Street media and urban artifacts: façades and maps

During the early 20th century, an insurance company called Sanborn mapped the streets of New York in order to determine propensities for fire. In order to do so they mapped characteristics such as building materials, location of furnaces, number of stories per buildings and other relevant qualities to assess the possibility of disaster Charles Street, according to Sanborn, consisted in brick buildings that were 3-5 stories high on average.

Figure 1: Sanborn Map of Charles Street (horizontal) between Bleeker and Hudson ( vertical) 

The buildings that are present today in Charles Street  are, like the ones mapped by Sanborn in 1907, made of brick. Yet it is a mistake to assume that the same buildings that were present in the early 1900s are the ones present now.

The new buildings in this block were constructed with bricks in order to give a sense of continuity with the older buildings. The architectural language of their design is modern–stylistic elements in the façades of these buildings expose their true age.

The picture of 96 Charles Building (figure 2) is a perfect example of this modern finishing of a “old” bricks. In the picture, we can see how the column that divides rooms (right side) has a series of square designs that are reminiscent of modern buildings. In addition, the division between each floor, the cornice, has a furnishing that is reminiscent of skyscraper buildings. As stated, the medium height of buildings during 1907 was 3-5 stories. Now the medium height was 5-7 stories. Most of these taller buildings had designs that resembled the one found in 96 Charles. A modern version of the Sanborn’s map would have been insufficient to show this type of change, for it has to do with the style of the Garcinia facade.

Figure 2: 96 Charles Street: brick building with modern design elements. (Photo: Alan Grabinsky)

Figure 3  Sanborn Map Key: Standard elements are used to compare building attributes 

Other communicative devices, like temporary props in façades, also escape the Sanborn’s map. Commercial establishments seek to attract potential customers by deploying a diversity of props that change every season. Stores like Rite Aid (figure 4) Hudson and Village Care Center in 116 Charles street use logos and signs to attract customers. Boutique fashion stores like Juicy Couture (figure 4) communicate through posters and designs on the windows, thus catering to a particular crowd. The buildings were these stores are located were not, according to Sanborn, commercial buildings in 1904. This however, does not mean that they where not being used at the time for commercial purposes, we have to take in mind that the Sanborn Company was not interested in the economic nature of a particular lot.

However, even if the new Sanborn’s map could, as in the case of Google Maps, locate the existence of particular stores in the area, it could not communicate with the desired or potential customer in the same way that commercial signals storefront can. A proof of this is the the engraving made by an ironworker on one of the brick buildings (figure 6), Sanborn had mapped the iron framing on this particular building. However the commercial sign left by J. Alexander from Greepoint was not in the map because it was engraved in the built environment.

Figure 4 “Juicy Couture” and Rite Aid Storefront in a Modern Brick Building (Photo: Alan Grabinsky)

Figure 6 “J. Alexander: Greenpoint” Ironworker’s commercial signal on façade (Photo: Alan Grabinsky)

The most interesting communication with the street took place in buildings that kept a similar—although upgraded—function. In these cases, the upgraded function being communicated to the passerby through an equally upgraded type of sign. The police and fire department of 1907 was still there but it was now a bomb squad; this status was displayed through logos found in their parking garage (figure 7) . What was once a stable was now a parking garage, this function was communicated through a neon sign (figure 8).

Figure 7 Old Fire Department shows new function as “Bomb Squad” through logo (Photo: Alan Grabinsky)

Figure 8 Old horse stable shows new function through a GARAGE  neon signal (Photo: Alan Grabinsky)

There seems to be a tension between façades and maps. A map provides a top-down, comparative perspective, the other one is an experiential, embodied relation to the built environment. However, although maps are increasingly mediating our experience with the city, the built environment is still a powerful way to understand the nature of a place.

Nowadays, services such as Google Maps allow us to know the uses of a building without having to be physically present to see the façade. Yet we still rely on cues found on the built environment to understand where we stand. Façades and maps are both designed to communicate function to strangers: maps are portable interfaces with the built environment; façades communicate function to the passerby. They both stem out from this relation to total strangers. This is what makes them urban artifacts.

 Façades are the interfaces between buildings and streets –they are the faces of the buildings, the most expressive qualities of a city block. A façade’s main function is communicative; the “props” that owners display on it are meant to create an impression on the passerby. Contrary to façades, maps are not expressive mediations  between the building and the street. They help us navigate in and through a street—but they provide a view from above. The “key” in a map reduces the uniqueness of buildings into comparable attributes.

When studied together façades and maps can illuminate each other.An analysis of the props found in the façades, when compared with an old block’s map, can be a powerful tool in understanding a block’s past. By doing so we understand that maps can never exhaust the experiential and symbolic quality of the experience of façades. 

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