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Context Visualized

“Contextual” is the second[efn_note]The first is “crystalline” used to describe buildings with glass curtain walls. They don’t look like crystals, no one actually thinks they look like crystals, and no one – with a few disturbing exceptions – wants to live or work inside a crystal.[/efn_note]-most abused word in architectural[efn_note]Most of the time, I hear the word abused by realtors, not architects. But they learned it from over-blown architectural descriptions.[/efn_note] descriptions. “Contextual” doesn’t mean two things are next to each other. There are any number of places in Manhattan where a high-rise on an avenue abuts rowhouses on the neighboring side streets. The houses may be the context for the high-rise but that doesn’t make the high-rise’s design contextual because there’e little to no architectural relationship between the houses and the high-rise.

The picture above, from Hoboken, shows what contextual design actually looks like. The building in the middle (with the Shake Shack) is fairly new and is abutting a late-1800s tenement on the left and a circa-1900 bank (now a drug store) on the right. The new building almost exactly matches the cornice height of the tenement and has a facade of stone (or maybe imitation) that pretty closely matches the limestone pattern the bank. The new building has a slenderness of about one – it’s more or less as high as it is wide – like both of its neighbors. The continuous spandrel above the storefront of the new building matches the height of the water-table above the tenement’s storefront and the top of the main entry door at the bank. Even though that’s a purely modern facade, it picks up geometric cues from its context so it looks like it belongs.

I don’t think this is great architecture and I’m not even sure its designers aspired to great architecture. It’s a small mixed-use building on a busy street and I have my doubts about how much passers-by look at the facade. But it fits, which is the whole point. It’s great contextual design.