Thursday, November 19, 2009

Three Minute Opinion

Readers of this blog may have noted my concerns about the major overhaul of Denver’s zoning code that's in the works. (See A Letter to the Mayor, July 6, 2009). The Denver Post also published an op/ed piece I wrote on the subject, criticizing the second draft of the code. The writers of the proposed code (Community Planning and Development, led by Peter Park) are now in their third draft and, to their credit, there is evidence they have been listening. Not just to me. The local AIA, builders groups, and others have been analyzing the document and providing critiques. However (and this is a big “however”) I still have concerns about the new rules and the timing of the entire process.

We are now at the point of public “listening sessions” where city council and CPD listens to public comments on the proposed code. The format for these sessions is "open mic" with three minutes of time allotted per person. Three minutes is not a long time if your concerns are many. Here is what I said (italics) at the first listening session held yesterday downtown.

Community Planning and Development has issued three drafts of the proposed code over the past three months. Each time the public has responded with input and questions. And each time CPD has responded with new language in the updated drafts.

I appreciate the responsiveness and hard work of CPD. However, I have two concerns.

First, with each new draft, the full impact of 700 (+/-) pages takes significant time to interpret and understand. CPD has had nearly five years to develop everything in the code. The general public, design professionals, builders and developers get only a few weeks between drafts to absorb and understand the issues. Most of us also have real jobs that occupy much of our time. Now the fourth and final draft is about to come down. My first concern is that there is simply not enough time budgeted to review, understand, and respond. I have reviewed parts of the proposed code that directly affect my work. The council is about to vote on
all aspects of the code – every nook and cranny of it – for the entire city and for a long time into the future. If we can spend five years getting to this point we should also have a proper amount of time to avoid a rush to judgment. That time is not in the schedule now.

My second concern is more nuanced. It appears that in crafting a “form based” code there is a prejudice – whether intentional or accidental -- against some architectural styles. This emerges in the way the numbers are written. Counter intuitively, even some important traditional forms (such as the architecturally significant Jacques Benedict designs on Seventh Avenue Parkway) would be impossible to emulate under the proposed zoning. Though we have been told that the new code does not dictate architectural style, the
de facto results of the numbers have a huge impact on style. In an apparent effort to maintain the status quo, many parts of the code micromanage form in a manner that is more like a narrowly-controlled, covenanted community then a vibrant urban center. Protecting our neighborhoods from traumatic change is desirable, but it should not be at the expense of innovation, creativity, and experimentation. That is what distinguishes a dynamic city from a backwater burg. The new code effectively freeze dries many parts of town, even where they are not historically, architecturally or economically interesting. We also need more time to fine tune what I hope are such unintended consequences of the proposed zoning code.

That is all three minutes allows.

The "prejudice... against some architectural styles" includes different height limits for pitched-roof buildings than flat-roofed (often contemporary) buildings. Here is how a pitched roof building in zone E-SU-Dx (refer to the code to understand these new "simplified" designations) would be affected. The red-highlighted areas would be disallowed under the new rules:
For an identical floor plan but with flat roofs the new restrictions would be so severe as to make the design unbuildable:
This appears to be a prejudice against contemporary design. A "bulk plane" approach, as we have now, would be a more objective way to control the impact of a structure on its neighbors.

But traditional designs are also hampered. Below are three of the Jacques Benedict designs referred to above. They would all be disallowed under the new code because their unbroken facades are too long. This would micromanage architectural design in a way that is inappropriate for a large city like Denver.
This material and more has been provided to city council.

I was heartened by the turn-out at yesterday's listening session. Many people are concerned about the impact of the code on their neighborhood and their property. Thoughtful and articulate opinions were voiced about areas of the proposed code that I have not yet explored. (It is over 700 pages, you know.)

You can explore the current draft of the new code and express your opinion at .

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Prairie Avenue Bookshop

This is hardly breaking news, but I found out yesterday that the Prairie Avenue Bookstore in Chicago closed its doors this past summer. This was an institution in the Windy City for the past fifty years. I got a big part of my architectural education by visiting the store regularly in my youth (when they were actually located on Prairie Avenue). Over the years the staff was always friendly and informative and eager to fuel two of my obsessions: books and architecture.
In the days before the Tattered Cover and Barnes and Noble made bookstores comfy with overstuffed chairs and a relaxed atmosphere, Prairie Avenue intermixed architectural artifacts and craftsman style furniture with beautiful books. You felt like you were entering a private club where the only membership requirement was a love of architecture. But it was a dangerous place. I would go in just wanting to browse and come out with more books than I could carry or afford. When I realized they would ship my purchases instead of having me lug them back home it only made things worse. Architectural books are expensive. Especially the really great portfolios, like the Frank Lloyd Wright Drawings published in Japan (limited to 700) or the Bruce Goff collection of plates or the Neutra retrospective published by Taschen. They are all gorgeous examples not only of architecture, but of the publishers art. You don’t find them in regular bookstores.

As the name implies, Prairie Avenue specialized in prairie school architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Burley Griffen, Purcell and Elmslie, and the bright array of inventive architects that came out of Chicago in the early twentieth century. The shop’s location was significant in that it helped cement Chicago’s reputation as the birthplace of modern architecture. Their loop location was surrounded by surviving examples of Louis Sullivan buildings, the first “skyscraper”, and the el trains that made it possible for commuters to reach prairie school suburban homes in Oak Park or Evanston. The inventory of the Prairie Avenue Book Shop also reached into other branches of architecture, following the modernist movement to the present day. It was the best architectural book store in the country and its closure is a significant loss for Chicago. I will miss it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Mormon Temple

Disclaimer: What follows is written as an architectural review. This should not be construed as a theological critique of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (The Mormons). I have often driven on Interstate 5 north of San Diego to be confronted at Exit 28 with the splendiferous wonder of the San Diego Mormon Temple. No matter how many times I come upon it, I am always shocked. This white jumble of crystalline spires, full of symbology and topped with gilt sculptures glistening in the sun, is in-your-face architecture. It makes a statement.
There are approximately 140 Mormon temples distributed around the world, all of them different. The San Diego Mormon Temple - a regional center for Mormon rituals and ceremonies – is not to be confused with local Mormon churches. Temples are closed to the general public; only Mormons In Good Standing are permitted entrance and only with a “recommend” from their bishop. The rituals performed inside the temple include marriages “for all eternity”, baptism of the dead, and “sealing” children to parents to permanently establish after-death families. Young people come from a wide region for these events. Even though I knew I would not be allowed to enter the temple, on a recent visit to San Diego I was determined to at least write a proper architectural review for a structure that has arrested my attention so often. This time, instead of ogling the building at 60 miles per hour, I exited the freeway and entered the Mormon temple grounds.
Mormons have a reputation for organization. This is evidenced immediately in the orderly landscaping. Manicured lawns and tidy flower beds frame the building in symmetrical simplicity. Parking is efficiently and discretely handled so as not to distract from the main focus. The grounds are ample but not immense. The scale of the place is difficult to gauge at freeway drivebys. Up close it appeared smaller than I had thought. It is not the Vatican, after all. The building itself, in all its whiteness, is somewhat bigger than Space Mountain but smaller than Cinderella’s castle. Not to say I was disappointed. One keeps returning to its overwhelming whitey whiteness. Even the people inside are dressed in white suits (more on that later). In comparison to dark European cathedrals this is truly an immaculate conception. The effect is achieved by mixing marble dust in plaster. This refractive surface is what makes it seem ethereal. The structure all but coalesces out of the clouds. At night it is brilliantly illuminated and the freeway impact is even more overpowering. Several times after dark I have nearly caused a gawking accident. As with Las Vegas hotels, the importance of using architecture as advertising is not lost on the Mormon church.

So, how to describe the impressive architecture of this Mormon temple? The word that keeps coming to my mind is confection. Impressive does not necessarily equate with good. The effect is greatly impressive, but the design does not qualify as great architecture in the same way that Las Vegas hotels do not qualify as great architecture. There is no real substance behind any of this. Like a giant pastry confection – say a wedding cake -- this temple is sweetness in excess, piling layer upon layer of fairytale goodness borrowed from fantastic dream images that never were. It does not emerge from any legitimate thread of architectural theory. The main confectioners, architects William S. Lewis Jr. and Kenneth Moeller, claim some sort of gothic influence (according to one Mormon web site). Other than overwrought verticality there is nothing gothic about this building. In fact, one might describe it as anti-gothic since the main tenant of gothic architecture was to liberate interior space by reducing exterior structure. In this temple the interior space is anticlimactic. You might assume from the exterior visage that this soaring temple encloses a wondrous and soaring interior, as would any gothic cathedral. In fact most of the temple is divided into small spaces like the baptistery (total immersion tank supported by twelve golden oxen), changing rooms for ceremonies (long rows of doors as in the Marx brother’s “Day at the Opera”), and other esoteric, but apparently spatially undemanding, uses. The Celestial Room at the top of the west tower is the biggest space in the building but it is nothing like we would normally expect in a large ecclesiastical edifice. What impact the Celestial Room may have is more a result of interior decoration than architecture. How do I know about the interior layout if non-Mormons are forbidden entry? Two sources. First, I visited the Las Vegas temple before it was sealed “for time and all eternity.” Different architect; same program. Anyone may visit a temple during a public open house before it is consecrated. Like all modern temples, the Las Vegas building is divided into small spaces for ceremony with the aforementioned Celestial Room at the top. The Celestial Room is supposed to remind you of heaven. In Las Vegas heaven is, apparently, mauve carpeting and French provincial furniture. To each their own. As Mormon canon says, “ …we dreamed each man according to the impression of his dream.” (Genesis 41:11.)

My second source is the Nice Lady in Red who was the official greeter at the San Diego temple. Sitting at the ready on a shade-dappled stone bench with a laminated picture book of temple images, she was eager to answer the questions of visitors who wanted to learn more. She allowed me to photograph her pictures of the Celestial Room and the self-supporting grand stairway that fits under one of the temple’s towers.
The Nice Lady in Red was quite proud of the temple interior. It is similar to the Las Vegas version. She told me that when Mormons enter the Celestial Room they are all required to dress in white. She said this further enhances the impression that one might actually be in heaven. This image sticks in one’s mind. I wonder what they do in that room, gliding around like angels? Mormons seem to be enthralled with this sort of thing. So what’s the harm? I don’t wish to demean anyone’s religious inclinations, but the architectural harm lies in confusing this treacle with real architecture. Perhaps their overreaching is a result of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints being a newly-invented religion. They try very hard to establish their credibility by insisting on such grandiose buildings.

I fully understand that many people sincerely like this kind of building design. (I have a hard time calling it architecture.) I would ask them to look closely at their reactions. Do they really think it’s good architecture or is this just a visceral response to some pretty great special effects? We shouldn’t confuse good set design with good architecture. Truly, if the San Diego temple were painted green I would expect the Wizard of Oz inside. As for the Celestial Room, Morris Lapidus would have been proud. Morris Lapidus was an architect famous for designing over-the-top Miami Beach hotel lobbies in the 1950s. The Celestial Room rises no higher than this glam approach to interior design. I actually like it in hotels; it is suspect in a religious setting.

Such superficiality hardly seems like real architecture. The nut of the problem is, to borrow from Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. The San Diego Mormon Temple provides tantalizing suggestions that something might be going on. But with a cardboard cut-out approach to the exterior and no significant interior volume there’s not much meat and a lot of potatoes.
The Nice Lady in Red did her best to present this building in its most flattering light. I listened politely and without sarcasm. The second half of her book was about the Mormon religion. She explained how it was founded by Joseph Smith who came upon the angel Moroni in the woods near Palmyra, New York. He was led to golden tablets which he translated into the Book of Mormon using magic spectacles while hidden behind a curtain. The angel Moroni is commemorated atop one of the spires of the temple: a golden figure blowing on his trumpet. Naturally, I was moved to asked the Nice Lady in Red about Mormon doctrines, such as their past interest in polygamy and current funding of controversial political initiatives. She referred me to the Mormon missionary system, which I expect will come calling one of these days. I just hope they don’t try to convince me that there is any substance to their buildings. Finally, I have a confession: when the Nice Lady in Red was preoccupied with another visitor I approached the main entrance. Yes, I set foot inside the sliding doors. Maybe the lobby isn’t actually forbidden. I don’t know. There were two guys dressed in white (just like the Nice Lady in Red said there would be), one looking exactly like Colonel Sanders. They didn't look too alarmed at my presence. I wanted to ask them more questions, because I had plenty. But they were busy with Mormons In Good Standing awaiting access to the elevators that flanked the reception desk. I suppose the elevators went up to the Celestial Room. I left, satisfied that I had seen enough.

As a footnote, I have a question: if only Mormons In Good Standing may enter the temple, what happens when non-Mormon fire marshals need to make an inspection? I’ve always been curious about this. The Nice Lady in Red didn’t know the answer. In my office the fire marshals drop in annually to check the fire extinguishers and make sure fire exits are clear. If they happen to come when the office is closed they keep coming back until we are open. They are pretty insistent about making these regular inspections. If anyone knows the answer to this question I’d really like to know. Click on comments below to write your response. Thank you.