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Turning The Civic Center Inside-Out

May 29, 2005

I like to take noontime walks around the (old) Civic Center block, especially now that we're enjoying spring weather. It's a frenetic construction site, even more so now that it's warmer. I'll stop at a certain vantage point and have a long look, trying to figure out a particular piece of this building puzzle, and how it all fits together. Usually there are other equally curious observers craning their necks. From the comments offered and exchanged, my survey tells me that public opinion is pretty evenly split: some like what they see, some can't stand it, and many are just fascinated, scratching their heads trying to figure out what it's all about.

The figuring out part is really fun. There is definitely a method to this madness. First there was the demolition to strip the three-story concrete wrap around the coliseum down to floor slabs and structure. This work proceeded down Trumbull Street, then skipped around the corner and continued down Asylum Street.

Meanwhile, at the corner of Trumbull and Asylum, heavy demolition started as the crews carved out the footprint for the new residential tower. As the demolition proceeded, steel framing and clips were added to the façade to hold the new storefront and curtain wall sections that were unloaded in long, pre-assembled sections. This new façade was different. It wasn't brick, and it wasn't flat. It was made of warped panels that curved away from the building. The windows were randomly placed, and trapezoidal. When they pulled off the green protective paper, the entire façade was as shiny as the aluminum on an airplane fuselage.

Shocking? Maybe, but does every Hartford building need be red brick and have a gabled roof that tries, usually badly, to hearken back to Hartford's gilded age? Hey, aren't we trying to be New England's Rising Star, looking to the future? How about some good contemporary design, which I think this is, even if it is a bit edgy by Hartford standards.

But as if to appease those brick lovers, a protective curtain was pulled down in late March, and all of a sudden a 150-foot-long brick section of brownish-red brick façade appeared along Asylum Street. It framed sections of glass at street level, which will be new retail storefronts that open directly to Asylum Street. Someone's listening to Ken Greenberg.

The next walk about revealed huge steel columns and beams coming out of the ground at the corner of Trumbull and Asylum. Each week they grow by a floor or two, and they now must be 10 stories out of the ground. Why are the columns and beams so massive? Well, they are going to support a very tall building, a 36-story residential tower.

On the back side of the Civic Center along Ann Street, great long sections of steel frames filled with wire mesh arrived on the site. They were lifted and bolted into place, creating an exterior screen wall for three stories of parking above grade. From Asylum Street, this parking is thoughtfully set back, giving the street-level retail space visual prominence.

It's a great show and one that we'll be able to enjoy for another year until it's complete. But, more important, it's a big show for Hartford.

In fact, this is the Big Show! More so, perhaps, than the new convention center, this project is likely to tell us whether Hartford is ready to act like a real city. This is truly an urban building. Credit CBT Architects of Boston for literally turning the mall inside out, and, in so doing, enlivening Trumbull and Asylum streets. The tower, with 262 residences, is the first new high-rise apartment building in downtown Hartford since Bushnell Tower over 35 years ago. Credit the developer, Northland Investment Corp., also of Boston, for believing that Hartford is ready to live up to the name they've given this project, Hartford 21. It would be fitting, rather than having a ribbon- cutting when Hartford 21 opens in 2006, that we have a payloader knock out the lone column that so tenuously supports the skywalk spenning Asylum Street. Let it crash to the ground, as a fitting declaration that Hartford is ready to act and function like a true urban center, with lots of street life and thousands of new downtown residents.

Tyler Smith is a Hartford architect and a member of the Place board of contributors.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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