I went to an engaging presentation last week at the Denver Art Museum facilitated by ULI about raising the bar for design in Denver. There was much discussion about the pace of development in the region and how we are building the city NOW. This creates a particular urgency to build with quality given the changes that are occurring in all of Denver's neighborhoods. But what is quality? Who decides? What is good design? Isn't it just all subjective anyway?
Brad Buchanan, the City's Planning Director rightly put much of the blame on the applicants - the developers and architects who are creating the new projects. I agree with this and feel we must put the responsibility on architects (and their clients) to raise the bar. We can educate and lead our clients, the community, and the city to expect, demand, and desire compelling design. It is the architect's job to balance the competing interests of any project and show the way forward to excellence. We can help create a design culture in the city where there becomes an expectation of design excellence.
Which of course can lead to Design Review. In the ULI event this was mentioned as one solution to help in, Brad's words, "avoids the D's and F's". As a member of the University of Colorado Design Review Board and longtime member of the Belmar Review Board (Architectural Control Committee) I have had some experience with this. Design Review can do more than avoid the worst. At its best it can be a high level peer review that provides an important critique of the work presented. A standing board knows the context better than the applicant and also know the history of the past, present and future projects in that district to create an important dialogue between sites that a single building architect may not have. Too often, the architect is focused on the multiple demands placed on her: budget, program, schedule, City requirements, etc. which can force a diluted focus on the design and the setting. Design Review can help re-focus a project on critical site-specific issues. This is especially true when there is a national chain (think hotel or senior living) involved. A big remaining question though is WHERE (and how) should Design Review be implemented.
This is a critical issue as the region grows. High quality design can be a silver lining for those wary (and weary) of growth. If we can use growth to make our cities and neighborhoods more beautiful, memorable, and inclusive then we can rightly say that it was worth it.