A Place Earned, Not Given

How architecture lost its way in the West and how it can redefine our century

When I travel to building conferences and say I’m from Colorado invariably people comment to me that since we are such a progressive place we must be building amazing stuff. A quick trip through our airport might quantify that notion with billboards advertising our environmental bent. A new train underneath a rather peculiar mustache of a building whisks us to downtown Denver’s state-of- the-art transit complex. And then there is the grand airport terminal which bathes visitors in a soft Colorado light. Jeppesen Terminal may be an overly obvious allusion of the grand peaks to the west, or less convincingly native teepees, but it works because unlike almost any other airport in the world, it makes an unambiguous statement about where you are. This quality of place is potently secured when driving by the sculpture of a powerful blazing blue mustang reaching towards dramatic skies with ruby eyes lit by an inner fire. What a bold way to enter a place, it does not really matter if you love or hate it, the horse energizes and terrifies, it wakes you up. The fact that sculptor Luis Jiménez died during its creation only makes the experience of encountering it that much more vivid.

However, driving along our quickly metastasizing Front Range, ideas of progressiveness slips away like late spring snow. Large homes rife with dormers and oversized gables are the bloated carcasses of cabins washing onto the high plains with the economic tide. Then, from paste and copy neighborhoods, to paint by number condos, to beige stucco box retailers with signs in primary colors on top — the message is that we are nowhere. This is the backdrop that architects confront when they ask what is the meaning of this place?

I share in Tomecek Studio Architecture’ unease in their essay You Are Here which underscores the unfortunate state of architectural design in Colorado. With such an abundance of demand for shelter, too many local developers and architects have simply abandoned the design concept relating to our cultural and natural environs. We are in a crisis of place, motivated by profit and speed to the degradation of intellectually vigorous outcomes. We are on the upswing of what I refer to as the real estate machine. The only things that count are how big, where is it, and how much does it cost? To this narrow measure our buildings perform brilliantly. But the value of place is not given, it is earned. This value is coaxed out of a collective human need to belong and is nurtured by invention and investment. We cannot import it, codify it, or play to a nostalgia. We can only truly design for now. We need an authentic architecture.

By an authentic architecture I mean one that inspires us to reflect on where we are. In my book Hyperlocalization of Architecture I visited several regions around the world to understand how they excel in new environmental architecture based on conditions of place and culture. Most of the knowledge taken from that work cannot simply be taken out of context and overlaid onto our experience in Colorado. We cannot make Spanish buildings but we can learn from the buildings about designing to the sun. We cannot make Tokyo neighborhoods but we can experiment with new urban architecture using finely designed small homes as a social catalyst. We cannot just create colorful and kinetic Australian buildings but we can adopt their experimental attitude. By way of so many other regions in the world we need to learn from them to understand ourselves.

A sense of now is as critical as the concept of place. The irony of architecture is that to be authentic it needs to be informed by our idea of who we are in the moment, even if it is to last generations. This is why the focus of an architecture of our time is so interesting and important. It’s a dynamic exploration of the wisdom of a very old profession pressing up against the edges of our aspirations. This architecture of now borrows liberally from the successful vocabulary of the past while adding to the language for future designers to work with.

What I see in Colorado is a design culture burdened by a process that simply mimics either it’s forbearers or distant cultures. The result is buildings that are caricatures of a place, never approaching the mastery of detail that was typical of our urban building stock from a century earlier. This churlish design approach ignores the best aspects of those old buildings while only tepidly embracing contemporary knowledge of program, materials, energy and space. In contrast take a quick survey of contemporary European buildings and you may note that their juxtaposition to old buildings enhance the quality of both. Contrast rather than ubiquity makes place.

A similar lesson can be applied to new multi-use, lot filling apartments that are filling our urban corridors. One after another follow the same plot line — a modest change in texture, tucked in tiny patios, and low cost finishes painted in ochre, beige or brick. They may have a meek set of towers with a hat. They lack dynamic perforation or a core; they are just a repeated sequence. Their bulk is awkwardly disguised by busyness. For energy efficiency or construction costs these are poor choices for design, but somehow they have become the urban aesthetic equivalent of the Polo shirt.

To address this necessary shift, we will first have to come to terms with an era of enormous growth balanced with environmental responsibility. Buildings consume more materials and energy than anything else we do by a significant margin. An authentic design is based on the understanding that we need buildings that do not add to the burden of a stressed climate and earth. They are deeply energy efficient and resource wise. They are healthy and adaptive, built with a materiality which is based on a circular use.

In Colorado we can foster a set of design values that are realized by an understanding of the environment and by challenging ourselves. We are independent, riveted by nature, open to new ideas around what is a leisure lifestyle. It seems we are very accepting of how things happen. We have one foot in the New West but a Midwest modesty has always shaped our towns and cities. I see this manifesting in our built environment as a largely provincial typology of structure, designed to avoid too much personality or even go beyond what building code dictates. But I wager that our identity is largely based on our powerful landscape and maybe that’s the place to start looking for design cues to break this mediocrity.

In my book I write…

There is no perfect building, only the potential for the perfect response to place.

Like our two decade old airport we can use the sculpture of geology to help formulate a building’s mass and identity. Most of us do not live in the mountains but we can evoke it in our cities. For a moment let's think about this literally shaping our buildings. I think of facets and unpredictable forms, an asymmetry which emulates and abstracts the Rockies. Materiality can be humble, even earthy, but inventive and left raw. Daylight and passive heating and cooling are principle design elements which inform perforations and volume. Rainwater in our high desert environment will shape our landscape and hardscapes. If we love the outdoors why not make that a central design element as our living space? Tiny private balconies on fussy boxes are completely inadequate, we need shared dynamic spaces that spread out and invite social interaction. The play of soft with hard can texturize our experience, just like a hike in a local rocky canyon heightens our awareness. This can make scale and density an ally.

Colorado is also a place of science and engineering. This provides a potential catalyst for deep building science, based on and adding to the work of building professionals everywhere. We tend to get into the technology trap, but building science is really the study and application of physics to inform our buildings. In my study and practicing of Passive House (from the German Passivhaus) and seeing our environment run from hot to cold, often on the same day, it is a perfect setting to show how we can make buildings respond positively to our unique environmental conditions. Other areas of exploration in our progressive design community can embed biophilia into our cities, or express the discipline of merging art and engineering into our public places. Like any design practice this experimentation will lead to some poor results but also is the basis for extraordinary buildings.

My Passive House home in the foothills

Much too often those who challenge convention are shunned, although I know that many share my concern about this mediocrity. One pattern I saw while researching my book was in places that embrace progressive architecture there is a culture of support and encouragement for each other’s daring efforts. I have talked with architects from Seattle to Sydney and Melbourne to Madrid who have normalized radical inquisitiveness about the state of design by both their contemporaries and on the world stage. We need to embrace the unexpected, the spontaneous contrarian conversation, a deep appreciation of cause and effect and playful experimentation. We need to be willing to be wrong for the right reasons, make room for the gap of the unknown and not fill it with doubt.

Who do we want to be? Just because we love where we are does not automatically translate to making a place to love. Designing for and reimagining place is continuous, delightful, and potentially unnerving. It is the embrace of a disciplined but bespoke architectonics catalyzed from the surrounding elements and guided by curated cultural wisdom.

Andrew Michler is a Certified Passive House Consultant based in Masonville, Colorado. His book [ours] Hyperlocalization of Architecture was released in 2015 and is published by eVolo Press.