Fantastically Ordinary: Triple Decker Mash-up Urbanism

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Fantastically Ordinary: Triple Decker Mash-up Urbanism

Andrew Bako, Claire Djang, and Alexandru Vilcu


Looking to the image, form, and early economic model of the ordinary triple decker, this urban proposal is permeated by a new composite housing type that integrates domesticity with entrepreneurship. In this new vision for a residential neighbourhood, the landlord and tenant residents of a neighbourhood have the  opportunity to interact with, and even double as, micro-business owners and shoppers.


The site strategy orients original triple decker housing units to the main arteries of the neighbourhood and extends them from an ordered street wall to an unpredictable mash-up. The resulting intersections of triple-deckers are vertically extruded to accommodate small businesses. This intersection is both commercial and public space: an extension of the home to create a public living room. The versatility of the triple decker intersection allows for variable programs and fluid relationships between commercial and domestic spaces through a programmed party-wall. The kitchen in an individual housing unit serves as a threshold to the oyster bar, just as the vintage store owner’s closet transitions between public store and private apartment.


An infinite pedestrian milieu anticipates the mall-like experience of visitors as they move through the linkages between open to semi-public to commercial spaces. A streetscape of constant discovery in which one building appears to complete the other. Vehicular traffic is restricted to the perimeter of the site. To support the illusion of the fantastic mall, an underground triple decker of back-of-house infrastructure includes a separate floor for delivery, garbage, and parking. Despite the seemingly scattered appearance of buildings above ground, the rationality of the parking plan below reveals a hidden organization.

Colour and surface are animated as new wayfinding devices, replacing the Cartesian street grid with a new graphic navigational system. The normal map is applied to building faces so that each of eight principal directions of the urban plan has a unique colour. Additionally, the ubiquitous patterns of the AutoCAD hatch, translated as three-dimensional façade appliqué, are used to create graphic identities around themed public spaces within the site. The combination of colour and pattern determine a building’s specific address.


While the building design is inspired by the vernacular, the public spaces of the site also borrow from local, ordinary references. Recognizable tourist attractions in Boston are compressed between the fault lines of the parcels. The mini Harvard Yard is next to Haymarket, and Salem Cemetery is next to Boston Harbour. Paired with their corresponding patterns, these spaces form community and identity within the neighbourhood at the scale of the block. For the visitor, the neighbourhood provides as much potential for discovery in exterior as well as the interior conditions.




Who influences you graphically?

Our graphic sensibilities were not a direct reference to any specific precedents. Our instructor, Jennifer Bonner, gave us agency to explore a method of image production that enabled our design process. Working with the GIF forced us to create a serial process by which to produce our representation of the project. For example, the renderings that we produced would undergo scripted post-processing to achieve the final images that eventually became GIFs. In retrospect, we think our methods could relate to artists such as Sol LeWitt, in which the final work of art is contained in a carefully composed sequence of steps. We also looked at GIF artists, such as RRRRRRRROLL, to study the potential of the medium.

What defined the graphic language of the proposal?

For this project, we were interested in the dichotomy between a fantastical aesthetic for the spaces which would be utilized by the public, and a more traditional, black and white representational technique for the back-of-house spaces within our proposal. This sensibility developed as a result of using Disney World as a precedent for our scheme. In both the theme park and in our plan, an unseen underground network of infrastructure enables the fantastical spaces above it. As a result, we were interested in differentiating between the back-of-house infrastructure and fantastical urbanism through a stark contrast in representational modes.


This distinction between front-of-house and back-of-house also ties into the way in which we wanted to distinguish between residential and commercial spaces at the scale of the individual building. We were interested in the idea of the ‘programmed party wall’, and thought of the residential unit as back-of-house to adjacent commercial spaces. In order to represent this graphically, we populated our orthographic projections in only the areas that would be experienced by the public, and left the residential units bare.

What is your take on colour?

Our attitude towards color has transformed with the project. In some of our earlier conceptual models, we carefully chose six distinct colors taken from actual triple deckers observed in the Boston area. We wanted the palette to be directly drawn from this idea of the ordinary, and we began to see how it could represent a sense of identity for a single building surrounded by similar forms. That idea of identity, and the use of distinct colors, carried through to our final models.

For our drawings and animated GIFs, we discovered that we wanted to explore a more continuous blend that could better evoke other aspects of our project. Directionality and orientation were always important concepts for us. As we began to associate color with direction, we used the normal map as a basis for applying our original colors to wall surfaces in a gradient. We adjusted these colors, making them much brighter, in order to play up the fantastically ordinary space.


How does the animated gif compare to the static image?

The GIF is like a collage of still images that are combined together using time as a new dimension or medium. In fact there is a lot to consider in terms of how many frames, what fraction of a second each frame should be displayed, how it should loop, what should remain still, whether to make it smoother or more flashy. Not only can GIFs be made a beautiful form of representation, but they can directly influence the architectural project as a device for conceptualizing new ideas. The idea of the lenticular image was what first challenged us to literally create a sort of lenticular architecture.

For us, there was usually a type of movement or transformation recorded and evoked by the GIF. As we explored techniques for three-dimensional surface treatment, the GIF became a way of linking that technique with color and the normal map. To the outside observer, perhaps the animation only hints at our techniques, but for us it was another way of conceptualizing and understanding it. Rotational movement was another theme we played with a lot in our GIFs. Seeing something from all angles in this sequential, looping way is just not attainable in a static image.


What role does the model play within the exploration and representation of the proposal?

The model became a medium to explore how navigation and codification of place could occur on one urban block of the proposal. We assigned a colour to each of eight directions that exist in the project, so as the model is turned, it changes colour. We speculated on the idea that Google Maps could dictate to “walk in the Orange direction for five facades and then turn towards Pink” rather than the conventional experience using today’s technology. To design a method of place-making, we introduced a second layer to the facade using the ubiquitous AutoCAD hatch. Each hatch is used to describe one public space; the miniature Harvard Yard, for example, is codified using the Square hatch, and each facade that faces this public space shares the same Square hatch, yet rendered on different colours due to the orientations of the facades.


The result was ultimately a model that represents both a method of navigation and a method of reinterpreting what an address could be in a plan that is not a conventional grid; a colour and a hatch rather than a number and a name; Square Bazooka Joe Pink rather than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The golden figures in each public space were added to further give identity to each place as a sample of typical Boston tourist destinations, as inspired by the shopping mall and the theme park. In the end, the colour, the hatch, and the golden figures each contributed to our attempt of rationalizing what appears at first glance to be an irrational plan. We propose a way in which the infamous “scatter plan” can be taken seriously.



Andrew Bako, Claire Djang, and Alexandru Vilcu are currently pursuing their Master of Architecture at the Harvard GSD. Fantastically Ordinary: Triple Decker Mash-Up was made as a collaboration among the three to complete the fourth semester studio. Andrew Bako finished his Bachelor of Architectural Studies at the Carleton University Azrieli School of Architecture in Ottawa, Canada. Claire Djang holds a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics from Oberlin College in Ohio, USA. Alexandru Vilcu completed his Bachelor of Architectural Studies at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture in Cambridge, Canada.

Andrew Bako

Claire Djang

Alexandru Vilcu


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