Greenhouses


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Let’s talk about houses — greenhouses. At first glance they seem completely banal and utilitarian, often not the subjects of great design. However, the whole idea of “small-a” architecture is to make the vulgar attractive and the banal exiting. I’m sorry to say, but Anchorage will not have a large project like the Museum, or even the Dena’ina Center, for many years. It is time for us in the design community to buckle down and fall in love with the basics.

Architects once designed only grandiose and public buildings, churches, museums, the like; other structures lacked design and discipline. During the Fin de Siècle, however, the attention to public spaces and infrastructure grew. The arrival of steel and improvements in glass fabrication allowed new designs and æsthetics, even for small-scale and common projects. I think of the Métro stations in Paris designed in the Art Nouveau style, also the train stations in England and France, with vaulting sinews of iron and filaments of glass.

Anchorage development ebbs and flows with economic cycles, and unfortunately, it is descending into a trough. Architects will take up more small-scale projects, often for public spaces, for our benefit. Architecture should not be elitist nor exclusionary, and building a space for all peoples, not just one person, seems so much more rewarding; not only for the users, but the architects as well.

The new greenhouse at the Alaska Botanical Gardens is no Crystal Palace, but it is a beautiful banal building. Tamás Déak of KPB Architects lucidly designed the growing space with attention to detail, mission, and performance.

The steel structure hides behind the glass storefronts. The project lacks the artificial material specificity that plagues many buildings in Anchorage. The rigidity of the grid the motif driving the design. As much as Modernists espoused the grid, they did not invent it, and it represents an efficiency, affordability, and balance that Post-Modernists forgot. The regular grid with regular dimensions made the construction of the greenhouse easy, fast, and inexpensive. The shed form is playful because it skews the regular box. The form itself sheds rain and snow, and maximizes glazed area. The form is also iconic because it is so different from every other greenhouse in Anchorage: it has no arches, and no polycarbonate!

The greenhouse does not attempt to blend with its surroundings. It is atextual, and therefore hypertextual. What I mean by this is that because it does not have contemporaries nor a suitable site, it can exist in all sites. That is not to say that the greenhouse denies its context: because it is built on the crest of the bluff, the plants take advantage of late Summer sun and steady southern Spring light. The greenhouse does not announce its presence either; it uses understatement to respect its natural surroundings. The neutral aluminum finishes is simple, unobtrusive, and — well — common…and common is excellent. Instead of relying on signage to explain its purpose, the surrounding gardens, formal geometry, and characteristic glazing show that it is a greenhouse.

The frugality of design and employment of renewable systems furthers the mission of the Botanical Gardens. The greenhouse is utilitarian, functional, and has no architectural flair: it lets the plants dominate. Its door has standard hardware, the mullions are standard finishes, the concrete is bare, and the construction is relatively simple. Like a garden, the design has order and hierarchy. The mission of the greenhouse is production of plants and the Gardens cultivate knowledge as much as plants. These complementary actions enhance the public realm. Likewise, the greenhouse supplements the development of an engaged and healthy public.

The building uses geothermal wells to regulate the internal air temperature and reduce heating loads. The low-energy light fixtures and mechanical equipment reduce the energy consumption of the building. The orientation and full glazing of the south façade maximize early-season insolation. The Gardens can start plants even before the ground thaws.

I hope to see more greenhouses (and green houses) crop up around town (I couldn’t help myself). I want community gardens, those in Mountain View and soon to be in Muldoon, to have public greenhouses. Engaging the public is much more than just commerce — in fact, commerce kills community — and gardens are invaluable assets. They teach people about plants, foods, and collective land use. Kids can play in the dirt, planting seeds and then harvesting in the Fall. If we want to push for more gardens and local, healthy foods, then we need greenhouses to extend our growing season. Moreover, architects can dismount their high horses to wallow in the muck with the plebeians.

I will be taking a few-week hiatus, but I will be back in August to discuss adaptive re-use. Be on the lookout for the Municipality’s Historic Preservation Plan Supporting Document. It will be making the rounds of the Community Councils and has histories and character summaries of every neighborhood in Anchorage, from Eklutna to Portage. Additional news is that the Fourth Avenue Theater is heading to the Governor for approval of its historic significance to the State, and Lt Governor Mallott is meeting with the owners to reach a symbiotic agreement.

Until August, keep the faith and good night, my loves.

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