Seeing in and out of buildings enlivens the street

The Robie House in Chicago allows views of its striking exterior (above), but people on its terraces can sit below the street's sightlines (below).

The Robie House in Chicago allows views of its striking exterior (above), but people on its terraces can sit below the street’s sightlines (below).

Besides obstacles ahead, we slow down to enjoy a shop window or chat with an acquaintance, so we are regularly seeking places to walk, stand, and sit that have adequate sightlines. We also enjoy looking at a fountain, a flower, and a Beaux Arts cherub so designers need to assure sightlines to such features from paths, alcoves, and benches.

Still, all too often, seated views are blocked by parked cars and trucks, hedges, or signs. AtPrivate.robie-house.400 overlooks and on bridges, railings that are too thick or tall impede viewing. Fences bordering terraces and sidewalks block views altogether. At issue are not fences, hedges, walls, or even parked cars, but rather their proper relationships to sidewalks, alcoves, and benches.

Where residences line streets, only careful design can provide interesting public views while assuring residents’ privacy. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House demonstrates how one tactic—providing terraces with low walls outside a main floor raised above the street—maintains interesting views from the public street while protecting private interiors.

Apple makes a point of having transparent walls on its retail outlets like its flagship store in Manhattan, contributing to life on the street even when closed, as shown here.

Apple makes a point of having transparent walls on its retail outlets like its flagship store in Manhattan, contributing to life on the street even when closed, as shown here.

In cities, views between the inside and outside of buildings are critical for people inside to contribute to life on the street. Large windows allowing clear views between people and merchandise inside buildings and people outside allow shops and restaurants to become a visual part of the city life. When added to ready physical access through doors and open walls, the intensity of vital city life can flow effortlessly in and out of buildings along the sidewalk.

New stores and supermarkets with continuous walls of brick, metal, or stone or those with metal shutters after closing time create dead zones along city streets. City policies for active ground-floor building fronts can counter these deadening designs. It is not enough to create pedestrian zones requiring ground-floor stores. Narrow storefronts – multiple doors per 30 m (100 ft) of frontage, and required areas of windows—must also be specified. “Melbourne is a good example,” reported Gehl, who has helped develop that city’s pedestrian friendly downtown, “with its requirement that 60% of street façades in new buildings along major streets must be open and inviting.”

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