Sunday, January 25, 2009

Completed Projects: A Year in Review

2008 was a good year. Looking towards 2009 and further, 2008 may end up looking like a really good year. With our city and state expected to take a whipping economically for the first time in nearly a generation, 2008 will probably mark the end of the Project 80's revival of this decade. Thankfully, Anchorage held out long enough for us to watch a new era of major public and private buildings go up around town. They're new buildings that alter the skyline and because of their permanent change to the cityscape, deserve critique from its citizens. Then again, I'm probably just stating the obvious as everybody becomes an architectural critic when spotting new buildings. I just happen to run a blog about it :D

Please note that these are completed projects of 2008 that I'm reviewing, so the new museum, Clark Middle School, and other projects still in the works are not listed. Also be aware that I'm only speaking for myself when judging the appearance of these new buildings. This is not some prestigious architectural journal (you should know better by now).

Dena'ina Convention & Civic Center - grade: 7.5

Probably the most high profile project in Anchorage during this decade, the new convention center is an amazing, but controversial building standing in Downtown across from City Hall. I personally would overall give the Dena'ina my tip of the hat for not looking like the Egan Center just for starters. Seriously though, what I like about this new building is the huge and dramatic facade of glass that overtakes 7th Avenue. At night when the lobby is lit for an event, the front of the building from City Hall looks almost like an ant farm as you can see people going up, down, and walking across on all levels of the building. It's almost like peeling a wall to see the activity inside. The problem a lot of people have of course is not with the front facade of the building, but rather the exterior on the other three sides which some say looks like a warehouse. I too would have to say it took some adjusting for me to get used to the exterior on the other three sides, but I do think such a blankness to the building will allow for a more smoother aging compared to the Performance Arts Center which tries so hard with its architecture and decorations that 20 years later, the building is a bit awkward (I'll always have a place in my heart for the rings with dancing lights though). Speaking of the PAC, I would have to say that in contrast, the Dena'ina is all about transparency. Besides the front facade dramatically exposing all the activites going on at all levels of the lobby, the front white exterior has kind of a glow to it. It's almost like some of Apple's latest products over the last few years with that white-below-the-glass sensation happening. Take this Apple mouse for example. The PAC on the other hand looks like a concrete castle with something to hide inside. At least the PAC was built with room for street level retail. The Dena'ina on the other hand does not.

Linny Pacillo Parking Garage - grade: 6.3

Shortly after the Dena'ina Center broke ground, the surface lot that sits diagonal from the convention center site became the footprint for the Pacillo Parking Garage to makeup for lost space that the Dena'ina Center took away from Atwood Building employees. The garage has eight levels of parking, room for retail at the ground floor, and if you haven't noticed, some progressive modernist architecture. To put it in another way, "it looks like something from Germany" as one friend put it. Indeed while other new garages at Providence Hospital, the Native hospital, and around Midtown look like your textbook concrete structure, the Pacillo Garage clearly took a departure, and I'm so glad they did. For its high profile location, if we're going to get yet another parking garage, it better be something that's worth looking at. The retail level however is somewhat of a disappointment as it's hard to notice that there's a Northrim Bank at one end while the rest of the ground level sits tucked away beneath a very unfriendly gray arcade. Overall, I think the garage deserves a 6.3. While the garage fills a critical need and displays fresh architecture, it's still a parking garage. Not the most flattering type of building especially when sitting across the street from another parking garage. Hopefully the garage will soon see more life as Channel 2 KTUU reported last year that the owner of Glacier Brewhouse plans to open up another restaurant in one of the vacant spaces on the ground level. Cross your fingers.

JL Tower - grade: 6.8

Rising at 14 stories above Midtown, the JL Tower is one of the two new high rise buildings to go up in the city for the first time since the beginning of this decade. The JL Tower, which was constructed by (surprise!) JL Properties is one of the few other office buildings that went up in the former trailer park neighborhood now dubbed 'Plaza 36'. Architecturally, the JL provides a nice break from previous high rises as the building features a smooth curve starting from the base that bows and reaches to the top making it look as if there's an organic curved box partly trapped in a L shape rigid box that breaks free at the top. If you hadn't noticed yet, the tower offers a pretty sight at night as the mechanical penthouse of the building displays an impressive 360 degree wrapped light show made up of hundreds of LED light diodes. Sadly, the unique looking JL Tower sits quietly far away from busy C Street and 36th Avenue. The building could have served as a can't-miss visual anchor that would help define either or both of the two streets, but instead the tower acts like a low profile suburban office park as it sits in the middle of landscaping and a series of surface parking lots that put together could rival the Sullivan Arena parking lot. Speaking of which, the amount of landscaping and surface parking surrounding the building makes it clear that efficient use of land was not a top priority for the developers. I'm kind of surprised they even bothered to strive for LEED certification. Still though, not a bad tower at all.

188 West Northern Lights - grade: 8.8

Not too far north of the JL Tower, also in Midtown, 2008 saw the completion of another high rise tower officially known as 188 West Northern Lights. While the JL Tower had more in common with office developments around Midtown during these last few decades, 188 WNL is a revolutionary building for the central part of town. Unlike its nearby neighbors, 188 WNL has no surface parking, is built right up to the street, uses already developed land, and is mixed-use as it offers space for retail at ground level. All music to the ears of the backers of Title 21, the city's new zoning codes currently under review by the Assembly to acheive the goals of the Anchorage 2020 plan. With this sustainable and flexible layout, I expect the building to better weather the eventual urban densification of Midtown and the rest of the Bowl as developable land continues to shrink and compact urban infill continues to become a more attractive option as it has in other cities around the nation. While this new building shows off the best in civic responsibility, I think the post-modernist architecture of 188 WNL is more 'fun' to look at as it is more fresh and unpredictable in shape and lines compared to the JL Tower which I feel tries a bit too hard to please a more broad audience. If there is to be one thing that I have to whine about with this building, it's the ridiculous rocks that were molded into the sidewalks fronting the building. It looks like a redneck version of the post 9/11 barricade filled sidewalk surrounding the FBI headquarters Downtown. My wag of the finger for that.

Glenn Square - grade: 4.4

Over to Mountain View, though still partly under construction, I thought I'd consider this a largely finished project since all of the anchor stores are now open. All that is really left are three "pads" in the middle of the parking lot that are left for future development along with vacant spaces for small businesses, and if correct, I believe Century Theaters is looking at opening a theater here -- not 100% sure though. What I like about this development is its attempt at integrating mixed-uses into one area. Besides retail, future expansion foresees office space in the area as well as residential properties. What I don't like is the not so exciting presence of big box retailers (and boring ones too) such as Michael's, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Famous Footware. Seriously, to think that Mayor Begich even bothered to make a press release about the arrival of ...Bed Bath & Beyond. Sweet jesus that was embaressing for us. I know that we Alaskans go gaga for the arrival of the most mundane of chain stores, but now we're just scratching the bottom of the rusty tub. To get to the point though, the presence of these big box stores has me left scratching my head about this whole city backed plan to revive Mountain View. We're bringing back Mountain View by opening lower-48 chain stores whose profits return to their headquarters in the lower-48? Of course the Texas based developers behind Glenn Square claim to be helping in revitalizing the neighborhood with their new shopping mall, but it sounds more like an excuse to justify capitalizing on an incredibly rare large piece of empty land that was sold by the city. Anyways I'm starting to wander off -- back to the mall itself. Architecturally, there is nothing really to say. It's a Disneyland of lets-pretend/feel-good design. The clock tower specifically is a nauseating structure that appears to have the intent on insulting our intelligence. Are we suppose to fall over ourselves and be lured to shop there because it looks like one of those cozy minature christmas towns? I appreciate the effort in doing something unique, but I'll have to rate Glenn Square slightly less than a 5. Hopefully added residential and office space will one day redeem the Square.

Onto some smaller projects that were completed in 2008:

4211 Mountain View Drive - grade: 8.2

I like. Residential on top, room for retail on bottom. Looks a little too much like it was built overnight with prefab walls though. But overall, it's a fun looking little building that serves for the better in enhancing the aesthetics of the streetscape for Mountain View.

Grand Duchess - grade: 5.2

If this new store caters to our Duchess, where's the place for our Duke? Anyways, this new building located at Arctic and C Street makes for quite an interesting addition to the landscape in our grand dukedom. Just to be sure that you don't miss it, the building is painted entirley in hot pink and looks like a cross between a Ziggaraut and a Victorian era mansion. Victorian steel gates gaurd the parking lot from those unwanted filthy peasants. Though I think this building is a welcome addition in comparison to its neighbors, I think the Germanic tribe still overtake the Duchess down the street with their German immersion school which involved the remodeling of an industrial building and converting it into a sleek piece of property with soft shades of gray on its exterior as well as transparent orange paneling that lights at night. For that building (which re-opened in 2007), I would rate its exterior remodeling an 8.0 perhaps.

Embassy Suites Midtown - grade: 3.4

Why do local architects as of late feel the need to add exposed wooden trusses to their facades? First it was the new Carr's on Abbott, then KFC nearby, and now more recently, Target in Muldoon. With the exception of Carr's, the ornaments adorning the facade backfire, and the new Embassy Suites is unfortunately no exception. Besides this, the architects apparently felt that we needed more of the same shape and design that other Midtown hotels such as the Hilton Garden Inn and Motel 6 have. At least the main entrance is kinda interesting and new to the Anchorage hotel architecture scene (which must be a very exciting scene btw). This new hotel also results in the forced relocation of the beloved Benny's Food Wagon. There will be hell to pay for that.

The Sockeye Inn - grade: 5.8

Not much to say other than it looks okay. I suppose the fish scale facade of the building has something to do with why the business occupying the building was named "Sockeye". Glad to see the building taking up the street corner with the parking lot in the rear rather than tucking the building away from the street. Also glad to see the used car lot bulldozed to make way for this hotel.