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Picking A Winner

September 19, 2004

Monday morning at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, four teams will present, to the public, design proposals for the Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration. Given the architects' previous performances, quite diverse possibilities will be brought enticingly into view.

How should they be judged?

Somewhere between hard-eyed cost estimates (which, fortunately, will be done for all four by the same independent consultant) and wild-eyed sculpturesque spectacle (to which architects have occasionally been know to resort), the design teams' reactions to two key aspects of the project's place and program will be particularly useful in evaluating the proposals.

These have to do with how a design might help the new institution do its work better - first by dodging some tough site problems, and second by making the site contribute to the educational mission embodied in the high-minded program for the science and exploration center.

Look To The Towers

The site is the last large corner of the very large Adriaen's Landing redevelopment project, sandwiched between I-91 and the architectural heritage of an earlier attempt to rehabilitate an old center city - the Phoenix building and Travelers Plaza. But more fundamentally, it is a location between a river and a city, between a natural feature and a human settlement put down precisely because of that natural feature. If a center for science and exploration is basically about how nature and human beings intersect, this is a good place for one. Its place exemplifies its theme.

So the first job for the building design is to urge the mental connection between the city and the Connecticut River and its valley. The goal must be to help people see that human settlement and the natural world are intertwining and interdependent. In the design competition, that goal will boil down most visibly to what kind of towers, if any, the architects propose.

The program that was handed to the four competing firms permits a tower up to the 22-story height of the brand-new Marriott hotel next door. That is well above the Phoenix building, just across Columbus Boulevard, but still significantly lower than the Travelers Tower, the Gold building on Main Street and the other tall items that now define Hartford's skyline.

If a design shows a tower, the key questions to ask about it are these: Does it provide space at the expense of rudely blocking and overshadowing, literally and figuratively, the Phoenix building to its west and the Riverfront Recapture bridge to its north? And is the tower shaped merely to call attention to itself or to connect the science center with the city and the Connecticut River valley?

Check The Parking

A tower is usually thought of as the sexiest, most desirable, but least necessary part of any building. Parking is the inverse. In today's world, parking is often the critical element of a building project.

The 600 spaces called for in the project description is not a large number - the Morgan Street garage has more than 2,000 spaces. They will satisfy not only the center's own parking needs, but those of Riverfront Recapture and the Phoenix, which, laudably, has just moved several hundred more employees downtown.

The difficulty comes from the nature of the 86,000-square-foot site. It is boxed in by heavily trafficked highways and access roads on three of its four sides. It is also boxed in below by underground steam lines and old soil contamination and above by the lid of the Constitution Plaza/riverfront bridge level. It would be expensive to dig down and unfriendly to the feel of the plaza to go up. Six hundred parking spaces require, more or less, the area of the science center site three times over, minus some human-friendly space fronting Columbus. In short, the temptation here is to pack a base up solidly with parking and push the greatest part of the science center's human space up to the Constitution Plaza level and higher.

That may well be the only choice. It is important to be realistic, however, about the experience of parking in a garage like that. There will be speeding traffic on three sides - visible, audible and smellable - and drivers will be hunting for parking in a structure four or even five structural bays wide, at two lines of cars per bay. That is simply the way garages get laid out. The quantity of parking will be provided at the expense of the quality of the experience in reaching or leaving the science center.

And so, another question to ask when looking at the science center competitors will be this: Is there care shown for how people might actually get into the place and back again?

The science center's program asks that the four finalist design teams invent a "building that teaches." To judge each design, ask: How well would this building bring people into the place it occupies and how far would it reach out toward the horizon - and make both a part of its teaching?

On Monday, the four finalists in the contest to design the Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration will present proposals from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford.

Patrick Pinnell is an architect, town planner and member of the Place board of contributors. He was on a team not selected for the final four of the science center competition.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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