Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Good Fit

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the stunning physical changes underway in the town of Round Top (Texas Monthly, the Fayette County Record, PaperCity). We’ve been seeing them first hand whenever we drive down Highway 237.

They’re hard to miss.  Hammers, saws, trucks hauling in rock, hauling in—hey—another building for what is now known as Rummel Square. (You know, where Scotty and Friends used to be.)

It’s the buildings that move, and move, and move again. Almost the only feature from last year to remain in place is the historic and specimen live oak—although for how long, who knows? (Construction is not friendly to live oaks.)

That block reminds me of packing glassware in a crate. You wrap each piece carefully, with lots of padding and fit as many pieces inside the package as you can. Except on Rummel Square, there’s no padding.

When do you have so many buildings on a block that the location loses appeal for its target audience? That’s the aggressive developer’s thorny dilemma.

Context is the architect’s word for it.

Take Henkel Square Market, for example. Begun with care, it has recently shown signs of contracting the Rummel Square virus. I’m talking about the Teague Building, rising to new heights opposite our iconic Courthouse. Dwarfing it. Sort of like Shaquille O’Neal has joined the Round Top-Carmine basketball team.

How on earth did that pass any kind of meaningful architectural review?

The architect on this project genuflects in the direction of context by picking up an element of an existing building’s profile, and repeating it, much inflated, on the new building. So Henkel Hall mimics the profile of the old barn beside it; and Teague hints at the fa├žade of the old Apothecary Building.

But a thin slice of pumped up profile isn’t sufficient, folks. Round Top isn’t a western movie set on a backlot in California, where facades have nothing behind them. The rest of the building counts, too—the shape, the massing of elements, the way the building looks from all sides. Its size, or scale, in relation to others around it.

Ignore scale and you get buildings that hulk over their neighbors, killing the trees that made the neighborhood appealing, overloading sewers, consuming ever larger amounts of precious energy.

I’m guessing the Teague’s designers knew they had a problem. Because the building has sprouted another building like an extra nose on the side facing Bybee Square. It’s a smaller structure whose dimensions relate better to those of its immediate neighbor, the von Rosenberg house, occupied now by the Copper Shade Tree. Or would if it were separate, on a different lot, or even if its connection showed evidence of architectural intent.

Probably it serves a functional purpose for the building’s first users, but the awkwardness of its design will outlive that purpose, possibly by many years, even generations.

Change is inevitable, though, isn’t it? Round Top has a history of reinventing itself. Today’s commercial hub is just the newest incarnation.

And change doesn’t have to ruin a town if it’s handled right. With vision.

But it can’t be the vision of the most recent enthusiast, the newest arrival. The new arrival tends to see what’s there—the place and people—as aspects of himself. Either they’ll be helpful to his project, or they’ll create obstacles.

It is the most narrow, short-sighted of visions.

That’s why you need a community vision. You need a longer view. A view that looks beyond an individual project, or group of projects. 

You need questions: How much change can the town absorb before people stop wanting to visit? How much tourism can it handle without killing the appeal? How much traffic?
Do you intend to enforce height restrictions? Limit garish signs? Limit clutter, visual and auditory? 

Just having a rule isn’t enough.

Do you want a town that residents can live in? Or will it be a shopping mall?

These are questions that may very well have been asked and answered. But if they haven’t been, the time to do it is now. In public, and out loud.

(Published on March 25, 2016 in the Fayetteville County Record)