Here is something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake, the lust to make the world intolerable. Its habitat is the United States. Out of the melting pot emerges a race which hates beauty as it hates truth. (H.L. Mencken, the Libido for the Ugly, 1927)
Neither natural ability without instruction nor instruction without natural ability can make the perfect artist. (Vitruvius, 10 Books on Architecture)
That good design adds value to buildings and, on the urban scale, to entire cities, is an increasingly popular insight, yet, not a new one. Design review as part of development approval has been around for decades, a testament to the importance of good design, despite Mencken's spiteful observation. (One of the oldest review committees may be the Vieux Carre Commission, established in New Orleans in 1936, admittedly for mostly historic preservation, a subset of design review).
In Baltimore the importance of design is recognized with the clumsily named Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel (UDARP) whose predecessors go all the way back to 1964. Other cities such as Seattle or Philadelphia (2012) started design review much later. The questions this article tries to explore are: Can good design be ordained or achieved through advisory peer review? Are those design reviews effective or are they just a fig leaf, or even worse, an impediment?
We will skip over the deeper questions such
|Design Review in Baltimore: Mixed use tower at the|
Inner Harbor, review of massing models (photo: Philipsen)
In most cases design review is embedded in the overall development review process through which any project has to go before a building or construction permit is issued. For those who think development should be facilitated and streamlined, design review is just another hurdle on the path to plan approval and construction. A hurdle that some pro-urban development advocates say cities can ill afford since cities are already disadvantaged compared to "green fields" and suburban or rural jurisdictions with fewer regulations and complications.
|The long way from concept to construction: Baltimore's|
development review process
On the other hand, no urbanist would deny that indeed, good design matters, and that great cities cannot emanate from badly designed buildings. How important good design really is in the this time of cut-throat competition for markets, residents and a highly educated workforce can be seen in a recent TED talk by ULI Fellow Ed McMahon. He speaks mostly about authenticity, open space, and preservation, but the very same arguments could and should be made for excellence of new construction. Still, can't good design be achieved with good zoning, with design guidelines and masterplans, especially in our age of form-based codes, new-urbanist zoning, performance zoning and all kinds of incentives? Wouldn't regulations that prohibit certain things be predictable and bring about good design while avoiding arbitrary decisions or favors?
No, say the proponents of design review. No matter how well defined zoning, masterplans or planned unit development guidelines are, good design cannot be ordained or regulated. Not only is the definition elusive – like pornography, one knows it when one sees it – but design by regulation would also be stifling, prohibit innovation and exclude the element of the unpredictable that is so essential to design. The more refined design guidelines are, the more predictable and bland the outcomes. This may be a safeguard against really bad design but is hardly a recipe for excellence. In fact, Baltimore's attempt to include design guidelines in a draft of the new zoning code, met with vehement opposition of the urban design committee of the local American Institute of Architects (AIA) which I co-chair. Overly specific images seemed to ordain traditional architectural style and "compatibility" with existing surroundings. Compatibility is a favorite of design guidelines around the world and essentially ask for "more of the same", as such this requirement is a formula for blandness and isn't even good for historic districts where one can see in the best historic neighborhoods how diverse and non-compatible good architecture has always been. (Ill conceived design guidelines would present in themselves fertile ground for a separate article). This verdict on detailed, specific and prescriptive design guidelines means that one needs the flexibility and discretion of a panel or board that sees and reviews actual project designs. Only with a review of real drawings can one judge if a design is good, suitable and acceptable in a given setting. In other words, instead of simple checklists one needs also jidgment and trial and error.
|Boston's road-map through the development process|
Clearly, the approach of subjecting a design to a review by peers, administrators or the public, exposes owner and architect to a potentially very subjective procedure that poses risks to both because of its unpredictability. Owners often dread design review because presentations, particularly those that do not pass muster with the board, cost real money, especially once one adds the cost of necessary modifications and additional presentations. Architects dread design review because they sometimes feel they are back in architectural studio in school, with their peers going on and on about "parti, composition, materiality and context," all terms much loved by architects and without much meaning for the rest of the world. Worse, the peers may not be qualified, or could be frustrated designers getting out their envy on some big name architects and their projects just because they can. On the other hand, a good design review can strengthen the architect's hand for a strong design, and might make the difference in the case of a doubtful owner. Design review as part of a public process also adds transparency and allows neighbors, community representatives and the press access to projects, ideas, and concepts as they evolve.
With such opposing views it becomes abundantly obvious that the devil is in the details. How much so was well illustrated ironically on the AIA's own National Headquarters in DC was reviewed by the federal Commission of Fine Arts and the original design didn't pass because of the vigorous objections of renowned fellow architect Gordon Bunshaft of SOM. If the process is badly conceived and executed, design review can easily become all the bad things while a well designed process with highly qualified reviewers can avoid the pit-falls and elevate the design of a city.
|Seattle's design review process|
To achieve the desired outcomes, the process of design review needs to be based on a number of good principles that establish who reviews, what and when and what criteria are used. Here some of the basics:
Who should review?
Who would be better qualified to do a design review than peers? In Baltimore and in many other cities like Toronto the peers consist of appointed professionals in the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture and planning. (Toronto also seats an engineering and a sustainability expert on a somewhat larger panel). Sometimes there is also representation of city agencies such as the Planning Department and the economic development agency. In the case of Baltimore the agency representatives give the appointed members a wide berth. The appointed members usually come from outside of town or from academia so to not run into to many conflicts of interest in local development. Some other cities such as Seattle and Cleveland emphasize the professional aspect less in favor of the participatory one. Both cities have extensive reviews all across the city with seven review committees which also include citizens. In the case of Seattle, citizens representation is divided up into residential, retail and development representatives and the professional is only one among the others. I think that design review should not be conflated with community input; they are two different things, each viable and necessary in its own arena.
When should design review begin?
Nobody will deny that development in a city is a political process that involves many more layers than adherence to regulations. Many projects require land acquisition, sometimes through eminent domain, others require infrastructure improvements, like roadways or bridges, often times funded through tax increment financing, bonds and the like, and still other projects may receive direct subsidies. Critics find the process often less than transparent. Would a design review that begins before all the other deals are done add transparency? By coupling design review to the decisions on support and regulatory exceptions, etc., the thinking goes that communities and the public would have more leverage. Another argument for an early start of design review is that design is much driven by the site, zoning and the like and that a design review that starts after those decisions are made has let the horse already out of the barn. On the other hand, during site plan review so many variables are still unresolved that design is still very basic and offers little that can be critiqued. In a recent example for a large mixed use tower along Baltimore's waterfront, the presenting out-of-town design team took just that approach and presented in their first "introductory session" only variations in massing models with the express purpose to include the review panel early on. If design review starts early it becomes inevitable that the review process would need to have at least two rounds, probably a good idea for any meaningful "give and take."
|A residential tower on a former industrial site at the Inner|
Harbor: Design Approved (Solomon Cordwell Buenz)
What type projects should be reviewed?
Most major cities do not require that everything that is built be reviewed by a design review board. In Baltimore a distinction is made depending on project size; smaller projects may just receive a staff review. Baltimore also has a so called "Site Plan Review" as part of a typical development review process, a review by staff that precedes UDARP review and was originally limited to site issues such as circulation, orientation, access and parking but now includes zoning, masterplan review, fire safety and other regulatory review. In Baltimore, if site plan review is required, design review becomes mandatory as well. Staff will decide whether a session with the whole UDARP review panel is needed or staff review suffices. Other cities limit review to very large projects (Philadelphia) downtown or to projects that require variances, have city subsidies or otherwise require special treatment such as Planned Unit Developments (PUD). Toronto put special emphasis on the influence projects have on the public realm. Portland, OR allows applicants the choice to follow strict design guidelines (in the so-called "design districts) or submit themselves to a project design review.
What should be subjected to review?
In Baltimore, urban design and architectural design will be reviewed as well as landscape design and site design. The overlap with already noted site plan review is intentional, whereby the review panel represents the higher level of scrutiny. Most design review panels will only review the exterior of buildings, a line that cannot always be neatly held since good architecture expresses the functions and interior logic on the exterior of the building which requires at least explanations of the interior design. In cities with a multi-stage review like Baltimore (minimum two presentations) the items that get reviewed become more detailed in the second review and include signs, lighting and materials. The attention to detail is one of the strongest arguments for design review since the myriad of details are almost entirely impossible to cover adequately in design guidelines.
|Boston designguildelines for commercial storefronts|
What should the review criteria be?
The question of review criteria is maybe the most important one. Sound criteria can make the review process more predictable, less arbitrary and combine the advantages of review boards while avoiding the negatives. It seems that criteria and metrics can work especially well in the realm of urban design where criteria can be derived seamlessly from regulations, guidelines and masterplans that address setbacks, massing, orientation, uses, parking and the like. Criteria should be performance-based so they are not a template for design and still avoid undesirable outcomes such as blocked views, an uninspiring public realm, overpowering scale clashes, poor place making or lack of landscaping, etc. By contrast, prescriptive criteria would prescribe style, materials or certain forms, all areas that should generally remain free for the designer to choose even in historic districts. As already explained, compatibility is an undesirable and "lazy" criterion, especially when a live review takes place in which a design can prove if it is able to thrive on contrast and add the vibrancy that often comes from diversity. As for all metrics, there isn't one hard and fast "a priori" rule, the exact reason why design review by peers is a good idea in the first place. It is the balance of flexible but clear criteria and the live review that is the formula for success. Absent good criteria, design review can become arbitrary and capricious and devolve into a fruitless expression of opinions that will give the designer little guidance.
What should the power of the review board be and what the consequences?
Review boards are typically advisory to the Planning Commission or the Planning Director with stronger regulations requiring the involvement of the review board but not giving them veto power. Appeals may be possible but the appeal would address those bodies who are empowered by the city charter to make final decisions, not the review board.
I have attended many Baltimore's UDARP sessions as presenter and as listener. Together with the local AIA, I was involved in the reform of the review process leading to the current form in 2007. I also served for ten years on Baltimore County's Design Review Panel and did design reviews as a Borough Council member in Germany. From those observations I see mostly cordial proceedings in which the presenting architects gladly explain their design approach. In most cases the design team acknowledges that the review has helped them to think their design through in a more thorough way or in the consideration of factors that they may not have seen on their own such as other nearby projects, public works plans or the history of the site for which earlier projects may have been designed that fell through.
With Baltimore's renaissance shifting into higher gear, bigger, better and more elaborately designed projects become more frequently the subject of the reviews, often times presented by highly regarded local or out-of-town firms. The more reputable the firm, the more deferential the peer reviewers. Still, the questioning is often relentless and frequently for a good reason because even the best designers overlook things or create weak spots. Once in a while a poorly designed project gets really ripped. In that case, the review results in a rejection that requires the team to come back with an altered design without advancing to the next level.
|Steven Gorn of Questar presenting at UDARP|
(photo:The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)
Even though panelists sometimes enjoy pontificating or showing off, overall comments and discourse improve design and resolve unfortunate design features that occur even on the best and well thought out designs, often times by inadvertently overlooking certain views or exposures that require good local knowledge. "Second tier" east coast cities like Baltimore, hobbled by economic restructuring, and with a large historic building stock are often quite conservative in their approach to architecture and design or accustomed to the idea that beggars can't be choosers. Design review can help to raise the bar. The more excellent projects that are built, the better the ones that follow usually become. Excellence begets excellence, and so does mediocrity.
There are many cases where the presence of professional peers has encouraged owners and their architects to become more ambitious in their design. I would imagine that this encouragement also helped architects to present better and more daring designs to their clients who may otherwise have settled for plain vanilla. Overall, design review boards or panels are not only a good safeguard against really bad design but may even be one against bland design.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff
Quotes from Baltimore's Urban Design Review Panel:
School buildings in the past were "always introverted as opposed to being extroverted and transparent ... and they almost always ignored their context," Burns said. "You have a tremendous opportunity to design a building that engages the community, that makes not only physical connectivity but that is extroverted and transparent because it's a new building." (Design review panel architect Richard Burns addressing school designers from Grimm and Partner Architects).
"It's a much stronger building than we saw last time," said panelist Richard Burns. "I applaud you all for listening to our comments, and I think we have a better building." (Design review panel architect Richard Burns addressing architects Soloman, Cordwell Buenz of Chicago at the final review of a residential tower at the Inner Harbor)
Panelist Gary Bowden said he thought the plan was a compromise. "What we have is a hybrid of an urban and a suburban environment," Bowden said. "I like what you've done and I think you've responded to all of the comments up until now." (Design Review panelist Gary Bowden, FAIA addressing shopping center designer Brown, Craig and Turner Architects of Baltimore)External Links:
Newspaper articles about Baltimore's Design Review Panel:
Baltimore SUN: Articles about the Design Review Panel UDARP
News report about current UDARP review
UDARP Review of $1B Schools Construction
UDARP Grants final Approval to 414 Light Street Tower
Redevelopment Plan Gets Approval on Third Try
Design Review in various cities:
Design Review Baltimore, MD, Requirements
Design Review Baltimore County
Design review Philadelphia, PA
Design Review Cleveland, OH
Design Review Seattle, Wa
Gallery of Great Projects (Seattle)
Design Review Pasadena, Ca
Design Review Boston, MA, Development Review, Boston
Design Review, Toronto
Design Review Portland, OR
Commission of Fine Arts
Articles and papers about design review and design:
Philadelphia: Antidote or additional burden?
Aesthetic Control: Berkeley Paper
The Libido for the Ugly (H.L. Mencken)
Where am I? The Power of Uniqueness (video)