position “flies in the face of various arguments regarding private property, development rights, market economies, etc.”
Metcalfe said the goal in adding on to an existing building should be to assure that “what you lose, you should gain back, it should be a positive improvement.”
Of the addition to the Gazette, he said if the owner of the building “can have an open mind” steps can be taken to make the structure “more inviting, more friendly.”
He guessed that “you could get used to it over time,” particularly if it were dressed up with some kind of painted modern mural on the surface of the structure.
The Gazette’s Julien seemed miffed by the criticism of the local architects. He said they did not understand the restrictions imposed by the nature of building a sophisticated pressroom. For example, two stories of interior electrical service for the press sharply limited the number of windows. And the siting of the addition was dictated by the need to continue to print the daily paper in the existing pressroom to the rear, while constructing new space in the front.
On the larger issue of architectural design, Metcalfe said the city planning director “knows little about architecture” and that there is, in general, no public “awareness of architecture as design.”
One reason for that is the media does not provide coverage of issues relating to architecture and design. “Newspapers don’t want to cover it critically for fear of offending people,” he said.
Rarely are architects even identified with building projects, only the developers and contractors, he said. The name of the architect should be publicized because then “bad work becomes known, and good work needs to become known.” For the record, ArcWest of Denver, a firm that works with publishing companies, was the architect for the Gazette addition.
Metcalfe said the lack of media awareness of the importance of the architecture and good design is reflected by the fact that “the newspaper puts up this monster, and they maybe don’t even realize it’s a monster.”
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