30 October 2014


In Pasadena, where I live, the community values careful monitoring of the design of new construction and remodeling of buildings. The city has established a panel to review proposed building projects which, as a group, is aptly called, 'The Design Review Board'. This panel, consisting of professionals and other appointed interested parties, takes its work seriously. It's not easy to get their approval.

An applicant must go through a rigorous and multi-stepped process, satisfying City staff about the suitability and code-compliance of the proposed project. Having run through that pre-administrative gauntlet, the applicant then faces a series of hearings before the Board. These hearings are often nerve racking, time and resource consuming, and sometime even humiliating experiences. To the board’s credit, the process weeds out the really ugly and inappropriate proposals. Yet the rigor of maneuvering through an arduous administrative process too often discourages well intentioned project owners and talented designers and architects from crafting a great project.

I believe some simplification and definition of purpose is in line. My suggestion is that this panel and ones like it really only need to focus on two things:
  1. HOW THE PROJECT CONTRIBUTES TO THE STREET (or any other relevant public space): Things that review boards obsess on—style, proportions, level of detail, all having to do with the building—they don't matter nearly as much as that limited portion of the building that contributes to the ‘outdoor room’ on which it adjoins. Transitions, contributions to the sculptural quality of the street space, and the processional quality of the outdoor space (is it fun to walk down the street and enjoy the building as one passes by?), these are the most important things in the larger sense.
  2. QUALITY: The quality of the building itself, the substantial nature of its construction and the use of suitable materials and components (the things you touch and feel) need to be considered. These elements far more important than style, or proportions, or even the building’s other architectural features. It's not that these things don't have importance, but a good window is far more important then a cornice, or an undulating wall. And there is the added benefit of having a building that will stand up over time.
If a city and its design panel places its attention to basic building quality and how a building will contribute to its neighborhood as a whole, the remaining desirable architectural traits, appropriateness, and proportion tend to come through on their own.

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