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How Can We Fix The City’s Worsening Architecture?

Hulking buildings with no aesthetic value keep popping up all around Denver. Here's why you should care.

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Christine Franck and I are standing at an intersection in Denver’s West Colfax neighborhood, trying to find the entrance to a hulking, multifamily building. There are doors everywhere—but are they the units’ entry doors? Or back exits? Making things more confusing are the windows of myriad shapes and sizes scattered haphazardly about the facade—like the architect decided their location by hurling darts at a rendering.

Franck, founding director of the University of Colorado Denver’s Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture, is giving me, a history major who thinks of design in simple terms of “ugly” and “pretty,” a tour of the city. She’s hoping to prove that she can teach a dolt (that’s me) the keystones of good architecture. “It’s OK for people to have different tastes. It’s OK for one person to want to live in a modernist house or a traditional house,” she says. “A person’s taste doesn’t really get to the quality of the architecture.”

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Sadly, the quality of architecture in the Mile High City hasn’t been great as of late. Denver is facing a classic urban problem. With an influx of new residents, a tight real estate market, and a healthy economy, developers have hit the building trifecta. But too many of our city’s new structures are banal. Worse, they don’t exhibit the architectural characteristics that, regardless of style, have pleased humans for centuries—or more. “These are old patterns dating back to 5000 B.C.,” says Don Ruggles, president of the local residential architecture firm Ruggles Mabe Studio, and author of the forthcoming book Beauty, Neuroscience, & Architecture. Then, about a century ago, “they were set aside as being old and superfluous,” says Ruggles—leading to today’s trend of letting function define the form.

The pleasing patterns are simple enough for children to sketch—and they often do. In a child’s drawing, there’s often an easily discernible front door bracketed by identical windows and topped with a broad isosceles triangle for a roof. In real life, the eave of that roof creates a connection with the street—pedestrians can look down the road and see a line linking each abode. (That’s not to say this line must be created with traditional roofs. In Washington Park West, modernist, flat-topped dwellings accomplish this with porch awnings consistent with the neighborhood’s traditional bungalows.) On a very basic level, this is the perfect house.

Our dislikes are equally ingrained. For example, we naturally fear what we can’t see. Scientists have studied this by attaching electrodes to brains and measuring the responses to different facades. A wall without windows, or one that exhibits a pattern we don’t instinctually recognize, elicits our evolutionary fight-or-flight response—a stress that doesn’t make for pleasant strolls through neighborhoods.

Which is unfortunate, because Denver really wants its residents to take pleasant strolls through its neighborhoods. In 2010, the city instituted new zoning to promote mixed-use development along transit corridors. The idea was to create vibrant, walkable retail and commercial districts that would support surrounding neighborhoods and reduce residents’ reliance on cars. In an attempt to honor the character of those neighborhoods, the city deployed form- and context-based zoning—rather than use-based zoning, which slices a city into industrial, commercial, and residential areas. Form- and context-based zoning could mean mandating aesthetics: “For example, cities might require tree-lined sidewalks or entrances that face the street,” says Brad Buchanan, director of Denver Community Planning and Development (CPD). Some in the community feared such a move might stymie innovative design or impede on property rights, so the city adopted zoning that broadly controls such things as building size and placement, but does very little to dictate design.

Below: The Bad—Denver’s growing inventory of poorly designed buildings demonstrates a few of the aesthetic no-nos that advocates fro thoughtful architecture wish would disappear forever: irregular facades, entires that don’t faced the street, random window placement, lack of connection to the street, and chaotic combinations of materials and colors. 

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Photo courtesy of Brad K. Evans.
Photo by Sarah Boyum
Photo by Sarah Boyum

A few years after Denver unveiled its new zoning, when investors loosened purse strings following the Great Recession, new construction exploded: In 2016, the city issued permits for $3.6 billion worth of construction, up 80 percent from just four years earlier. But in order to secure money for those projects, developers had to play by investors’ rules. “Banks lend on the appraised value” of a building, says Jeff Sheppard, principal of Roth Sheppard Architects and renowned architect of Izakaya Den, the Blue Moon Brewery in RiNo, and dozens of other iconic Denver buildings. And “appraised value” is based largely on size. This trend, coupled with Denver’s new zoning (restricting height and depth, but not much in the way of design), turned out to be a recipe for rectangular, flat-roofed buildings: When zoning limited a building’s height and depth, developers sacrificed people-pleasing features—such as porches or landscaping—to eke out more square footage. “It values quantity over quality,” Sheppard says. The result is the hulking, Lego-like boxes like the one on West Colfax.

Feel The Squeeze: Zoning allows new multi-family buildings to go up next to homes like this one in RiNo. Photo by Sarah Boyum.

Now CPD is searching for a fix. In 2016, the city launched Denveright, an initiative that solicits big-picture ideas for fostering authentic neighborhoods and considers public feedback gathered through meetings, street teams, and online outreach (visit denvergov.org). More than 10,000 Denverites have already shared their suggestions, which CPD will consider before making recommendations to the City Council—which approves proposed zoning changes—in summer 2018.

Sheppard hopes those recommendations include incentives for good design: a tax break, greater site coverage, or less required parking if a developer agrees to incorporate particular features—say, dormer windows or a gabled roof. In Seattle, Sheppard points out, the city subsidizes rent if a developer leases the first story to a local business. But in Denver, where zoning requires a certain amount of windows on the ground floor, developers often stick apartment gyms or common areas there, leaving them empty much of the time. “We are creating unsustainable neighborhoods,” Sheppard says, “where no one feels ownership of the streets.”

Ruggles suggests a similar fix to address a different problem: “We need more trees and landscaping—respect for the patterns and space between the buildings,” he says. “RiNo is pretty grim, and it doesn’t have to be that way.” Ruggles understands that developers are pressured to use every square inch of land, but suggests the city could provide height credits in exchange for courtyards or other open space.

Photo by Tahvory Bunting of Denver Image Photography, courtesy of Wayne Keith with Urban Luxe Real Estate.

Above: The Good: A few simple design choices make this home in Washington Park appealing: a symmetrical facade with windows and doors scaled appropriately for the home’s size, a clear and welcoming entryway, materials that are appropriate for the architectural style and the neighborhood, and a distinct transition from street to front yard.

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Franck doesn’t believe any entity can improve design through force. Instead, she’s betting on the power of education. Franck and a student spent last summer codifying structures in West Colfax to produce an “Architectural Scorecard” that allows people to empirically judge a building’s splendor—or lack thereof. (Are there patterns? Context? Appropriate scale?) Franck is still testing the matrix, but she hopes to make it available before the next Congress for the New Urbanism conference in May 2018, when city and thought leaders from across the country will gather to discuss ideas for making cities and towns more vibrant, walkable, and authentic. She believes the Architectural Scorecard will end the debate over whether bad design is just a matter of taste; even laypeople will be able to consider how certain architectural features contribute (or not) to the public realm. Then, maybe, prospective homebuyers will be able to look at this West Colfax building with weird windows and decoy doors and understand the reasons for their distaste. And then they can move on—to find something of real beauty.

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