In Dialogue; Exploring the Evolving Issue (and on-going conversations) of “Quality” Architectural Design & Development in Denver

Whether it’s at the espresso machine or the water cooler, there are a lot of conversations amongst Denver’s professional design community regarding Denver’s rapid development, and the arguably contested design character and quality that has defined many recent additions to Denver’s mixed-use, multi-color, multi-story skyline.

After marinating post water-cooler, these conversations recently became more “public” through the medium of writing. One only needs to look as far as Denver’s major publications to find a series of snarky blog posts regarding Denver’s “worst” buildings, or more studied editorials such as an Op-Ed in the Denver Post by local architect Jeff Sheppard. Most recently, a showcase article in Modern in Denver from Arch 11 claimed that “Modern is Not a Style,” providing an interesting perspective on how and why Denver’s recent “modern homes” do not follow the didactic thinking and principles of the actual modern movement in architecture.

What’s shifted is that these conversations are no longer being relegated to written word and informal conversation. Instead, they are becoming topics for large public forums and community dialogue, ultimately focused on raising awareness and, while vague in its measures of action or implementation, eliciting reactions that might resonate within design and development firms in Denver moving forward.

Just a few weeks ago, the AIA Colorado and ULI Colorado presented a discussion at the Denver Art Museum aptly titled “Denver is Booming: But is Design Quality Keeping Pace?” In the event description, the conversation was posed as a series of questions including, “Are we getting buildings and public spaces worthy of our city and region? Why so many look-a-like stucco buildings?”

A similar discussion related to Arch11’s recent aforementioned article will take place this evening at Modern in Denver’s first “Design Conversations” event, focusing on “Design’s decline in quality.. [this discussion will] explore what it means to be modern in principle…how as a community can we affect change…?”

I was just updated this event has reached full capacity—demonstrating both a need and desire for connection, dialogue, and eventually, measures that might lead to tangible change.

Denver is a city that continuously demonstrates an appreciation and alignment with grassroots, community-based measures geared towards incremental and arguably “positive” change. The current design discussions and red flags Denver’s design, real estate, and urban planning communities have come together to wave are both important and imperative to Denver’s rapidly-evolving landscape.

My hope is that while conversations like these may be important first steps towards creating a collective consciousness and concern regarding relevant issues, we must also address (and answer) the question: What are the steps (and who are the stakeholders) we must engage to actually see progress in improving the quality of architectural design and development in moving Denver forward?

Please feel free to respond to this post as yet another forum for aggregating thoughts related to this topic.

Sustainable Housing & Design in Southwest China


This week’s blog post is a special feature from the Architectural Educational Foundation’s Travel Scholarship Winner, Kevin Yoshida, AIA.

I travelled to China in May 2014 as part of delegation that represented members of the American Institute of Architects, Housing Knowledge Community and the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability.

Our studies were focused in the Yunnan Province in southwest China and delved into the local vernacular of low density building forms rather than the high-rise residential complexes the dominate the headlines about development in the new Chinese economy.

Among the country’s 56 recognized ethnic groups, twenty-five are found in Yunnan.1

The architecture in the town of Xizhou is defined by the courtyard house of the Bai culture. This building form is a manifestation of the rules and etiquette for social interactions, family dynamics and daily life. The courtyards are also responsive to how the household responds to the environment, admitting and reflecting daylight to the appropriate areas of the house as well as shaded during appropriate times.2

These courtyard homes are densely packed to define streets in the neighborhood centers and do not overly interact or activate the public realm. Gateways and walled courtyards create an urban pattern of long streets and alleys with white walls and ink mural. In the less dense parts of town, the courtyard walls often sit directly adjacent to active farming.3

Local architects are adapting local vernacular forms with contemporary construction materials and adapting contemporary floor plans using traditional proportions and detailing, much like the interpretations seen in New Urbanism pattern books in United States.


Inevitable Change


There are numerous blogs, columns, and articles regarding the ins and outs of personal romantic relationships. In recent years, the topic of these articles has shifted from the analog courtship to the nuances of relationships in the digital age.

One of my favorite Sunday columns in the New York Times, for example, “Modern Love,” has featured countless articles about online dating, the ethical dilemmas of being able to google someone prior to a date, and the travails of long distance relationships initiated through an online connection.

Every now and then a Modern Love column gains traction, as the topic strikes a sometimes vulnerable or heartfelt chord with its audience. This happened a few weeks ago, when a writer talked about her experience in being “ghosted,” i.e. the act of being broken up with by one partner simply “disappearing.” Numerous articles in the Times ensued, eliciting people to tell their own “ghosting” stories, and what it means to be entirely non-accountable in the age of social media and the omnipresent access to cell phones.

What is interesting to me is that I’ve rarely seen these columns address the topic of platonic workplace relationships, and the ability for those professional, mentor/mentee, peer-to-peer, and co-worker/friend relationships to evolve and change, or, to be lost or, in a sense, “ghosted” once an individual leaves one workplace for another.

A few months ago, a former colleague and I mused that, when intellectualized, it can seem strange that professionals’ spend the majority of their waking hours with an assortment of co-workers rather than with one’s family and friends. Regardless of how separate one chooses to keep their personal and professional lives, these daily collaborators and like-minded individuals become important voices and interactions in the DNA of our day-to-day, and undeniably play an important role in the fulfilment many people seek by choosing to work in a collaborative office environment.

Having recently switched jobs, I’ve experienced the interesting process of leaving one work environment and daily cast of confidantes and co-workers for an entirely new set of faces. I have not “ghosted” any of my former co-workers by any means, but what is interesting is that in switching workplaces, one must accept that the daily relationships that have been forged by the simple nature of seeming people 8-10 hours a day, 5 days a week will inevitably evolve and change.

While friendships that transcended work have easily translated beyond the structure of “place,” it is interesting that in inviting professional change, we also bring about personal change.

Like most big decisions, the outcomes are varied and nuanced. I would argue that while transitions take time and serve as a healthy and humbling reminder to be patient, a tangible benefit of pursuing new opportunities is the notion that there are new professional relationships to be forged, viewpoints to learn, and processes and related outcomes to explore.


Featured AEF Traveling Scholarship – Luc Bamberger, Assoc. AIA

Luc Bamberger PhotoThis week’s featured post is from one of the 2014 AEF traveling scholarship winners, Luc Bamberger, Assoc. AIA.

After observing the spectacle of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, I took a step back and pondered the event as a designer of the built environment. How would the facilities—that required such a massive outlay of resources, estimated at $51B—be used after the athletes went home? Unfortunately, I think the legacy will be short lived. The venues seemed more an exercise of fleeting hubris than long-term place making.bamberger-aec-06

During the summer of 2014, I was fortunate to travel to London and to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the site of the 2012 games, to study in person a successful Olympic legacy. It is an example of resources well spent in the creation of not only a world-class athletic forum, but also new neighborhoods positioned to live and thrive into the future.

Prior to taking the trip, I had read much about the years of planning that went into the redevelopment of the site in East London. The coalition of community groups, local government, and private developers appeared committed to not only providing the necessary venues for the games, but also housing, schools, and the infrastructure necessary to connect them to surrounding boroughs and the rest of London. I was skeptical that this might be marketing spin used by the organizers to justify the outlay of nearly $15B. The games that were billed as the austerity games—due to their genesis during the recession that began in 2008—had already ballooned into the territory of other recent games, including $15B for Athens in 2004. bamberger-aec-05

Spending time on the grounds and in the venues of the Olympic Park, I was struck by the life and vitality of the public spaces that had been created. Gardens, playgrounds, waterparks, walking and biking paths were alive with people of all ages enjoying a summer day in East London. Two major venues from the games that I visited, the Aquatics Centre and the Lee Valley Velo Park, have recently opened to the public and are heavily used. The Aquatics Centre was designed to be converted post-games by removing large pods of audience seating to better facilitate day-to-day use patterns. It was encouraging to see these engaging and inspiring pieces of architecture becoming real community places that will be used for many years to come. Both venues operate like any other public recreation center in London, with classes, bicycle and swim meets, and general use, all for a nominal fee. These facilities exemplify the success of the planning, foresight, and overall execution of the Olympic plan.

Outdoor public spaces were equally inspiring and also well used. The park is built around a bamberger-aec-04series of existing canals and waterways that have been cleaned up from their days as a huge industrial wasteland. These canals—along with their walking and biking paths—are the connective fibers that weave through and bind the district together, while also connecting it to the transportation networks of the surrounding boroughs. Gathering spaces are a thoughtful mix of both large and small scale, from formal to informal. The wonders of contemporary British landscape architecture and garden design mixed playfully with an architectural landscape that runs the spectrum from the works of the some of the world’s biggest talents to a humble welcome center that skillfully reimagines the industrial leftovers of the site.

The Legacy Corporation (the local planning authority for the venues and site of the 2012 London Games) set out four priority themes to help guide their actions: promoting convergence and community participation, championing equalities and inclusion, ensuring high quality design, and ensuring environmental sustainability. Through coalition building, planning for adaptation and reuse of venues, and the establishment of vital infrastructure, the group was able to create a place that is vibrant and inclusive, even after the last Olympians have gone home. Time will tell if the housing, schools, and businesses of the newly formed neighborhoods will take root and thrive long-term. At least the future wellbeing and sustainability of the area was planned for and funded, which is more than has happened for the venues of many past games. The area has been left with a strong base of infrastructure—from roadways, rail lines, pedestrian and bicycle paths; to parks, recreation centers, housing and schools—that will serve as a foundation for future vitality.

Of course this all came at a price: nearly $6.4B in public money for just the building and repurposing of the infrastructure from the London games. There has been discussion of Denver hosting a Winter Olympics in the future, which could be an exciting opportunity to leverage an event of this scale to revitalize needed infrastructure in our under-served neigbamberger-aec-03hborhoods. However, with the current aversion to public funds being spent on large-scale projects, it would be very challenging to come to the table with enough money to match what was accomplished in London. The charge for us as designers of the built environment is to take the lessons learned—including aligning stakeholder goals and community needs in order to develop well designed infrastructure that will sustainably serve neighborhoods over the long-term—and to apply them to any major project we undertake, beyond just the dream of a possible Olympics, in order to build healthy communities that will inspire and energize all of us for years to come.

“Bad architecture”… I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it…

“Bad architecture” is a difficult thing to quantify. There are almost never right or wrong answers to all problems. People have opinions a mile long when it comes to design aesthetics and what makes a building good or bad. If you ask some one specifically what bad architecture looks like, most will give vague notions of examples or recent trends. More often than not, though, those questions are answered with the same, age-old adage: I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it.

A few weeks ago I attended a panel discussion put on by the Denver Architectural Foundation titled “Re: Denver”. The discussion focused primarily on what exactly is “bad architecture” and what are some things that create vibrant and successful architecture.

When giving examples of poor architecture, or “fugly” buildings as some called them, the most common themes within the examples were ones that used tacky materials and those that barely acknowledged the presence of any sort of context. They are wholly insular and turn their backs to their neighbors. The most tangible example was the very common (at least in Denver) three-story townhome that is built with it’s side to the street, completely covers the lot it’s on, and has all of it’s front doors away from the public realm.

How all of these townhomes and large-scale multi-family developments will be judged over time is difficult to say. While density itself is not a bad thing at all, the manner in which it is achieved is most likely leaving something to be desired. Is it possible that some of these buildings will grow to be revered? Will people say to each other in fifty years “I’m really looking for something with a classic fiber cement panel look to it… That’s just such a timeless style”? You could probably guess what my answer would be.

The one positive thing I will say about these developments: they are adding layers to the city fabric. The point was made by one of the panelists, Jeff Sheppard, that some of the most vibrant cities and communities are those that have a number of layers to them, which helps give them a deep sense of character. This is achieved through a variety of people, businesses, amenities, and activated streets. These neighborhoods and areas are not built all at one time by a mega-developer, but instead are cultivated over time as pieces get added to the patchwork quilt of a city context.

Let’s be honest, some of these buildings are just awful. There is no getting around that and we will all have to live with the choices that some people made for our neighborhoods and cities. However, the fact that they are helping to add a potential layer to the their overall context through their users is a good thing. Although the buildings themselves might be total eyesores in some cases, they do help to enliven an area. That, at least, is contributing somewhat to the idea of a layered city and increasing its depth of character.

Hopefully our generation won’t be known as the ones that tried to create density without taking the time to do it right. Hopefully we won’t be the ones that create all of these buildings that are demolished in a few decades because they weren’t built to last and people just cannot stand to look at them anymore. We have the opportunity to be the ones that help to reinvigorate urban cores in a sustainable and community-centric manner.

With any luck, we will be known for putting people first through smart urban development and not as the generation who went on a shopping spree at the “mediocre building materials grab bin”.

Fingers crossed.