The Hue Junta

Last week was nice. I got some work done, my summer semester came to a close, I had a little fun, and came up with some ideas for the future. The oldest was in CFC soccer camp in the mornings and with me in the afternoons. I thought this would be a great opportunity to teach him a few things. As you might suspect, I spent some time passing down some sport technique. We had an adventure in home brewing cream soda.  But the most memorable session was when we decided to make some homemade sausage (cotechino). About halfway through grinding the pork skin, the meat grinder* died and he learned what sparks look like and what ozone smells like (he also learned a couple of new words). He then learned how to stuff hog casings with sausage grind…by hand. What should have taken an hour took all afternoon. The upside is that for the rest of his life, whenever he eats a sausage he will have our afternoon to look back on.

As for last week’s post, it turns out that most of you knew the building that I was referring to. In fact, the project got a little mainstream press as well. I am sticking to my guns in regard to not calling out local architects. It has come to my attention, however, that the architect for that project has actually left the state (and therefore no longer qualifies as a local designer). In any event, I will not pile on, but rather use the project as a departure point to make an observation.

It’s time to pick on design guidelines once again. Those familiar with the process know that color is virtually never covered in design guidelines. Indeed, one of the often-quoted points of those selling design guidelines to a skeptical development community is that regulators are only concerned with the form of the building. What makes color a bridge too far? I think there is something in our collective psyche that makes regulation of function more acceptable than regulation of form. I suppose the argument is that the massing of a building influences its function (and the function of the district) while color is a purely aesthetic concern. In essence, they argue that some types of form are actually function and are therefore fair game for regulation. I also suspect that the impermanent nature of paint is a reason- no one wants to go back to the design review committee every time they need a fresh coat. At the heart of the argument is the fact that color is a subjective thing. I maintain that the regulation of building’s height and mass is no different than the regulation of color.

A bit of Q & A about design guidelines:

Q: Why do we advocate that buildings in urban areas should be built up to the sidewalk? 

A: The facades of buildings and the street they face form the walls and floor of an “outdoor room”. The proportion of building height to street width is a determining factor in whether or not people feel comfortable in the space. Design guidelines therefore (should) try to get building height and street width to a comfortable ratio (they say something like 1:1 or 1:2 is ideal).

Q: Why do we encourage primary pedestrian entrances to be located on the major street that a building fronts? 

A: This has all to do with creating robust street life. Entrances onto streets put people in the public realm (as opposed to sub-urban schemes where pedestrians go from parking lot to entrance and do not engage the shared public realm). The goal is to create an active public realm where people feel comfortable because others are around.

Q: Why do we advocate that parking lots and service areas be screened and located behind buildings? 

A: We encourage the screening of parking and service areas because the function of these elements is driven by non-human factors (cars, dumpsters and machines). Consequently, those required elements of scale, material, sound, and smell make for uncomfortable people places. Mitigation through placement and visual quality helps in the establishment a healthy pedestrian realm.

In each of these cases the main goal of design guidelines is create places that are for people and that make people feel comfortable. How then is the regulation of color any different than regulating building mass, entry location or screening? Is it because color is subjective? Is the comfort of a pedestrian in an “outdoor room” any more measurable? By what metric can we definitively say that a proportion makes a person feel comfortable? How do we even define comfort? In fact, virtually everything that is covered in a set of urban design guidelines is subjective. If this is the case, why is color any less important? It is clear that the color of a building has the power to make people comfortable or uncomfortable. If color was unimportant, then the TFP would not have run an article about it (and for that matter the multi-billion dollar paint industry wouldn’t exist). If the goal of guidelines is to create comfortable, people places then why not address all of the elements that contribute to that state?

I suspect that the reason color is rarely addressed is because it is messy. It is sausage making on a scale that Spence and I can scarcely imagine. One reason is that just about everyone has an opinion on color. Most folks don’t spend their lives and careers worrying about the relationship between a street and a building. Virtually all of us, however, have lifelong experiences with color. In the process of selling design guidelines, the authors have a fairly easy job in selling set-backs and height requirements as the public is more apt to defer to the experts. As for color, however, everyone has an opinion. Since it would be virtually impossible to get a broad segment of the public to agree, we say that color is subjective and write off the idea of tackling the problem. This, of course, is a cop out since just about everything covered in a design guideline is subjective.   

As long-time readers are well aware, I have my doubts about the utility of urban design guidelines. They don’t promote innovation, they encourage a mindset of doing the bare minimum to get by, they typically only prevent the worst of projects from being built, and the whole framework can be compromised if the bodies who administer them choose not to. With that understanding, please don’t construe today’s post as a call to create a paint police or hue junta or color constable or pigment patrol or chroma cops. The point is that if those who promote design guidelines were serious about making comfortable places for people they would address the broader range of factors that influence the condition.

Color is subjective, pedestrian comfort is subjective, and as a general rule, design is subjective. Are these things any less important for the fact that they can’t be measured? One of my favorite quotes is by Louis Kahn, who observed “Great architecture begins with the immeasurable, must go through measurable means, and in the end must return to the immeasurable.”  While there is no great moral to this week’s post, I think it is worth keeping in mind that while quantifiable goals are important, not every important thing is quantifiable.

*Deni meat grinders…Worst. Customer. Service. Ever.

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