By Dom Nozzi
May 15, 2015
I attended a “joint” advisory board workshop on Thursday the 14th (multiple boards, including planning board, transportation advisory board, etc.) to hear a presentation about creating a form-based code for Boulder Junction in Boulder Colorado. This was followed by a visual preference survey.
It is said that like politics and religion, one should not get into arguments about architectural style. Too subjective. No universal standards. Everyone has a different taste. Quality urbanism is not dependent on building appearance. And so on.
But I cannot resist expressing my views about style, based on what I experienced at the workshop.
Board members were asked to evaluate over 120 (150?) images of recently constructed buildings in Boulder. I don’t know where most or all of the photos were shot, but it looks like they came from Boulder Junction and possibly the Holiday neighborhood.
I have often heard it said that the architecture in the Mapleton Hill neighborhood — as well as the Boulderado Hotel — has the most lovable design, according to a large number of Boulder residents. That architecture is historic, classical, and ornamental. Many with brick or stone facades.
Why was it, then, that of the 150 building photos we board members were asked to evaluate on Thursday, not a single image showed a historic, classical, ornamental style? Or a façade with stone or brick?
The buildings had almost a complete lack of ornamentation. Very few, if any, cornice lines. The window fenestration tended to have no frames or sills or panes (the few I saw were snap-on, I believe), and only a handful showed a vertical orientation. Building facades and shapes were nearly universally flat, stucco, cubical, boxy, bizzare, weird, and often “warehouse drab” in appearance. Roofs were almost entirely flat rather than pitched (flat roofs tend to be a very poor idea in climates where heavy snow is common, and I personally don’t like them for residential buildings. The retail buildings contained almost no weather protection for the abutting sidewalk (almost none had, for example, awnings or colonnades).
We were in effect asked if we preferred modernist style…or modernist style.
I would have given almost every building the lowest possible score except for the fact that many of them were well-situated on their lots (pulled up to the sidewalk to be pedestrian-friendly, for example). Of the 150 images, I gave none of them a score above 3 (the range was -5 to 5).
Is it possible that the residents and architects of the city I love so much have such poor taste in architecture?
Or is it that Dom is just a fuddy duddy? A stick in the mud? An old-fashioned, anachronistic dinosaur that time has passed by?
Since writing this, I learned that the City had previously conducted a visioning process for Boulder Junction, and the agreed upon aesthetic was to emphasize modernist/contemporary style. This apparently explained why the Joint Board workshop showed a narrow, modernist-focused range of buildings. I was told by someone else, however, that the prior Boulder Junction vision process ALSO showed only a narrow, modernist range of buildings to consider. It seems to me that given the extremely hostile reaction we have heard several times recently about new buildings being built at Boulder Junction (“too blocky” seems common) that there may be a large number of people in Boulder who are unhappy about the architectural vision chosen for Boulder Junction. And I think the negative reaction directed against unlovable modernist architecture counterproductively amplifies hostility expressed toward the compact, more affordable development that Boulder and Boulder Junction needs more of. If it is true that many/most dislike the idea of a modernist aesthetic for Boulder Junction – and I believe it is true – I don’t think this is surprising, because it is well known that large majorities of those polled throughout the world (and therefore probably in Boulder) prefer traditional, classical building design over modernist design. One way to measure this (besides the many opinion polls) is to realize that it may not be possible to identify a single city skyline in the world that is broadly loved AND that consists primarily of modernist building styles. Consider this image…
May I suggest that the City of Boulder consider opening up a new, less narrow, less constrained vision process for Boulder Junction that includes a broader range of architectural styles (such as traditional, classical designs)? We need to avoid Henry Ford’s belief that you can have any car color as long as it is black.
Without that, my hope for form-based coding in Boulder to deliver a future with more charming buildings is sadly declining…