Growing dull in Denver

Not all is lost, as shown in photo by Aaron Acker of an HVAC fire in downtown Denver. (thedenverchannel.com)

Though clearly much of it is, not all is lost in downtown Denver, as shown in this interesting photo by Aaron Acker of an HVAC fire. (thedenverchannel.com)

I clicked with no small degree of excitement on ArchNewsNow.com, the piece by a Denver architect about insipidity in the Mile-High City. “Denver Is a Great City, So Why the Bad Buildings?” asks Jeffrey Sheppard. Denver is experiencing the sort of downtown residential boom that Providence and many other cities have long dreamed of. But Sheppard detects a problem that has not been discussed.

As downtown Denver has become increasingly densified with block after block of repetitive five-story, stick-framed rental apartments stacked on top of (or connected to) massive concrete parking structures, banality has begun to quietly replace the well-designed historic buildings that once populated our urban core. Meaningless, uninspiring structures that feature mere surface variation rather than genuine innovation seem to be the zeitgeist of the day.

BIG's Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen. (criticundertheinfluence.wordpress.com)

BIG’s Mountain Dwellings in Copenhagen. (criticundertheinfluence.wordpress.com)

Armstrong Senior Housing, in San Francisco. (David Baker Architects)

Armstrong Senior Housing, in San Francisco. (David Baker Architects)

Housing terraces in Seoul. (metropolismag.com)

Housing terraces in Seoul. (metropolismag.com)

But then he calls for precisely what he deplores – “meaningless, uninspiring structures that feature mere surface variation rather than genuine innovation.”

I should have paid greater attention to the last words, “genuine innovation.” Sheppard’s idea of genuine innovation is pure cliché. Real creativity in this age of monotonous novelty would have inclined Sheppard to ask what is wrong with the “well-designed historic buildings that once populated our urban core.” Instead, he calls for more goofball chic, not mere surface variation but genuinely cockamamie efforts to stack living spaces in ways that may or may not be useful or convenient to residents, let alone beautiful, but which deploy living spaces in alpine clusters or other inventive massing that’s never been tried before.

A call for more buildings by the likes of Bjarke-Ingalls Group (BIG) tells the tale.

They may not be repetitive, but they are banal. Obviously beauty is not what’s bringing new residents into downtown Denver – which, as Sheppard seems to realize – lost much of its beauty long ago. But what he’s calling for is not going to bring it back.

Providence has edged closer to going all-in on ugliness as an urban design strategy, to judge by the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission’s “Developers Toolkit.” If you’re Denver, maybe you can get people to want to live amid such crap. Let’s see if our almost full slate of new 195 commissioners appointed by Rhode Island’s new governor buys into that. I hope not.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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6 Responses to Growing dull in Denver

  1. Pingback: Crank up the cliche machine | Architecture Here and There

  2. David:
    I think you might want to re read the op ed piece I wrote and focus in on the real issues brought forward versus your own agenda. Consider these points:
    – Lack of ownership resulting in non vested interest in ones community ( an issue local to Denver is the problem of an overbuilt rental apartment situation due to an unfortunate Condominium Construction Defects Law that essentially has stopped all new condo construction). Developers are quickly and cheaply building since choice is now extremely limited. This notion of transient renters occupying most of the downtown core has not even been considered by our local agencies thus the specific points made regarding permanence and ‘ownership’ relative to the viability and longevity of the city’s core. )
    – Banality relative to meaningless surface variation – The examples shown actually all deal with vertically integrated social structures and creative ideas relative to volumetric interplay to achieve daylight, added outdoor space, private and semi private space, as well as flexible opportunities for dealing with a variety of demographic and family structures. By focusing in on the fact that the examples shown do in fact also have surface variation you only strengthen my point that solutions can be layered with meaning beyond their outward surface.
    – The increased density that is allowed cannot be housed within the 1 story ‘ well designed historic buildings’ you refer to. And since many of these sites that are being redeveloped contained 1 story warehouses or surface parking lots your argument is based on fiction.

    If you have the opportunity to visit, take a look at our uninspired apartment growth and let me know what you think. If this is the best we can do it does not say much for our city planners, governmental agencies, developers or architects, thus the impetus for the editorial.

    I look forward to your future posts and hope you take the time to research the condition you are criticising thereby adding relevance to your comments.

    Jeff Sheppard, AIA
    Roth Sheppard Architects, Denver, Co

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    • Jeff, I very much appreciate your reading my post and reacting to it so thoughtfully. You make valid points. The problems you cite are very important. But I must maintain my right to use your thinking and your writing and your situation in Denver to address my agenda. Your agenda is vital to you and my agenda is vital to me. I do not have the right to misstate your thoughts to promote my agenda but I do have a right to use them, accurately, to promote my own agenda. I don’t think I have misstated anything you have said, I have merely ignored part of it as unrelated to my agenda. We might dispute the validity of my interpretation of your article’s application to my agenda. My knowledge of the situation in Denver is not as comprehensive as your own, obviously. I certainly don’t disagree with your opinion of the new architecture that Denver is getting. But you have cited the work of architects like BIG as possibly helping to address some of Denver’s problems. I disagree, and believe that BIG and its ilk can only make Denver’s larger problems worse. I am not suggesting that Denver must keep the one-story buildings that cannot accommodate its population growth. I’m only suggesting that Denver can and should encourage bigger buildings, new traditionally styled ones that could be much more beautiful and hence helpful for making the city a more lovable, livable place. This argument is broader and deeper than Denver or Providence, at least that is what I believe. In any event, it is unfair to suggest that I must write about your agenda rather than my own. That is what we do as writers – we address the agendas we feel are important. You have helped me to address my agenda, and I thank you for that. I appreciate your thoughts and hope you will continue to read my blog. – David

      Like

      • David: I appreciate your comments yet I sense that your argument boils down to style versus content. With such a myopic viewpoint I believe you are not doing justice to the multitude of successful planning and multifamily projects that exhibit an appropriate expression of our time while also creating inspired and diverse living conditions. Many of these projects exhibit principles that are addressed in the circa 1970’s book by Christopher Alexander titled, A Pattern Language, and are quite valid today. What is most interesting about the book is that it does not delve into style, instead it describes principles/ ‘patterns’ that, when properly employed, lead to spaces and buildings that are memorable, inspirational, functional and contextually appropriate. I believe the projects mentioned in my op ed piece utilize these patterns while not resorting to the veiled thinness of a falsely duplicated history.

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  3. Raymond Finelli says:

    Great article, David. I agree. I have always contended that when innovation becomes more evident than quality, both art and creativity are lost.
    Raymond Finelli

    Like

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