To the extent that the debate over the Harborcorp Project has been characterized as polarized - as those who are for or against it, or, as that small vocal minority of old people who are against it, and standing in the way of progress that the multitudes of young people are representing - community has been undermined. False extremes have been evoked. And the danger of this is that good solutions can then go ignored. The Portsmouth residents who have come to City Hall over the past year or written letters to the City Council, City Manager and land use boards to debate the Harborcorp development plans, have put forward proposals to moderate the building. Not to stop it.
Community is the embodiment of meaningful relationship. This is describing something deep. But one of the implications, when considering largescale developments, is that a bricks and mortar, or steel girder and concrete structure, is more than just a building. It is - or will be - an expression of certain values and qualities. And when it is a public building, particularly when it is in or closeby a small town’s center, it must embody the values and qualities that enhance community. Otherwise, it will undermine them.
Proportion and perspective, for instance, are qualities that require the meaningful relationship between parts. Interestingly, these qualities are both moral and visual. People often think and act in ways that lack proportion and perspective. But proportion and perspective are also elements needed to make designs aesthetic, which means they give us a sense of relatedness to them. We respond visually to the proportions encoded in the golden mean because the same proportions govern the growth patterns of nature, including the design of our bodies. The proportion of our forearm to our upper arm, the spacing of our facial features are expressions of the Phi ratio. This is why most of us prefer to walk through woodland or down the nave of a great cathedral than across parking lots and strip malls. Golden rectangles inform the facade of buildings as varied as the Parthenon of Athens, Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the UN building in New York. Architects ancient and modern knew that these proportions embody a subliminal message about harmony, connecting us to the reason why they were built in the first place. In this sense the phrase ‘human scale’ as specified in Portsmouth’s Master Plan means buildings that embody the qualities of meaningful relatedness. Of community.
Basically myself and others have asked, not only in presentations before and letters to the City, but also in meetings with Chris Thompson, Harborcorp’s co-investor and public face, and members of his team: why not break the building up? Why not vary the height?
Why did we make these suggestions? Because the current plan for Harborcorp comprises one solid block: 650 feet at the back, 780 feet at the front, extending the full lengths of both Deer and Russell Streets. The entire structure is an unbroken average height of 60 feet. At the back, the building would tower more like 75 feet over the flat of Maplewood Avenue, because the land slopes up and the building is raised four to five feet above the railway tracks.
Not many people have seen the view of the building’s backside from a pedestrian perspective. This is because the City’s 3D computer modeling system is clunky to use, and mostly generates images from a helicopter viewpoint. Harborcorp have preferred to emphasize the building’s front, where in one or two sections the roofline is ‘stepped back’ to give the illusion of a lower height. The sheer overwhelming mass of the building has in fact become the proverbial elephant in the room that no one talks about. The land use boards and the City Council have for the most part, managed to ignore it.
So what are the objections to this mass? Let’s get back to community and the meaningful relationship between parts. Does the mass of this building have a meaningful relationship to the rest of the town? The building is 50 % larger than Portwalk III. It is larger than any other building in the center part of town. The UN building is very large and very tall. But then, it’s set against skyscrapers and dedicated to uniting the nations of the world! Therefore its size is in keeping with both its context and its purpose. Harborcorp will be dedicated to conferences, tourism and grocery shopping. So its size as the largest building ever proposed for Portsmouth is out of proportion to its civic meaning and its context.
If one walks 650 feet (the same length as Harborcorp’s back) along Congress Street from Popovers to Radicci, one passes 11 genuinely separate buildings, 21 stores and crosses two streets and two alleyways. Harborcorp is one whole block, with no thoroughfares, (except a tunnel, for traffic and pedestrians that leads to the narrow service road at the back, closeby to the entrance for tractor trailers, box trucks and cars entering the underground parking area). It creates no pedestrian access potential over the railway from Vaughan Street into the downtown. Therefore, its design is not related to the nature of the downtown, nor connected to the North End. From behind, the Harborcorp building will block any remaining view of North Church’s spire, the symbolic and literal center of the town. Physically and visually, it will lack perspective, walling off the North End neighborhoods from downtown. It turns it’s back (literally and figuratively) on the cemetery where the Signee of the Declaration of Independence is buried; on Maplewood Avenue, a major gateway into town; on the historic Christian Shore district; on residents and businesses. None of this embodies community and meaningful connection between parts.
The main elements of the Harborcorp project comprise a luxury hotel, 23 (for now, the numbers fluctuate) luxury condos; conference center with a maximum capacity of 1200 people; 40,000 square foot Whole Foods Market and cafe; and 523 car parking spaces (these are mostly accounted for, and will not be enough to accommodate most conferences; in fact both parking and traffic are also problematic issues). All housed in one monolithic structure, and disguised by differing facade treatments to look like eight different buildings. There are issues I could raise here, about whether more luxury condos, a luxury hotel and a vast conference center will enhance our community. As opposed, for instance, to building affordable housing, small business units, a covered market, common spaces with fountains and parkland. But that would reach beyond the current realities and how to make the best of them.
So let’s get back to architecture for a moment. Good architecture means that the building’s design and its purpose - form and content - are integrated. The building is what it is, it is authentic. It is not fake. It is not pretending to be something else. The appearance of the Harborcorp building, and its actual function, are not integrated. Instead it is an amorphous behemoth with fancy camouflage. Facade treatments are essentially decorative. They are not the same as the skill of integrating design and function into an innovative and visually inspiring structure. They are not the same as the meaningful relationship between parts.
But should we expect good, or even great, architecture for the North End? Is that realistic? After all, the land use boards signed off on Portwalk III whose blueprints rolled out of some corporate default formula for airport hotels. Certainly Harborcorp’s facade looks classy in comparison. But then anything would. Which is no reason to forget about the mass or not ask for a building that fuses function with form.
Should all new development be a Disney version of Portsmouth’s former self? Fake Colonial or 19th century buildings? No. Meaningful relationship does not mean the same as before. Think of the counterpoint between the 17th century grey stone facade of the Louvres, pedimented and pilastered, and the stark modern yet ancient shape of the glass pyramid placed over its new entrance in 1993. These two structures, utterly different in design, enhance one another by their differences.
Chris Thompson is not, apparently, short on vision. On Portland Maine’s waterfront, in addition to a hotel and ‘event center’, he’s building a circus school and open air performance space. This sounds a lot of fun. Moreover, in a recent ‘Mainebiz’ article about his approach he says: “There’s no fooling people. Either it feels like a real place, or it doesn’t... It’s about creating those spaces we’ve all experienced where you imagine chapters in your life beginning and ending and opening into new ones.” I agree!
We love Portsmouth because it is a ‘real place’; and because its quirky buildings and alleyways, its vistas and views (what’s left of them) open imaginative doors for us. We cannot afford to lose that. So how about making Harborcorp a ‘real place’?! So how about making Harborcorp a ‘real place’?! Forge the elements into three real buildings. Breaking it up can increase variability in height - more pleasing to the eye; and create pedestrian access from Vaughan, specified by the Master Plan. This would be a place that enhances the businesses of downtown Portsmouth and opens pathways to the North End, promoting that most valuable quality of all for a town’s wellbeing - community. This would be a development that doesn’t have to pretend it’s something else. This would be a development that could cover itself in mirror glass and declare itself to the reflections of the life around it!
I believe the fostering of ‘real places’, of community, of small towns with overlapping centers of cultural and social life are greenhouses for growing a culture of tolerance and moderation. They help counterbalance the extreme polarization of bi-partisan gridlock that is undermining democracy, aided and abetted by the lobbying power of Super PACs. Currently Portsmouth is such a place, with a functioning and coherent town center, cafes, restaurants, benches on the streets, parks, where people meet, talk, look at one another. And it also still has a relatively complex mix of residents in terms of income, background and age. Let us be very careful not to destroy this eco-system of community which is the fundamental engine of the town’s prosperity. It is why people want to live here, and why developers want to develop here!