Continuing the dialogue: The Quality of Design in Denver

Last week we heard about the dialogue of design. I would like to continue the written dialogue. Design PrioritiesMany issues are important, but it seems that at the moment this might be one of the most pressing issues we are facing in the design community. I think it is important to note these conversations about the quality of design are occurring in major cities all over the United States, but specifically I will focus on Denver.

I attended the session Beth mentioned last week “Denver is Booming. But is Design Quality Keeping Pace?” put on by the AIA and ULI. The conversation started with an introduction from the respective Executive Directors. Attendees were split almost 50% between the two organizations, meaning approximately half the room were architects and half were developers or a related field. There was a noticeable gasp when Michael Leccese, Executive Director of the ULI mentioned the architecture field was doing better because we were finally charging 6% fees again! I can only assume the developers in the room gasped because of such a low percentage.

The conversation quickly moved away from fees, organizational updates and the state of construction and development and quickly into the quality of construction and development. Developers, architects and an urban designer made up the panel of distinguished guests. The first question posed was: Why is (good) design important?

Not that I wasn’t entirely engaged until this point, but my ears perked up anxiously awaiting the answers. They varied from “architecture is like art” to “it creates the brand of a city”. The answers were mostly as I had expected. But I was hoping this time there might be an additional answer given the diversity of the panel.

Throughout the entire conversation on stage, I wanted someone to mention that design is good for health; it creates better environments in which our children learn, it makes more productive workspaces. I wanted the answers to move beyond the discussion of design being something special and into the realm of why I feel design is truly important. It is important because of the people it serves and the problems it solves. It is the people who use the space, who walk our streets and feel discomfort when walking by two stories of concrete parking downtown. Of course, design and architecture are art. But that is not why people are challenging the current state of design in Denver. They aren’t challenging that the downtown isn’t a masterpiece of art like New York City or Paris. As one of the panelists, Chris Shears, Principal from Shears Adkins + Rockmore commented, not all buildings need to be masterpieces. Some need to be in the background. So what is the issue?

In my opinion, we have moved design and the development of our cities away from a participative relationship and into a silo. First, unlike school where critiques of everyone’s work occur at least five times throughout the course of four months, architecture firms rarely have peer reviews on their work that is going to alter the fabric of the city for years to come. Second, we only ask the community their opinion of what our built environment should be like when public sector projects require it. Denver Housing Authority is one of the most progressive housing authorities in the city and is arguably doing some of the most thoughtful design in our community. I would like to think that it is thoughtful and well received by the community because the community was allowed to provide input into what it was they would have in their community. I think I have exhausted the term community but the absence of community in these conversations is what strikes me as the aforementioned issue.

The focus of our designs should not be to get our projects to get on the front of a magazine (don’t get me wrong, I think it is important to have great design). We should be designing in a thoughtful way so people want to spend time in these buildings; they want to sit outside in the public space that encapsulates the needs of a neighborhood. It is these components that make a design and a building worthy of the cover of Architect Magazine.

The whole panel discussion barely scratched the surface of the problem. It served as more of a launching pad for future discussions. However, this in and of itself is a success. As the design and development community for one of the fastest-changing cities in America, we need to openly have these questions. I just ask, can we please invite some of the community to our conversation next time?

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