The Architecture of Creative Placemaking in Paris and Amsterdam

MainThis featured blog is written by one of the AIA AEF Scholarship winners, Frank Romero. He takes us through his journey to Paris and Amsterdam.

In September last year I travelled to Paris, France and Amsterdam on the 2014 Hobart D. Wagener Travel Scholarship.  I was in Paris, France for nine days and Amsterdam for five days.  I was awarded the scholarship because of my interest in Creative Placemaking within Cultural Art Districts abroad. I chose Paris because of its rich history in Art, Architecture, and Urban Design.  My reverence for the progressive Dutch Culture and Architecture took me to Amsterdam.

As a Denver citizen and young professional, I am excited about the growth of our relatively young city. I am inspired by the energy and vibe of the places in and around Art Districts, as they are often a melting pot for new ideas and creative thinking. In order to narrow my focus and not get too caught up in French baguettes, crepes, and berets, I narrowed my focused on the design in and around buildings and plazas that drew this creative crowd.  Once in these places I stole an idea from classic French films on how to look or examine a scene.  In French films, Mise en scène  is a technique used to composed a scene.  Directors use it compose all of the elements in film scene.  The physical objects, foreground, background, lighting, and angle of the camera.  By using this method I was able to sit in these environments and look for characteristics that made these places attractive.

8In Paris, I stayed in Montmarte, which is in the 18th arrondissement (neighborhood) up on the hill in the right bank. This is about a 15-20 minute subway ride from the Louvre.  Many great artists once lived and worked in this neighborhood and it still has the old Paris feel, with narrow streets and the infamous seven story buildings clad in buff colored limestone and patina copper roofs.  This area is also home to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur.  I rented out an apartment from a local Parisian and after long days touring the city I would stop at the local market or cafe and grab some food to eat.  Because my bank account was thin, I didn’t indulge in the fine French cuisine, but instead enjoyed cheap local spots.

As for the architecture in Paris, it’s hard not to be enamored by every building.  I frankly, enjoy modern architecture, but I have a deep respect for historical buildings and enjoy seeing old and new buildings being juxtaposed in space.  The Centre de Pompidou plaza, La Defense plaza, the Tuileries Jardin, the Seine River canal, Parc de la Villette, the Eiffle Tower Jardin, and small cafes are the place where I found this crowd of creative conversation happing.  Paris is such as big place, these plazas and open spaces offered a place where people could gather.

5In Amsterdam, I stayed with a local couple in their house on the west side.  I took mass transit and avoided the sea of bicyclists zooming across the city.  Amsterdam itself is a cultural melting pot, where a more liberal crowd can be found.  This in turn makes for some progressive ideas and architecture.  The new Eye Film Theatre and The Nemo Museum are an example of this.  There are also lots of new multifamily projects popping up all over the city and their forms are testing the traditional building typology.  I noticed a large amount of warehouse conversions, similar to what we see happening in RiNo district in Denver or Pearl district in Portland.

My agenda for the trip was to find places of Creative Place Making.  Looking back on my experience, these places where not in a distinct location, but often they were located around cultural buildings like museums and urban parks or plazas.  In a way the trip became more of an urban design study where most of these creative places where happening in urban nodes.  These nodes were at intersections of a transit and pedestrian collision around a plaza or building.  Lastly, a few of these places are found just outside of the city center, almost at the urban edge, where rents were cheaper and life is a bit grittier filled with artists and entrepreneurs.

7My experience traveling abroad was unmeasurable.  Being able to travel to these places was like walking through an Architectural History Course. The architecture and design that once seemed so distant is now much more tangible.   It was an inspiring trip of a lifetime.

-Frank Romero

Strength in Numbers

There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of blog posts and articles offering advice for taking the Architectural Registration Exams. There are even more comments within ARE forums, which are great for broadcasting the wide spectrum of human emotions. This post will probably not be anything mind blowing for most reading it, but here goes nothing.

This past January my wife and I began studying for our first ARE and are planning on sticking to the same test schedule to go through this whole arduous process together. When I told people about this strategy, the reactions usually went one of two ways. The first reaction was a positive one with some form of, “that must be nice to have a constant study partner so you aren’t neglecting your significant other and have some one to go through it with”. The second reaction, which was much less common, would pose a question I was hoping to not answer very soon, if at all: what happens when one of you passes and the other one fails?

Unfortunately, I found out my answer to this question after the very first test that we took (CDS). I woke up to the always stinging “fail” grade on my NCARB page while my wife had passed. Neither of these developments was exactly unexpected or earth shattering, but it did present a new development to our studying strategy. While I was happy that she had passed, I couldn’t help but be dejected about my own shortcomings.
However, at some point later that morning, something had dawned upon me: the fact that I had not passed this test had almost zero effect on my day to day life other than the fact that I would have to re-study for that test at some point. I was still expected to perform at the office, I was still going to come home to my family, and my friends were still going to be my friends. Your life does not all of a sudden fall into shambles because of this one test. Having the support system of my wife helped me come to this realization (that and being stressed out at work and not being allowed the time to wallow in self pity).

When it comes down to it, having a support system around you while taking these tests is a tremendous asset. Whether that is with a family member, a friend, or even just a study group, surrounding yourself with people in a similar situation is often one of the best tools for pushing forward. Some people will argue that going it alone in focused solitude is best and that may be fine for them. This is simply a strategy that I have found to be greatly helpful for keeping things in perspective. After all, we all got through the hell that is architecture school and much of the reason that we were able to do that was because of the people that we gather around ourselves.

Since this first test, we have both taken and passed our second test (PPP) and have another scheduled in the coming weeks. After my initial shortcomings, having my wife and a handful of others at work has helped to keep me motivated and on track. If nothing else, having a person or group of people to bounce ideas off of, explain ideas that I don’t quite get the first time around, or to just act as a sounding board for unusually high stress levels is a great way to stay sane through this process.

That being said, please feel free to use the comment section of this post to help you relieve some stress from your day.

Revisiting Wright


Many posts ago I eluded to a rather embarrassing moment in my career development, but never quite disclosed the full story.  Months later, an experience has prompted me to tell the story in-full, if only to set the scene for a recent trip I took with Knoll and several other local Denver designers to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, studio, architecture school, and in many ways, complete Xanadu in the Arizona desert.

 So here goes…

If the diversity in age and educational background of my M.Arch class is any indication, it’s evident that a calling to become an architect finds people at many different ages and stages of life. From a 40-something former computer programmer to a 30-something friend that had studied medicine and law before deciding on architecture (rounded out with classmates including a physicist, mathematician, and environmental designer,) our past vocations and interests ran the gamut of possible professions and passions.

My calling to become an architect came twice. First, as a young child with a preference for building with blocks rather than Barbies, and consistently requesting that my parents and I go for walks to “look at houses.” Throughout school, when given an open-ended assignment, most of my papers were written on various architectural topics. From a research paper on Julia Morgan to a humanities project in which I “recreated” Frank Lloyd Wright’s sketchbook over a 10 year period, my love of architecture remained present throughout my academic development.

All this changed when I discovered school “politics.” After pursuing school president and working on some local political campaigns, around the time to apply to college I decided confidently on the George Washington University, where I might hone my skills in the sociopolitical sphere.

Fully accepted and with my first deposit in place, my family and I went on a last hurrah family vacation during spring break of my senior year. My parents had planned a great trip to Arizona- exploring Phoenix, Scottsdale, staying in a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel, and later exploring the stratified landscape of Sedona.

Where it all began...

Where it all began…

One stop on our vacation led us to Taliesin West. Fast forward from parking to sitting in the first stop on the tour; Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal studio. As a full group of about 25 people looked on, our youthful 80 year old docent began explaining the unique environment that Wright created. Several minutes into this speech I began to cry. Not quiet, muffled tears, but true, loud, ugly sobs.

In perhaps what might be one of the very few epiphanies I might have in this lifetime, all of my ambitions and aspirations to become an architect became apparent at this moment.

To the chagrin of my younger sister, and the beckoning calls of my mother that I was already accepted at GW and that I should not apply to the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, I left Taliesin with a complete change in mind and attitude regarding my future academic and professional course.

While I ultimately did not attend Wright’s school (and was consequently not required to build my own dwelling place first semester), I did end up pursuing art, art history, and English in college, all the while building a portfolio to attend architecture school on the graduate level.

Currently I have one more ARE and I will finally be allowed to say that I fulfilled a dream to become an Architect (with a capital A!) rooted in a meandering path and a powerful moment of understanding.

As you can imagine, given the opportunity to revisit Wright, I felt both trepidation and excitement. Would I feel sentimental, inspired, or-least desirable—underwhelmed? Having been taught to accept and give constructive criticism at a moment’s notice, would I feel critical of a place that at one time felt magical for reasons both tangible and inexplicable?

Thankfully upon experiencing a tour as an older version of my rather consistent self, I felt both the nostalgia I had anticipated, as well as a deeper connection to why the tour had been special the first time around.

The man himself...

The man himself…

While I am not a Wright zealot by any means, being in an environment entirely curated by one individual’s subscription to a specific way of life communicated through design still proved to be visually and conceptually fascinating, especially given the small chance a place like Taliesin could ever be realized in today’s society (building code alone would drastically change the aesthetics and proportions.)

Wright’s vision to create an environment that is school, residence, museum, not to mention a living laboratory that continues to facilitate experimentation and a special appreciation of nature, art, and culture remains highly relevant.  In most architecture studios today, these principles remain an important cornerstone in how designers think about thoughtfully integrating nature into the built world (and vice versa.)

As we drove to the airport from the landmark, I felt appreciative of the opportunity to see something of personal significance twice in my life, not to mention at vastly different stages of life. Not only was it a moment to reflect, but also a moment to acknowledge that for me personally, intuition and accepting life’s obvious and subtle cues remains an equally important part in decision-making as reason.

Something tells me Wright might agree.





Building Hope

I find conferences, both day and multi-day, to be either totally engrossing or average. This is not to the fault of the conference planners or speakers, but rather to the similarities of “hot” topics which are spoken onRMCS-logo-header.

Yesterday, I attended the Rocky Mountain City Summit put on by the Downtown Denver Partnership. This daylong seminar (in which I only attended half of due to a tight deadline on an RFP) was of the totally engrossing type. Leaders from across the Rocky Mountain region coalesced in a dark room at the Sheraton to discuss city building, placemaking, urban biking, walkability and any other buzzword that floats around common architecture/planner/politician/developer language.

Coming from a background of both architecture and planning, these sorts of events are what motivate me personally and push me forward, IF the event is motivating. I had heard great things about this event, so my expectations were high. It did not fall short.

As expected Mayor Michael B. Hancock opened the day. David Kenney of The Kenney Group introduced him. One remark that Kenney made was “make friends that are smarter than you and steal their ideas.” This got quite a few laughs but also spoke to the magnitude of relationships in the room and how true this might actBill Stricklandually be. We now live in a society where sharing is accepted, welcomed and encouraged when it comes to big ideas and changing the places we live.

The keynote was by far one of the most inspiring I have ever seen. If you are not familiar with Bill Strickland, I urge you to research him and his work. He is not an architect. He is not a planner. Yet he has molded the lives of poverty-stricken children in the Pittsburgh area with the simple idea that environment drives behavior. The most poignant statement he made was “people are born into the world as assets, not liabilities.” He has used this as the ethos to drive the development of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation that has built schools that educate these low-income children in a way that provides them with the hope to climb out of poverty and see the sunlight in the world everyday.

His idea of developing places that nurture and foster a safe environment for kids to learn and provide them with skills that will give them hope is one that needs to be spread to great lengths across this country and across this world. In fact, Strickland’s company is doing that. He is planning to open an education center in Chicago and Israel.

This idea transcends the very nature of what we are supposed to do as professionals and speaks to how we should care for everyone as a society. Those that are in need and suffering from poverty-stricken living conditions have the hope inside them. They just need a place and someone who cares to unlock it.

This session nearly brought me to tears as it was, but then something really inspiring happened during the break. Three individuals came forward and announced they would support the formation of one of these education centers in Denver. Let it be noted that there were already boots on the ground searching out a place and the resources to start one in Denver, but the individuals who came forward are powerful leaders within the community. They have the skills and the networks to get this done. I am proud to say, one of those people was a Denver architect.

After sitting in a room listening to great minds speak about initiatives, design and policies changing our cities, it has instilled a great lesson in me. While political systems move slowly and change can take years, there are efforts to be made at an individual level. It just takes one man, who was saved from poverty, to build a center that gives hope. We all have the ability to give hope. We just need to decide how we want to use that ability.

Missing the Mark?

The regular session of the seventieth General Assembly of Colorado is scheduled to close on May 6, 2015.

AIA Colorado supported House Bill 1197 – Concerning Limitations on Indemnity Obligations in Public Construction Contracts, which I am pleased to report was sent to the Governor.  The bill aligns municipal contracts with the private sector on issues of defense, indemnification, and liability.

AIA Colorado has also supported Senate Bill 177 – Construction Defects reform. As a lawyer who frequently represents design professionals (and an active member of the Colorado Defense Lawyer’s Association’s Legislative Committee) I have been watching the bill move through the General Assembly with intense interest.  SB 177 passed its first test in the Colorado General Assembly and is slated for its second reading today, April 10.

I am a legal wonk, a research nerd.  I get caught up in the history, the legalese, grammar, canons of construction, and procedural ramifications.  Then, last night, at a networking event I was asked the questions that really matters:  If the bill passes, will it really make a difference in the number of residential construction projects – especially affordable housing- in the Denver Metro area?

As a strong supporter of SB 177, I had to take a step back and examine the bill.

The bill was touted as a necessary remedy to encourage desperately needed affordable residential housing.  The rational being that it was too easy for an zealous minority of owners within an association to hijack the litigation process and drag all units within the condominium association into expensive, protracted litigation.

While I am a supporter of SB 177, and I think changes to the current statutory scheme are overdue, I am not sure SB 177 will be a panacea.

SB 177 would do little to encourage the construction of affordable housing.  In my experience, owners of affordable housing were not the parties hiring counsel to file multi-million dollar construction defect claims.  SB 177 would ensure that a majority of owners within an association are informed and consent to initiating a lawsuit against the developer, designers, or other construction professionals.  If passed, it surely would curb frivolous lawsuits.  However, I doubt developers and contractors will exhale in a collective sigh of relief and rush to initiate affordable housing projects.  (Nor do I think the passage would protect “laggards [who build defective homes]” as Denver and Boulder Democrats warn).  Cynical as though it may sound, they money just is not there.  Why build affordable housing when you could build a multi-family development that would sell at the market rate? (In Denver, the average housing price is $317,000.00 according to the Denver Business Journal).

I still support SB 177; but not because I believe it encourage wary developers to construct affordable housing.

Our conversation left me wondering: What would it take to promote construction of affordable housing in the Denver Metro area?