In Dialogue; Exploring the Evolving Issue (and on-going conversations) of “Quality” Architectural Design & Development in Denver

Whether it’s at the espresso machine or the water cooler, there are a lot of conversations amongst Denver’s professional design community regarding Denver’s rapid development, and the arguably contested design character and quality that has defined many recent additions to Denver’s mixed-use, multi-color, multi-story skyline.

After marinating post water-cooler, these conversations recently became more “public” through the medium of writing. One only needs to look as far as Denver’s major publications to find a series of snarky blog posts regarding Denver’s “worst” buildings, or more studied editorials such as an Op-Ed in the Denver Post by local architect Jeff Sheppard. Most recently, a showcase article in Modern in Denver from Arch 11 claimed that “Modern is Not a Style,” providing an interesting perspective on how and why Denver’s recent “modern homes” do not follow the didactic thinking and principles of the actual modern movement in architecture.

What’s shifted is that these conversations are no longer being relegated to written word and informal conversation. Instead, they are becoming topics for large public forums and community dialogue, ultimately focused on raising awareness and, while vague in its measures of action or implementation, eliciting reactions that might resonate within design and development firms in Denver moving forward.

Just a few weeks ago, the AIA Colorado and ULI Colorado presented a discussion at the Denver Art Museum aptly titled “Denver is Booming: But is Design Quality Keeping Pace?” In the event description, the conversation was posed as a series of questions including, “Are we getting buildings and public spaces worthy of our city and region? Why so many look-a-like stucco buildings?”

A similar discussion related to Arch11’s recent aforementioned article will take place this evening at Modern in Denver’s first “Design Conversations” event, focusing on “Design’s decline in quality.. [this discussion will] explore what it means to be modern in principle…how as a community can we affect change…?”

I was just updated this event has reached full capacity—demonstrating both a need and desire for connection, dialogue, and eventually, measures that might lead to tangible change.

Denver is a city that continuously demonstrates an appreciation and alignment with grassroots, community-based measures geared towards incremental and arguably “positive” change. The current design discussions and red flags Denver’s design, real estate, and urban planning communities have come together to wave are both important and imperative to Denver’s rapidly-evolving landscape.

My hope is that while conversations like these may be important first steps towards creating a collective consciousness and concern regarding relevant issues, we must also address (and answer) the question: What are the steps (and who are the stakeholders) we must engage to actually see progress in improving the quality of architectural design and development in moving Denver forward?

Please feel free to respond to this post as yet another forum for aggregating thoughts related to this topic.

Inevitable Change

 

There are numerous blogs, columns, and articles regarding the ins and outs of personal romantic relationships. In recent years, the topic of these articles has shifted from the analog courtship to the nuances of relationships in the digital age.

One of my favorite Sunday columns in the New York Times, for example, “Modern Love,” has featured countless articles about online dating, the ethical dilemmas of being able to google someone prior to a date, and the travails of long distance relationships initiated through an online connection.

Every now and then a Modern Love column gains traction, as the topic strikes a sometimes vulnerable or heartfelt chord with its audience. This happened a few weeks ago, when a writer talked about her experience in being “ghosted,” i.e. the act of being broken up with by one partner simply “disappearing.” Numerous articles in the Times ensued, eliciting people to tell their own “ghosting” stories, and what it means to be entirely non-accountable in the age of social media and the omnipresent access to cell phones.

What is interesting to me is that I’ve rarely seen these columns address the topic of platonic workplace relationships, and the ability for those professional, mentor/mentee, peer-to-peer, and co-worker/friend relationships to evolve and change, or, to be lost or, in a sense, “ghosted” once an individual leaves one workplace for another.

A few months ago, a former colleague and I mused that, when intellectualized, it can seem strange that professionals’ spend the majority of their waking hours with an assortment of co-workers rather than with one’s family and friends. Regardless of how separate one chooses to keep their personal and professional lives, these daily collaborators and like-minded individuals become important voices and interactions in the DNA of our day-to-day, and undeniably play an important role in the fulfilment many people seek by choosing to work in a collaborative office environment.

Having recently switched jobs, I’ve experienced the interesting process of leaving one work environment and daily cast of confidantes and co-workers for an entirely new set of faces. I have not “ghosted” any of my former co-workers by any means, but what is interesting is that in switching workplaces, one must accept that the daily relationships that have been forged by the simple nature of seeming people 8-10 hours a day, 5 days a week will inevitably evolve and change.

While friendships that transcended work have easily translated beyond the structure of “place,” it is interesting that in inviting professional change, we also bring about personal change.

Like most big decisions, the outcomes are varied and nuanced. I would argue that while transitions take time and serve as a healthy and humbling reminder to be patient, a tangible benefit of pursuing new opportunities is the notion that there are new professional relationships to be forged, viewpoints to learn, and processes and related outcomes to explore.

 

AIA Look Up Film Challenge

Don’t have 4th of July plans?

Why not channel your inner-filmmaker and enter the AIA’s “Look Up Film Challenge?”

A part of the AIA’s recent “I look up” campaign, the AIA is looking for submissions of short, 3-5 minute films from teams of 1-3 person collaborations that “illuminates how architecture enriches our lives and our communities.”

Register by July 15th to receive the AIA’s “secret prompt” on July 17th. Winners will be notified in September and earn an award of a cool $3000, two SXSW Film Festival Badges, two round-trip flights to Austin, Texas, a one-on-one session with a media professional, and national distribution of their film.

For more information as well as an inspiring example story featuring Chris Downey, an architect that returned to practice after losing his sight, go here: http://ilookup.org/filmchallenge/.

Happy filming, and Happy Fourth of July!

The Long (and Short) Of Things

A few years ago, I read a piece by David Brooks entitled “The Summoned Self” that has remained fresh and relevant as time and life continue on.  Given what I believe is a relevant message for young professionals, and  really people of any age or stage of life, this blog post is my personal reinterpretation and synthesis of Brooks’ piece, through the lens of my own life and experiences as a millennial and person experiencing rapid-fire change both professionally and personally.

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Having lost a parent at a fairly early age, I am constantly trying to reconcile my long and short-term goals and views, both personally and professionally. This often looks like an internal dialogue that mimics a pendulum swinging between thoughts regarding “live in the present moment and enjoy it to its fullest” to the extreme of “what do I really want to accomplish—to achieve in my lifetime?”

Having discussed these states of being with many friends and colleagues, in many different contexts and subtexts, it seems this oscillation between the quotidian and the profound, the domestic and the daring, is fairly universal.

More simply said, it seems that having to decide on the “best” decision at a certain moment versus the long-term impact this decision might have when paired with subsequent decisions is simply a necessary feat in order to live from one day to the next.

While I might conclude that there is really no option but to act on the decision that elicits the most confidence and to then proceed with unflappable conviction, I believe that perhaps one of the biggest challenges young professionals must face is how to balance the two—i.e. to accept a healthy amount of organic evolution of their career and life while still steering their ship towards long-term goals that align with personal ambitions and aspirations.

As it’s graduation season, it’s perhaps best to illustrate this idea when considering one’s initial departure from academic life. After graduating from academia, this line of dual decision-making becomes omnipresent. It is also at this time that a legible fork in the road becomes highly visible.

What does this fork look like, you might ask, and where do the roads lead?

Speaking only from personal experience, watching myself and peers figure out our own “paths” post graduation, years later these roads continue to look like two different approaches to what I still hope will be a similar outcome.

The first is the pursuit of what might best be called a “set course,” inclusive of a decided upon career, place to settle, and ultimately—a multidimensional life comprised of what one might consider “predictable” decision making. In many ways this path is the foundation of American life in the mid 20th century; a time when pursuing a “stable” career and domestic bliss would lead to known “success” related to specific decisions and actions (some might still refer to this as one manifestation of “the American dream.”)

The second path, which seems increasingly popular in this mobile and global lifetime, looks more like a Robert Frost poem. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Perhaps the first true millennial, Frost might have suggested that exploring a new path is a chance to explore and evolve, all the while not really knowing what the set outcome might be, but pursuing one decision to the next in order to find out.

At the precipice of my 30’s, I’m finding that the paths of the millennial generation, both “less” and/or “more” traveled, are beginning to converge (after a decade of what one might only describe as exciting divergence.)

While some of my contemporaries chose to settle into careers and family life shortly after school, they are now in many ways beginning their Frost-like journeys, having achieved success at an early age. Others continue to explore, waiting to see where they land. The majority, it seems, are still in the middle, starting to make decisions that might lead to less physical movement and a greater sense of investment in people and place, but all the while trying to stay cognizant of which way the scales his/her decisions might tip; short and long, present and future.

Revisiting Wright

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Many posts ago I eluded to a rather embarrassing moment in my career development, but never quite disclosed the full story.  Months later, an experience has prompted me to tell the story in-full, if only to set the scene for a recent trip I took with Knoll and several other local Denver designers to Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home, studio, architecture school, and in many ways, complete Xanadu in the Arizona desert.

 So here goes…

If the diversity in age and educational background of my M.Arch class is any indication, it’s evident that a calling to become an architect finds people at many different ages and stages of life. From a 40-something former computer programmer to a 30-something friend that had studied medicine and law before deciding on architecture (rounded out with classmates including a physicist, mathematician, and environmental designer,) our past vocations and interests ran the gamut of possible professions and passions.

My calling to become an architect came twice. First, as a young child with a preference for building with blocks rather than Barbies, and consistently requesting that my parents and I go for walks to “look at houses.” Throughout school, when given an open-ended assignment, most of my papers were written on various architectural topics. From a research paper on Julia Morgan to a humanities project in which I “recreated” Frank Lloyd Wright’s sketchbook over a 10 year period, my love of architecture remained present throughout my academic development.

All this changed when I discovered school “politics.” After pursuing school president and working on some local political campaigns, around the time to apply to college I decided confidently on the George Washington University, where I might hone my skills in the sociopolitical sphere.

Fully accepted and with my first deposit in place, my family and I went on a last hurrah family vacation during spring break of my senior year. My parents had planned a great trip to Arizona- exploring Phoenix, Scottsdale, staying in a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel, and later exploring the stratified landscape of Sedona.

Where it all began...

Where it all began…

One stop on our vacation led us to Taliesin West. Fast forward from parking to sitting in the first stop on the tour; Frank Lloyd Wright’s personal studio. As a full group of about 25 people looked on, our youthful 80 year old docent began explaining the unique environment that Wright created. Several minutes into this speech I began to cry. Not quiet, muffled tears, but true, loud, ugly sobs.

In perhaps what might be one of the very few epiphanies I might have in this lifetime, all of my ambitions and aspirations to become an architect became apparent at this moment.

To the chagrin of my younger sister, and the beckoning calls of my mother that I was already accepted at GW and that I should not apply to the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, I left Taliesin with a complete change in mind and attitude regarding my future academic and professional course.

While I ultimately did not attend Wright’s school (and was consequently not required to build my own dwelling place first semester), I did end up pursuing art, art history, and English in college, all the while building a portfolio to attend architecture school on the graduate level.

Currently I have one more ARE and I will finally be allowed to say that I fulfilled a dream to become an Architect (with a capital A!) rooted in a meandering path and a powerful moment of understanding.

As you can imagine, given the opportunity to revisit Wright, I felt both trepidation and excitement. Would I feel sentimental, inspired, or-least desirable—underwhelmed? Having been taught to accept and give constructive criticism at a moment’s notice, would I feel critical of a place that at one time felt magical for reasons both tangible and inexplicable?

Thankfully upon experiencing a tour as an older version of my rather consistent self, I felt both the nostalgia I had anticipated, as well as a deeper connection to why the tour had been special the first time around.

The man himself...

The man himself…

While I am not a Wright zealot by any means, being in an environment entirely curated by one individual’s subscription to a specific way of life communicated through design still proved to be visually and conceptually fascinating, especially given the small chance a place like Taliesin could ever be realized in today’s society (building code alone would drastically change the aesthetics and proportions.)

Wright’s vision to create an environment that is school, residence, museum, not to mention a living laboratory that continues to facilitate experimentation and a special appreciation of nature, art, and culture remains highly relevant.  In most architecture studios today, these principles remain an important cornerstone in how designers think about thoughtfully integrating nature into the built world (and vice versa.)

As we drove to the airport from the landmark, I felt appreciative of the opportunity to see something of personal significance twice in my life, not to mention at vastly different stages of life. Not only was it a moment to reflect, but also a moment to acknowledge that for me personally, intuition and accepting life’s obvious and subtle cues remains an equally important part in decision-making as reason.

Something tells me Wright might agree.