Second grade urbanism

Direct from the wee urban planners of Mrs. Burger’s second grade class at Bear Creek Elementary School comes a new vision of city living:

Icicle City

The small, tall buildings are individual houses and the city is divided into distinct neighborhoods, each with its own collection of civic buildings – police station, fire station, airport, library, and because this is Boulder: the recycling center and Humane Society.    Actually the substructure of each building is a milk carton and the whole thing is a creative re-use project, making art (and urbanism) out of the collected used milk and juice cartons of the class.

(Boulder’s anti-density, NIMBYs might note that Icicle City is quite nice and the density is quite high – even 8 year olds know that much)

a house lost to fire

A weekend of working through a lot of drawings has put me hopelessly behind on the Reverb 10 project.  Catching up may not be possible, but in the midst of many studio hours logged over the last few days, I have been thinking about Friday’s prompt:

Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year

I am working on a design for a house for a couple who lost their house in the recent Fourmile Fire west of Boulder.  The first time I was going to meet them at their burned-out house, in that devastated landscape, I went up a bit early to give myself some time to react to the aftereffects of the fire without embarassing myself, without letting the sadness of the scene overwhelm me.

Looking at these now, I can still vividly recall the dry, blowing ash, the snow-crunch under foot of glass, embers and debris.  And of course the somber black of the trees and landscape and the desiccated whiteness of hard-baked drywall.  But most of all, the smell of smoke that lingered in my car for week.  I have a small piece of broken, melted glass from the fire in my office and just looking at it recalls that smoke, acrid and merciless.

new project – Sunshine Canyon house

I am very excited to be working on a new house project for a couple who lost their house in the recent Fourmile Canyon fire just west of Boulder.  I feel deeply for their loss – years of mementos, photos, etc. all lost, not to mention the house itself, the repository of years of memories and events.  So it is kind of odd for me to be happy working on a project that stems, to some extent, from a great sadness.  But I can’t help it, I love to make buildings, to sit down with folks, listen to their stories, their dreams and thoughts and try to give form to those explicit and implicit desires.

The design we are working on tries to balance the centrifugal forces that are directed toward magnificent mountain panoramic views with the centripetal forces that focus on a courtyard and the internal landscape of the house.

These are some relatively early views of SketchUp model of the project.  SketchUp is a great tool and its integration with Google Earth allows us to upload the model and place it in the actual topography and verify view corridors to specific sites – in this case, a distant view east to Denver and extensive views west and south to the mountains.

While I would probably never give up the tools of physical models, sketches, plans, etc., the use of SketchUp is a powerful tool that might tempt one away from such traditional design methods.  It can in fact be a bit difficult to remember that even though we can make a fully rendered model of the project that we can walk through, view furniture and the light streaming in, that we have not completed the design of the project.  We may have crafted the space and maybe even captured some of the touch and feel of the building, but we hardly even touched the larger and more difficult task of detailing the structure.  Every eave, every handrail, every window mutin has yet to be drawn and studied.  As my friend David Leary says, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Back to the future in the Rocky Mountain West

I have an abiding interest in the work of Charles Haertling, Boulder’s most well-known architect from the 1960’s and 70’s.  His organic designs have been extremely influential and are much more finely resolved than the better known works of other organic architects like Bruce Goff.

One of his most interesting buildings appears briefly in Woody Allen’s film Sleeper from 1973.  It is really only an establishing shot and I am pretty sure none of the interiors from the film are of the actual house.

Sleeper is an odd, slapstick Allen movie set in 2173 starring Allen and Diane Keaton.  To depict a future society, Allen used a number of buildings in the Denver/Boulder area, most notably the house in Genesse often referred to as the Sleeper House.  Not yet completed at the time of filming the building sat unfinished and deteriorating for many years until recently a new owner completed it and added a large and fairly sympathetic addition.

Also prominently featured in the film is the Mesa Lab of NCAR in Boulder.  Allen, captured and brainwashed here, eventually escapes and returns to sabotage the place.  There are a few establishing shots and a couple of Allen rappelling down one of the towers.

There are a couple of other local buildings in the movie.  Briefly seen in the very beginning is the main building of the Denver Botanic Gardens.

And as a humorous sight-gag, the Mile Hi church in Denver is rendered as a McDonalds.

What may be of note here is that Allen’s future is a city-less one filled with modern, space-age buildings and for that he left his precious NYC to film in Colorado.  The houses depicted in the movie, the Sleeper house and the Brenton house, are displayed as modern and although a bit alienating, not entirely evil.  NCAR on the other hand is the embodiment of the tyrannical, hero-worship technological society.  Maybe both of those portraits are appropriate for the programs of the buildings and maybe as well for the architectural background of I.M. Pei, NCAR’s architect.  Schooled in the heady days of unabashed hero-worship, the building has all the hallmarks of the Mies/Gropius/Rudolph scaleless, dehumanized placelessness.  By contrast, the houses by Haertling and Deaton were self-conscious antipodes to harsh geometries and materials of late Modernism and attempted to incorporate new spatial concepts while still holding on to Modernism’s liberating ideologies.  Does this difference represent a slightly different generation of architect, is it reflective of the radical shift in attitudes of the 1960’s, or is it a reflection of two architects born and educated west of the Mississippi (Deaton and Haertling) as opposed to the Modernist orthodoxy of the East Coast (Pei)?

(all images from the movie Sleeper, by Woody Allen)

Columbia cemetery – necropolis

Older cemeteries within the city are some of the most interesting urban structures.  Almost every city has at least one remaining cemetery sitting in what has become a vital part of the city.  This doesn’t compare to the number of cemeteries that are moved by municipal authorities as they have become surrounded by houses and shops and their land value has greatly exceeded their cultural and historic value.  Paradoxically, what “saves” most old cemeteries is often not their status as hallowed ground nor their famous inhabitants, but the  nature of the living “park” that the cemetery has become.  Nature trumps culture.

On a recent visit to Boulder’s Columbia Cemetery, what is most striking, even more so than the poignancy of the small, worn gravestones, was the use of the necropolis as a place for dog-walking, strolling and making out.  A fairly lively place.

I had thought I would write a post about the architecture of the cemetery, its layout and the different neighborhoods that make up place – military graves in one corner,  older stones tightly spaced, etc.  However, amongst the throngs of running dogs, cellphone squawking talkers and huddle lovers, it was more difficult to study this than I had imagined.

Unlike the cemeteries of the older East Coast cities and Chicago that I have visited, Columbia is not full of the ornate sculptural markers of pre-Raphaelite angels and mourning cloths.  It does have plenty of simple, modest markers signalling maybe a simple life, simply lived, one of so many.

So normally I would suggest a visit to your local cemetery, to walk around the markers and spend a quiet afternoon.  But don’t go for that.  It is really too crowded with the living to pay attention to the dead.  In Boulder, go to the cemetery –  go and enjoy a nice park without runners, without cyclists, without cross-training tri-athletes, without any “sports” at all except the eternal battle of dog versus squirrel.

Individual Landmarks – preservation one at a time

In Boulder, like many other cities, there are a number of historic districts designed to save the architecture of individual buildings but also the overall look and feel of a neighborhood.  In addition to this kind of district-based preservation, there are programs to save individual buildings where the immediate neighborhood may not justify a district designation or there is just too much homeowner resistance to the idea.  In Boulder, the program to preserve single buildings is called Individual Landmark Designation and the criteria are in line with many other such programs across the nation.

Volsky house, by Charles Haertling, in LIFE magazine

What is abundantly clear as espoused in almost every public meeting, is why in the world would anyone want to have their building designated in that way and held to the close scrutiny for any changes in the future.  I would like to describe some of the benefits of this kind of individual landmark designation:

  1. Tax Credits.  There are state tax credits available for approved renovations to designated properties.  These credits can be applied for work to rehab the exterior siding, roofing, windows, and other exterior details.  Maybe most applicable however, is that these credits can be gained for upgrading interior systems as well – electrical, heating, cooling, etc.
  2. Commercial tax credits.  These are similar as those described above, but are federal tax credits and are only available for commercial properties.  However, residential rental properties are eligible.  As Boulder moves forward with its SmartRegs ordinance requiring the upgrading of energy systems for residential rental units, these kinds of tax credits may apply and greatly offset some of the costs of complying.
  3. Sales Tax Credits.  Local sales taxes for building materials can be waived if the materials represent at least 30% of the value of the materials are for the building’s exterior.
  4. State Grants.  If sponsored by a local municipality, some renovation costs may be paid for from a grant fund from the Colorado State Historical fund.  The Boulder Landmarks Board reviews and often approves this type of request as a benefit to building owners as an incentive for preservation.
  5. Regulatory relief.  As Boulder has layered more restrictive requirements on the development of properties in the city, the potential of this aspect of preservation has become more important.  Anyone owning an individually landmarked building can petition the Landmarks Board to approve their proposed changes even though some of the new work may be in violation of the Solar Shadow ordinance, zoning requirements, the new Compatible Development regulations like bulk planes, and even some aspects of the International Building Code.
Brenton house, aka Mushroom house, by Charles Haertling

And the negatives of individual landmark designation:

  1. Alterations.  If your building is individually landmarked, then any changes you might like to make to the building will have to be reviewed by either the Historic Preservation staff or the Landmarks Board.  This is not as painful or fear-inducing as it might appear at first.  Most all changes can be reviewed and approved with a simple sit down meeting with staff and the Design Review Committee of the Landmarks Board.  These are casual meetings held every Wednesday where the homeowner, staff and committee members talk over the project, discuss the merits and make suggestions, and often approve the changes right away.  Major changes, like partial demolitions and major additions, take longer to work through and the committee and staff can usually provide advice to make the project better while still preserving the building and meeting the desires of the homeowner.
  2. Demolition.  An individually landmarked building can not be demolished unless proven unsafe for use and/or habitation.  This may limit some future speculator’s designs on your property, but did you really want your legacy in the neighborhood to be new McMansion down the street.
  3. Costs.  Unlike so many taxes and fees, the costs for applying for individual landmark designation is crazy cheap – $25 bucks.
Dammann house, by Charles Haertling

So, if you love your house, if you don’t plan on demolishing it, it might be eligible for designation.  And this is not a program for only those grand old Victorian houses, but for anything that has some architectural or historical significance, including mid-century modernist buildings and the odd, quirky structures that give Boulder its architectural character.  What is missing from Boulder’s list of individually designated buildings are those wonderful, sometimes odd, buildings and houses designed in the 1950’s and 60’s when Boulder came into its own as a place of scientific excellence, environmental consciousness and progressive ideals.  Those buildings, designed by Charles Haertling, James Hunter, Hobie Wagner, Jacques Hampton and others reflect not so much a specific style copped from the East Coast, but the individual desires of their clients and the liberating topography of the West.  These buildings, beyond their architectural brillance, represent the best of what Boulder is and still strives to be.  And we should honor these buildings and their spirit by preserving their essence and ensuring that our kids will come to know Boulder by these buildings and not the newly minted McMansions of generic neighborhoods.

Boulder Eye Clinic, by Charles Haertling

Preserving Modernism

That title may seem like an oxymoron to some folks but the reality is that Modernism as a philosophy and style of architecture is about 100 years old.  The national standard for the consideration of historic and architectural significance is 50 years old or greater.  More importantly, with the passage of time we have seen that mid-century modern homes and other buildings, once the objects of scorn, are now eagerly sought after and enthusiastically restored.  Arapahoe Acres in Denver is the best local example of mid-century residential development but there are so many individual buildings not recognized or protected.

Arapahoe Acres houses

There are three major reasons why these buildings, often beautifully designed and extremely well-built, are so frequently on the roles of demolitions.  The first is simple house size.  The average size house has doubled since the 1950s and of course so have buyer’s expectations.  Most folks are no longer willing to share a single bathroom or live with 8′ x 10′ bedrooms.  And these mid-century modern homes certainly do not have the swelling show kitchens of newer builder homes.

kitchen and family space in Arapahoe Acres house

The second reason is familiarity.  Most folks in the United States now recognize the need and desire for preserving some portions of our architectural past.  The frankly fetishistic preservation of every Victorian shack knows no bounds.  However, so many of us find it hard to believe that the small, cramped houses that we grew up in can have any lasting architectural value that the temptation is to demolish these buildings blinded as we are by our own myopic histories.  Not many of us were raised in the grand Victorian houses that represent so much of historic districts across the country.  They seem like sentinels of a better time and place – large, spacious rooms, fine craftsmanship, broad lawns.  However, all the crappy, drafty junky shed-like houses and tenements where the vast majority of people lived have been torn down (or fell down on their own).  The preserved fine homes of yesteryear are only a very small and select portion of the housing stock of that era.  My thoughts would extend as well to the mid-century houses in a similar fashion – save the very best, not all the rest.

window/masonry detail, mid-century modern house

The third reason is a phantom – the bogey man of energy efficiency.  I am not going to argue that these houses are easy and cost-effective to heat or cool, they are not.  But neither are their Victorian cousins with the huge interior volumes and equal lack of insulation.  The thin, non-thermally-broken aluminum windows of the 1950s-70s are truly dreadful in both R-value and air infiltration, but the vast majority of a house’s energy loss is through the wall envelope and the windows usually represent no more than 10% of the building’s energy losses.  Blowing in insulation in wall cavities, adding it in ceiling/roofs, does far better than replacing windows and is the same need and process for a Modernist house as it for any other style and era of architecture.

As a local example, the City of Boulder has hundreds of individually landmarked buildings in addition to the 10 historic districts (which are largely made up of traditional, non-Modern buildings).  Of these hundreds of buildings, there are only about 5 that are Modernist in design and sensibility.  Two of them, a house and a multi-family residence, are designed by noted local architect Glen Huntington:

Huntington Arms

Thornton House

Only one of works of Charles Haertling, Boulder’s finest Modernist architect, is individually landmarked.  Few of the houses of James Hunter, Jacques Hampton and many other notable architects are protected although many of these buildings are at least as architecturally significant as so many other protected works.   I am not advocating a battle between saving yet another generic Victorian house versus a really fine mid-century masterpiece like the Willard House.  Preservation is not a mutually-exclusive game.  I am advocating looking at our recent past, to buildings and houses of the 1950’s- 1970’s and carefully assessing their value and meaning and providing some protections for the really great works among them.

Willard House, by Charles Haertling