To guide or not to guide?

“A construction shot from the new Coda Cherry Creek Apartments. Cherry Creek North has some of city’s strictest design rules, and they work, designers and developers say. (Seth McConnell, Denver Post file)”

Above is a photograph of construction under way for apartments in the Cherry Creek North district of Denver. Is the glass-and-steel structure to the right part of the project or does it just abut the project? Either way, it casts considerable doubt on the allegedly strict design rules involved and, even more, on whether they “work.”

The Denver Post’s fine-arts critic, Ray Mark Rinaldi, in his article “Would design rules create a better-looking city?,” collects a host of reasonable opinions about the merits and demerits of design review, whose influence seems to be growing in Denver. There is little in here that an advocate of beautiful cities could disagree with.

Nearly everyone has concerns that regulations could limit property rights and increase bureaucracy, that they put too much power in the hands of neighborhood associations and NIMBY activists who could dominate the process, that it’s impossible to agree on aesthetic choices.

Yet nearly everyone backs them, especially now in Denver, where the construction boom is on and the consensus is that a lot of buildings are going up that disrespect the character of their surroundings and harm the city’s image as a capital of progressive, Western living. Ugly might be hard to define, but there is widespread agreement that it’s on the rise.

Those two paragraphs reflect the wide parameters of the debate over design review. The author seems to approve of it, within reason. But one gets the feeling that the guidelines already in operation or likely to emerge are highly unlikely to rein in the runaway ugliness that most citizens seem to agree is threatening Denver’s beauty.

Design review is likely to make it harder for developers to get away with cheesy buildings made of el-cheapo, off-the-rack materials. And that is good. It also offers a forum to those who want to rally against ugliness, if they can be so bold as to identify it. But design review is unlikely to stand successfully athwart the trend toward ugliness, largely because of the sentiment that, as Rinaldi puts it, “ugliness may be hard to define.”

How did the world’s most beautiful and beloved cities manage to get built without the sort of design review we see today? London, Paris, Rome, Washington, even New York, which was once considered a beautiful city, were built during a long period when the need to define ugliness was not recognized because building and design practices made beauty so easy. Those who monitored civic design did not have to fight today’s style wars.

I’m not saying that great beauty was easy to create but that minor beauty was a predictable product of longstanding practice in architecture and city planning. (And don’t say that’s because it was all about kings building what they wanted. Not so!) It is only since beauty was thrown out of the architect’s toolkit and replaced by novelty that everyday people began to worry that whenever anything was torn down, something worse would replace it. That was a new form of fear, and it gave rise to a new movement – preservation (which was transformed from its roots as an antiquarian concern driven mainly by history, not beauty).

Closing in on a century of architecture since the onset of modernism, we find that cities no longer know how to do beauty. People do not know what beauty is – at least educated people in position to influence design decisions do not. No cities have leading citizens prepared to stand up and insist that the old ways of creating civic beauty were good and should be allowed today. Even Paris now lacks leaders willing to express such a vision. (Fortunately, there’s too much beauty in Paris to be altered significantly in the life spans of the people who don’t care about beauty, such as its current mayor.)

The problem throughout much of Denver, including some of its most central and notable districts, is that a largely deplorable context, created by a half-century of development, will be used to set the guidelines for the guidelines of design review. They will be implemented by professionals who have little knowledge of or care for beauty. The blind will lead the blind. Instead of design reviewers leading Denver out of the hodgepodge of its character, the growing ranks of design review are likely to fuel the alienation of average citizens by continuing the hodgepodgization of Denver.

So, with regret, and in spite of the oh-so-reasonable sentiments expressed about design review in Rinaldi’s article, I see little hope for Denver. I see less hope for cities with less beauty to build upon than Denver. I see hope only for cities with lots of beauty to build on – such as Boston, Providence and Charleston – and even that hope is slender. In those cities, design remains the purview of an educated class that has “educated” its own appreciation for beauty out of its hearts and minds. They, along with developers and civic leaders of no vision, have led the way for the erosion of beauty in even the most beautiful cities, and will continue to do so. Sad but true, alas.

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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2 Responses to To guide or not to guide?

  1. Elaine, Santa Fe does not look like a Hollywood set. It looks like a place whose development has been defined by strict guidelines designed to strengthen its pre-existing character – either that or it has had the benefit of civic leaders determined not to let modernity ruin Santa Fe’s beauty. Some of the newer Pueblo-style architecture is better, others worse. It is not a “Disney set.” That phrase is a code word used by modernists to poison the minds of regular people who might otherwise like a place that has somehow managed to protect its character.

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  2. echaika says:

    I’m sending this to friend in Denver. He used to live in Santa Fe, and I visited him there. The whole city looks like a Disney set. He finds Colorado preferable. Meanly experience there has been in the National Park and the mountain roads. We went in our school bus camper to Co. in 1971, but didn’t do cities. We went from RI to CA with 4 kids. It was a trip we all remembered.

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