Flight of the Suburbs

A few months back, a friend mentioned something that stuck with me: he said that he assumes that we (meaning both of our families and most people that are our age) will have to move out to the suburbs at some point in the near future. He said this in a way that made it seem like an inevitable fact of life; that living in a dense, or even mostly dense, urban environment was something that we could only do while we were young. Once we are at the point in our lives where we are expanding our families past just our wives, heading towards the outer edges of development with ample space and cheaper housing costs are simply a fact of life.

I find myself, and most of those that are around my age (the “young professional” age) identifying with the Peter Campbell character of the hit TV series Mad Men (his preference of living in Manhattan instead of moving out to the rural suburbs… not the whole infidelity and general snake-like tendencies part). The “millennial generation” is one in which we are increasingly drawn to a more urban lifestyle because of the convenience and proximity to a wide array of activities and cultures. In fact, according to the Brookings Institute, cities outgained suburbs 1.1% to .9% from 2010-2011, in contrast to the 2000’s where suburbs grew at 1.4% and cities at .4%. Does this mean that downtown Denver is on the verge of becoming an even more vibrant city center? Will it be filled with a wide array of people and act as an urban melting pot for people of all ages, backgrounds, and incomes?

Figure 1 - BrookingsFigure 2 - Brookings

Unfortunately, this seems highly unlikely to be the case in the near future. This brings me full circle back to my friend’s take on the inevitability of heading to the ‘burbs in the next few years. To a certain extent, he is right. At our current income levels, buying a decent sized home big enough to house a family in the fairly immediate area of downtown Denver isn’t too feasible because it is either a) way too expensive or b) there isn’t anything available.

No doubt, people are noticing that many of the buildings going up around Denver are addressing the need of housing. However, these are being built as for-rent apartment buildings and not for-sale condos, townhomes, or houses. If there is such a need for housing, why is there only a single demographic (young and not quite ready to buy) being addressed?

The answer to most architects, emerging professionals, contractors, and developers is simple: the liability of building housing to own is far greater than building housing to rent. Because of this, the market has been saturated with thousands of apartments that, for the most part, are all cut from the same cloth. Subsequently, the amount of diversity that stems from these apartment buildings is about as easy to find as a non-Starbucks coffee shop in downtown.

I don’t profess to be an expert in contract law or liability (I will leave that to others… maybe even one of my fellow AIA EP bloggers…), but it seems pretty apparent that this practice is leading to developers, contractors, and architects to address a single, short term housing issue instead of creating a sustainable solution for the future. It seems inevitable that this will have to change at some point in the very near future if our city is to retain the people that are so desperate to live here and live in an urban environment.

Aside from changing laws and contracts, creating parts of downtown that draw families and various others to actually live there long term will be essential. Adding grocery stores, functional parks, and other spaces that aren’t swanky restaurants, bars, or office buildings will go a long way to convince people that living close to or in downtown is a viable option. I can’t say for sure which one of these steps should come first, but I am fairly sure that as each one comes to fruition, the others are not far behind.

If the trend of flocking towards urban centers continues, as it is projected to, addressing these issues is an undeniable necessity. It also seems safe to assume that a husband, wife, and several children aren’t going to want to live in a for rent apartment building that functions eerily similarly to a college dormitory or fraternity house either and will need more of the amenities that are so prevalent in the suburbs or various neighborhoods around Denver. Obviously, many things need to happen before this is a viable situation, but maybe we (as a generational shift), can have a say in the manner and how quickly this all happens.

Learning to Say No

noNo. Non. Ne. Nein. This can become one of the most important words we learn to use correctly. It wasn’t until recently I started to understand how important the use of no could be.

Life is fast-paced. We move quickly from work to family to extracurricular activities and back again. I have often felt the more I take on the more effective and efficient I can be. I am also a doer. I like to keep busy, to challenge myself and enjoy working with many people at different levels of engagement. My stage in life has also been influential in my ability or inability to say no. When I started grad school, I moved to a new city, knew only one person and was finding my way through a new environment. Soon after my first day of school, I became quite involved in the AIA and AIAS. I joined committees and participated in events. I said yes to every opportunity that fit within my schedule and worked towards my future goals. Many of the staff members and many of the active members of the AIA soon knew my face. Getting involved in the architecture community was one of the most valuable decisions I have ever made. I don’t regret saying yes.

As I approach one year of full time employment, I have learned that post-grad life has different priorities. For those that know me, you may still think I say yes too often. Some things will not change. Once a doer, always a doer. But I have learned to assess every commitment and make sure it is relevant to my current stage in life. I learned that some commitments were more relevant when I was in school. Not only has this assessment (and yes, relinquishing of some commitments) made room for other volunteer opportunities; I have learned what a weekend feels like! I find bliss in the freedom of coming home from work and the day being over. Sure, there are some nights that just roll into the next morning, but we all knew there would be those nights after grad school.

Not only has saying no been important to my personal development and has allowed me to spend time with friends and family, but it has also opened the door to other opportunities that I might not have been able to commit to, both at work and personally. This is not to say that dropping commitments is the way to lighten your schedule, but understanding the expected time associated with certain activities will help you to prioritize what is most important.

What I’m finding right now is how important it is to be 25 and enjoy the balance of life, work and volunteering.

The Art (and Instigation?) of Architecture

Gehry’s proposal for the Corcoran Museum of Art addition, Washington, DC 2004. The design was later tabled due to lack of funding. source: http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2005/05/25/arts/25corc.1.583.jpg

A few weeks ago, I was surprised to find an email inbox full of swear-word related design updates, all related to Frank Gehry’s recent press conference for El Mundo in Oviedo, Spain.

The topic ricocheting through the social media channels and blogosphere supposedly went as follows:

Gehry was asked by a reporter, “How do you answer to those who accuse you of practicing showy architecture?”

Slowly, Gehry unfurled his middle finger, pointed it up and towards the crowd, and replied:

 Let me tell you one thing. In this world we are living in, 98 percent of everything that is built and designed today is pure s#*@.   There’s no sense of design, no respect for humanity or for anything else. They are damn buildings and that’s it. Once in a while, however, there’s a small group of people who does something special. Very few. But good god, leave us alone! We are dedicated to our work. I don’t ask for work. I don’t have a publicist. I’m not waiting for anyone to call me. I work with clients who respect the art of architecture. Therefore, please don’t ask questions as stupid as that one.

A radio silence fell over the crowd, as reported by El Mundo followed by a muffled apology that Gehry was “tired from his trip.”

This altercation, if you will, took me on a trip down memory lane of a press tour I attended that was hosted by Frank Gehry (in regards to an exhibition of his museum designs, including his proposed addition to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a Beaux Arts building in the heart of Washington, DC.)

It also reminded me of the review that I wrote shortly thereafter for the GW Hatchet (my college newspaper) from the perspective of an art major and young writer trying to make an exhibition about architecture sound exhilarating to 10,000 twenty-somethings studying political science and international affairs…

To quickly recap, here is my brief remembrance of the event:

It was fall 2004. I had just returned from a summer in New York, and found myself in the brisk morning air with a small group of journalists,  board members, and of course, Frank. We entered the museum and moseyed casually through the great halls in which the exhibition was displayed. Listening attentively, we scribbled notes as Gehry made comments and conversation about his work, interrupted sporadically by a quiet line of questioning regarding his inspiration as well as how his addition might “relate” to the existing narrative  of the capitol’s historic architecture.

What struck me about the conversation related to Gehry’s competition-winning entry for the Corcoran, a proposal described by a Washington Post critic as “huge metal sails billowing elegantly outward…looking right at home in supposedly conservative Washington,” did not include any talk of his work being too “showy.”

This was an art institution, after all, and both its artists and its constituents were perhaps used to thinking “outside the box,” a term that Gehry continues to take to literal and engineered extremes.

My review at the time also reflected this attitude, and a major takeaway from meeting him; that Gehry’s ultimate desire was for his art to be architecture, and for his architecture to be(come) art:

This show comes in time for the beginning stages of remodeling and construction, ” I wrote, “which will transform the Corcoran into one of Gehry’s unmistakable manifestations of living art. This makes Gehry’s exhibit particularly significant, as it shows Gehry’s projected plans for the fate of the Corcoran Gallery. As a member of the D.C. community, one should attend, if merely to formulate his or her own personal opinion of how the landscape of the new Corcoran will contrast with the old.”

The later cancellation of the project due to lack of funding was lamented loudly by the Washington Post in an article titled “Crushed” by Benjamin Forgey.

So, the time has come it seems to assess the sad loss. It is sad because — let’s see, how simple can I make this — the Gehry building was going to be beautiful… The design was unveiled to immense excitement six years ago, after a high-profile international competition between Gehry and two other famous finalists — Daniel Libeskind and Santiago Calatrava. Then the Gehry design was changed, and changed again, and then again, until it fit the Corcoran site almost perfectly….

Still, the bottom line is that Gehry’s Corcoran joins the short, unhappy list of highly significant modern buildings designed for Washington but not built: Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s competition-winning 1939 design for a Smithsonian Gallery of Art on the Mall; and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Crystal Heights, the stunning mixed-use project he designed in 1940 for the spot where the Hilton Washington stands today.

Both of these potential modernist masterpieces were staunchly opposed by the city’s architectural establishment. By contrast, Gehry’s building won widespread approval. Not that it helped.”

The fact that Gehry was able to collaborate and rally a conservative city amidst the Bush administration to become passionate—not just excited—but passionate! about the potential of a sculptural, foreign sail-like entity to become a bold addition to a relatively homogeneous backdrop, was a feat in and of itself.

In working with the Corcoran prior to the tabling of the project, Gehry was working with one of many clients that did, indeed, respect the art of architecture.

While people are quick to critique Gehry’s work and whims, his disgruntled words at last week’s press conference have once again created a controversy that will inevitably rally people together, like the majority of his projects, to revisit the state of Architecture vs  “building” in today’s (too) quickly developing world.







Horror Stories from Architects

We all know that being in Architecture means creative, passionate, and highly imaginative people are working together to create the best solution to a design problem. But in honor of Halloween, I thought I might share some of the scarier parts to being in this profession.  Whether it’s a difficult boss, a creepy old building, or just the antics of having a group of creative individuals working together, practicing Architecture definitely has a dark side!

Story 1:
The firm I work at does a lot of different kinds of projects ranging from new construction to remodels and once in a while we get a random hazard like water damage or a fire that requires an architect to come in and establish base floor plan drawings in order to help contractors get pricing for the repairs.  One such project was particularly creepy.  I, a female, went to an old apartment building after a fire that damaged quite a bit of the lower floor and some of the upper floor.  The drywall was already removed and the thick black studs were all that remained.  It was the middle of summer, so it was a very warm day and the heavy smoke smell immediately filled my lungs and stung my nose.  The power had been shut off for safety reasons, and the windows were boarded up since the firemen had broken out the glass to get people out of the building.  Now, I was told that everyone made it out ok, but I was sent to this building by myself to take measurements and create a floor plan.  Alone.  In the dark.  With nothing but a work light and my cell phone flashlight app to let me see into the completely dark rooms.  Yes, there were noises, but I assumed they were coming from outside the building, so I gathered my wits and got it done as fast as I could, taking pictures the whole time to ensure I didn’t have to come back!  But… when I got back to the office and looked thru the pictures, there was one particularly disturbing image of a ghost in one of the windows!  Needless to say I won’t be going there alone again!


Christy – Colorado Springs, CO

Story 2:
I had to field verify a vacant space in a bad part of town that was formerly a strip joint called the Jaguar Club.  It had black carpet on the walls, dead animals in random corners, lights and exposed wiring hanging down from the ceiling.  And there was a mattress sitting on top of some ceiling framing of a back room where it appears someone was living.  That was creepy.  That place had no windows, no power (no lights) and lots of small rooms and dark corners.  All kinds of horrible images ran thru my mind with every step I took.  Seemed like the kind of place where a young architect could have been murdered!

Dave – Indianapolis, IN

Story 3:
In the basement of our office there’s a storage room where  we keep archived drawings.  The building used to be an old furniture shop so there were some remnants from that time, but one day while archiving drawings we discovered a hidden crawl space.  But, as soon as a light was turned on, we could see body parts.  Lots of them.  It was a mannequin Catacomb!  And I’m pretty sure the building was haunted as well.  I’d be working late at night by myself and hear the front door open – it had a very distinct sound.  I would get up to see if my boss was coming in, but the door would be shut, locked, and NO ONE was there.

Jessica – Colorado Springs, CO

Story 4:
I was a young intern at a former office that was located right next to a fairly rowdy bar.  My boss liked to go out with clients there and they’d come back to the office after a night of drinks.  When I got to work in the morning I never knew what state the office might be in after the late night parties!  One such morning I realized that I had left my computer on and didn’t log off.  The office was actually quite clean, but I turned the power on to my 2 monitors, and I think I let out a yelp!  This of course alerted my co-workers that something was up.  And then I was truly horrified at trying to explain the “very office inappropriate” images of women and farm animals that were plastered across my computer!  Luckily my co-workers just laughed it off!


Architecture definitely has its scary moments!  What are some of yours?

All You Need to Know

My last blog post highlighted a recent California court decision in which homeowners had sued architectural firms over allegedly bad window design and materials.  The question presented to the California Supreme Court was essentially whether an architectural firm who makes recommendations but not final decisions on construction owes a duty of care to future homeowners with whom it has no contractual relationship.  The Court concluded: yes, it may.

As I trolled the sites reporting on the decision, the reaction of design professionals generally read like the SNL skit REALLY!?!  If the architect had no control over the final decisions on construction why should they be responsible for those decisions? Really!?! I empathize.  In what universe is it fair to hold the architect responsible for problems caused by changes made during final construction over which they had no control? It is not. But whoever said our legal system was fair?

However, the Beacon decision did not state the architect was responsible.  Merely that it may be.  All you need to know about design professional liability is this: Control = Responsibility.  Juries and the Court just want to figure out who had control and could have prevented the defect.  They will bear responsibility.  This is where an understanding of the Spearin doctrine and a companion principle expressed Balcom Industries, Inc. v. Nelson come in handy.

The Spearin doctrine comes from an ancient case involving the design and construction of a government shipyard but the principle articulated is alive and well today: subcontractors (including designers) will not be held responsible for consequences of defects in plans or specifications provided by the owner.  The converse is also true – and Balcom steps in.  It is essential that construction was accomplished in conformance with the plans and specifications provided by the designer for liability to attach to the designer.  It seems more fair that responsibility arises only when there is at least a modicum of control.

Admittedly, perceived control versus actual control is a morass best left for another time.  Also, contract provisions or differing delivery methods can turn these principles on their head.  So proceed with caution- and preserve your job file!