Expanding on earlier remarks here I'm going to use Libeskind's Spiral Extension as an example of how to handle the on-going political problem of: designing public and "institutional" buildings so that they contribute to a pedestrian-oriented city. The bottom line is simple: make even such an outrageous design as Libeskind's follow (as appropriate) the 3 Rules and thus contribute to street-life.
OK. To the building. You can't get much more shocking than the Spiral as a piece of urbanism, shown here as a Photoshop manipulation of the real street (the design is simply a proposal at this time):
It's Daniel Libeskind's Spiral Extension to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. My initial reaction to the image was shock and then a slow smile. It's so obviously designed to epater le bourgeoisie and it's funny. I suspect that as a New Urbanist I am supposed to dislike it. But I can't. I think it's drole, surprising. A lot of people in London don't like it at all and don't think it's funny.
A building like this, dramatic and with a "name" architect, is a "raisin" in a field of "oatmeal."
"Raisins" = "precious object" buildings. Very, very "special."
"Oatmeal" = ordinary "background" buildings."
It is not merely a "matter of taste" to suggest that too many raisins in a bowl of oatmeal and you no longer have a bowl of oatmeal. Too much of a good thing...etc. etc. The power of this design stems in large measure from its contrast with the context. A whole city of "Spirals" and it would lose its impact.
New Urbanist dogma suggests that the non-commercial town hall and major religious structures are "raisins" and should have both a distinct location and shape to allow them to be easily distinguished. Such buildings should have a claim on the "higher ground," symbolically speaking and perhaps literally . Because they are "special" they are exempt from having to meet the Three Rules.
Sounds reasonable except that in our society the list of potential "special" buildings expands rapidly. The hospital, the library, the "government center," the museum, the educational institution,the courts (both local, state and Federal), the fire station...The list of non-profit institutions which have a legitimate claim to a "precious object" design goes on and on. Each one can claim immunity from the Three Rules --- and tries to --- because it would like to show in 3-D that it is unique, special, not soiled by trade.
But with too many buildings which strive to be unique and stand out and express the profound spiritual and artistic sensibility of their artiste designer...well you have a problem. You have the raisins overpowering the oatmeal, you have the exception devouring the rule.
But the problem is not so much that precious object buildings have unusual forms. The problem is that this sort of building almost invariably turns away from the sidewalk as if to form a psychological moat. "KEEP AWAY! THIS WORK OF ART ONLY FOR THE EXCEEDINGLY REFINED!" It seems to be part of the psychology of such "precious" buildings.
So there we have a political problem and Libeskind walks right into it.
The Victoria and Albert is a Museum. A high-profile architect like Libeskind is hired to give an institution some visibility to aid in, among other things, fund-raising. It worked in Bilbao in spades. Many, many institutions and even private speculative builders recognize that a distinctive design is money in the bank. Such designs are indeed produced to attract attention though their designers try to gussy-up the proceedings with florid but meaningless "design theory" language.
Libeskind's Spiral, it seems to me, is designed to shock, to make one stop sharp. And it does so. Within limits, that's OK. A few distinctive "raisins" are fun to have around.
The ongoing and unavoidable political problem is that these non-commercial institutions have a lot of money, prestige and in fact often do good work. They are almost entirely and generally positive forces in a community. The only problem is that in general they don't know how to build. In order to further their institutional goals, they hire as "starry" an architect as they can afford. Such luminaries rarely seem (this is just empirical observation) to care about the sidewalk. And non-commercial managing boards and councils get snowed as members dream of their building on the cover of a glossy.
So it's inevitable that the system of star architecture will proceed; the public relations benefit is too great. But even within that context, such buildings would simply be politically shrewd to create a positive relationship to the street. Indeed there is no reason they can't . Hadid's museum in Cincinnati is a gawker yet it looks to be a good urban building.
The question which solves a great deal (but admittedly not all) of the political contention about these 'special buildings" would be How does the building meet the sidewalk? Does it activate the sidewalk? Does it follow (in an appropriate fashion) the Three Rules of Urban Design?
So too with the Spiral. The photo doesn't show what is happening at street-grade. It could be terrible or it could be fine. I think it regrettable that so many people misunderstand the core elements of what makes a good street and argue against designs like the Spiral for essentially the wrong reasons. One reason to attack the Spiral would be that its neighborhood has enough "special" buildings and the exception will soon sink the rule. Too many special buildings, isolated from the sidewalk as they typically are, and you have an office-park suburb of Anywhere.
The solution for Libeskind and designers of similar precious object buildings is to make the building a good urban building at the sidewalk i.e. make it enfront the sidewalk in the traditional fashion. That then gives the designer the political cover to do any weird and goofy thing that he likes and his client can afford.
So I am agnostic on the Spiral right now; it's impossible to tell from the image what is happening at sidewalk grade. It could be great; it could be awful. But that's where the action is. Thirty feet is just about the magic number, as this page from the forthcoming second edition of City Comforts shows:
Adhere to the Three Rules within 30 feet or so and do whatever you like elsewhere.
I've written to Libeskind's office to find out the state of the plans and to determine how his design works at the sidewalk. I hope it's good as the basic design is growing on me; the only issue is whether it is good urban building at the sidewalk.
So far they have been very cooperative. (Photo above courtesy of the V&A. Thanks!) I'll report back here when I know more.