Edge Conditions: Zones Where Intrigue Happens

dairy block
The Dairy Block, where people use the whole street all day and trucks use it at night. Courtesy Frank Ooms


When was the last time you noticed the sun in the middle of the day? How about at the edge of the day? At sunset we notice. We are drawn to the magnificence of the orange orb of the sun dipping behind the mountains as it paints the horizon with color. The middle of the sky, the middle of the ocean, the middle of pretty much any place can be a metaphor for the mundane, the boring. By contrast, it is the horizon – the connection point – that draws interest and holds our attention. In architecture and urban planning, we experience the same phenomenon: The middle of the wall is bland, but where it meets the window, or the ground or the roof becomes interesting; it defines how we see the space. We often refer to these junctions, both physical and philosophical, as edge conditions.

andre baros

Andre LH Baros, AIA
Architect, Shears Adkins Rockmore

Edge conditions are the boundary zones where most of what intrigues us happens; the beaches, the sunsets, of architecture. Like waves on a shoreline, the edge conditions ebb and flow and are in constant states of change; existing as neither land nor water, they are both and neither. The edge conditions of cities wander, change and move, attracting people to them. They exist at different scales and even different times. They provoke discussion because, by their very nature, they are not us-and-them but we; they are not either-or but together; they are not black or white, or even grey, but black and white.

Consider the ubiquitous curb, the boundary between pedestrian and vehicular space, which is defined by a 6-inch step and, frequently, by a row of cars. This space, extending from the face of buildings to the face of traffic, is rife with overlap; it is for driving and parking, for cars and people, for casual use and commercial use. The margin of one bleeds into another. Our private cars and trucks park, for hours at time, on the public street, at the curb’s edge. We chain our private bicycles to public signposts and park our rented scooters on public sidewalks. The definition of vehicular space blurs; philosophical and aesthetic arguments ensue based on the currently privileged position of cars; what it means to share the road and where to store our machines of movement.

Much like the fight between horses and driverless carriages a century ago, we could choose the vehicle that leaves a smaller footprint of vehicular litter on our streets and move on, but no, we are attached to our routines, to our things, to how we are used to doing what we do. Instead, let us consider a temporal solution, a completely different vision of the future already present in Denver: Dairy Block, on the corner of 18th and Blake. This is a small experiment in scheduling cars and trucks out of the way. Simply stated, this is a place where people use the whole street all day and trucks use it at night; it is an edge condition that transitions by design.

In a city full of new and wonderful buildings, Dairy Block stands out as one of the most beautiful new spaces in town. It offers office, hotel, dining, drinking and art in a neighborhood that already celebrates all of those. However, instead of conforming to the status quo, Dairy Block creates a whole new edge condition. The alley, which cuts through the block, was transformed from a purely utilitarian space of trash and traffic, to a human-scaled and human-centric space, more commonly associated with towns built before the automobile. It offers a model for how we might design and plan for edge conditions like it in the future.

Dairy Block eschews the idea of people and cars sharing the road; it simply offers them each their own time. During open hours, the alley welcomes pedestrians, and during closed hours, the alley is open to service vehicles. Although the full development is not yet open and there remain many lessons to learn, this little experiment offers a glimpse into the future.

The solution at Dairy Block is just a beginning. The main, street-facing facades are still littered with cars (and on most days, bikes and scooters, too). The “innovation” is really only relevant to a young city like Denver, which was built after the automobile. It would not even garner a shrug in any of the timeworn cities of Europe, Asia or Africa. However, that does not diminish its impact, or the experience of the space. If you have not yet visited, take a moment to check it out – and walk there.

Just 10 or 20 years ago, the architectural discourse on suburbia as an edge to the city proposed solutions and provoked ideas, which are transforming suburban areas into satellite urban areas today; their edge conditions have changed from their initial purpose. As we contemplate the challenges in our city and imagine where we want to go, we must consider how to transform or uniquely utilize the edge conditions we notice. How can take advantage of the edges and form them; make them fluid? Go back to that curb. Does it have to be just a delineator between a parking spot and a sidewalk? How can we begin to make bold, architectural design to address traffic congestion, and long rows of metal littering our streets? We could add more and different types of vehicles: bicycles, scooters, flying carpets … Alternately, we could think about utilizing edge conditions in a new way, experimenting with how we live and move about our city; finding the sunset or beach in the unassuming edge.

Published in the December 2018 issue of Building Dialogue.

Edited by Building Dialogue