Western Riverfront Proposal

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Location: Bath, Somerset, U.K.. Riverfront development.

The Bath riverfront project, produced during an on-site 6-credit summer design charette, embraces the traditional neighborhood model. The design is intended to be understood not as a mere exercise in familiarization with the local historical architecture, but rather as a vision for future growth that recognizes established urban types. We take the view that urban growth ought to occur incrementally. This project seeks to integrate new development with existing fabric, make connections to the riverfront which has been historically ignored, keep a level of density appropriate to both the scale of the project and the surrounding neighborhoods, and reintroduce traditional residential and commercial units used as modules for development of sustainable community.

The proposal is sited just outside the boundaries of the Conservation Area defined by the UNESCO World Heritage program, but within the borders of the World Heritage city. Bounded on the northern perimeter by the river Avon, and on the southern perimeter by a regional thru-way, it sits on a relatively flat portion of marshland surrounded by rolling hills and adjacent to Britain’s earliest public park, with portions of the site designated as part of the 100 year flood plain. Historically, the site was a major industrial park but damaged by heavy artillery during WWII, which also affected portions of the town. It is currently the location of the defunct city gasworks, with an underground gas line administered by a series of small historic buildings known as the pump-houses. These elements are preserved in the design, with the gas line accommodated by the layout of the street network. Recent development proposals for this site have faced public opposition in part because of their grounding in post-War industrial ideology and their espousal of a reductivist ‘machine aesthetic’. As opposed to isolated and over-scaled design solutions the team chose to maintain established local vocabulary of forms, urban and building types, range of building expressions, degree of articulation, and construction techniques that make this city unique and deserving of its World Heritage status.

The team first determined an appropriate pattern of streets and public spaces emphasizing the riverfront and views, then assigned locations for necessary and useful new buildings, specified commercial frontages along certain streets according to anticipated public activity and subdivided the resulting urban blocks in accordance with the prototypical Georgian block, which has served as a model for many of the greatest American cities and is an often uncited but strong influence for much of the New Urbanist development today. Architectural expressions ranged according to the traditional model from simple vernacular (with occasional classical references) for residential and commercial buildings, to more formal compositions for public edifices.

The Georgian terrace house, more familiarly known as a row house in America, was chosen as the basic residential unit—with semi-basements where permitted by flooding considerations—both for its elegant simplicity and because it allows maximum unit sub-divisions in response to changing socio-economic circumstances. Carriage houses (garage apartments) significantly increased residential unit counts and, together with on-street parking spaces and some under-croft parking (doubling as an outlet for anticipated flooding of the River Avon), easily met recommended parking requirements for this area. Buildings were limited to three stories plus attic (with basements where possible), to emulate the typical scale of historic Bath and are appropriate for the level of density that is sustainable for this area.

The scale of Bath is conducive to pedestrian activity and we have taken measures to ensure that the new neighborhood likewise encourages walkability. Based on the 1⁄4 mile walking radius, the neighborhood is traversable end-to-end in ten minutes with the historic center of Bath also ten minutes away. Vast amounts of residential development surrounding the historic center of Bath demand a second commercial center. With its admirable architectural qualities, urban scale, seamless integration of functions and typological clarity and flexibility, the historic city of Bath offers itself as a model for future urban growth that merits the full attention of the architectural profession. It is hoped that this project will
serve as a catalyst for proper future development on this highly sensitive site.

Lessons learned: This counterproposal intends to serve as guide for proper sustainable development around Bath, and, more generally, as a model for growth in historically sensitive contexts. The challenge of this project was to convincingly adapt traditional urban and architectural types for a contemporary lifestyle on a site adjacent to, but just beyond Bath’s designated conservation area. The unfortunate status of this central site has permitted the projection of a number of radical proposals that fail to recognize the viability of the established historic patterns, and threaten to disfigure one of Europe’s most celebrated cityscapes. In Bath we discovered that some of the best aspects of American urbanism are owed to innovations introduced by the Georgian city, most important of which is the H-shaped terrace block, with row houses (terraces), and internalized alleys (mews), carriage houses and gardens. We also came to appreciate that what makes Bath and other surviving Georgian cities and neighborhoods so successful in their adaptation to a modern lifestyle is the simplicity, repetitive nature, and flexibility of the basic urban unit, the terrace house. Of all the obstacles that we confronted, most daunting were the complex local politics, which in Bath have been shaped by a bewildering variety of interest groups. We learned the importance of engaging all sides of the political spectrum without compromising our ideas, and found that our popularity was enhanced when we emphasized the grounding of our approach in universally acceptable humanist principles. In our final public presentation we sought to communicate to representatives of the professional mainstream our belief that the love nurtured by locals for their historic city is not naïve or grounded in nostalgia; rather, it is founded on a recognition of the continuing relevance, adaptability and sustainability of the traditional types that they inhabit, even in the context of a modern global economy. The team appreciated its unique opportunity to introduce the Charter principles to an embattled historic European city. We were able to outline these points in a number of well-received public presentations, the final one of which was attended by the mayor of Bath and other local public officials. The audience welcomed our ideas all the more positively because of our status as politically disengaged ‘outsiders’.

Transect Zone(s): T3 sub-urban, T4 general.
Status: Proposed
Project or Plan's Scale: Neighborhood
Land area (in acres): 33
Total built area (in sq. ft.):
Total project cost (in local currency):
Retail area (in sq. ft.):
Office area (in sq. ft.):
Industrial area (in sq. ft.):
Number of hotel units:
Number of residential units (include live/work): 4505
Civic uses (type and size): Library (4,578 sf.), post office, war memorial & museum, boathouse, fire station, belvedere, hotel, concert hall (31,143 sf.), community building (9,453 sf.), primary school & iconic bridge.
Parks & green space (in acres): 253677
Residential types: Townhouse/rowhouse/maisonette, Semi-detached.
Project team designers: Bath Summer Studio 2009, Notre Dame School of Architecture (Danny Aijian, Kalinda Brown, Iva Dokonal, Professor Richard Economakis, Aaron Helfand, Bradford Houston, Emily Jaquay, Cindy Michel, Amanda Miller, Profesor Samantha L. Salden, Aimee Sunny, Clayton Vance)
Project team developers: Bath Heritage Watchdog, The Bath Society, Bath Preservation Trust

Previous site status:

Starting/Ending date of construction/implementation: -