This is something I wrote as a response on Facebook a few weeks ago when someone posted an article about the sameness of Seattle’s multifamily housing project designs.
Oh boy does this need discourse. I am not sure that I agree with the reason that these building look uniform and I am also not sure that a certain degree of uniformity is bad (unless it is mindless, lazy, and without design sensitivity). In my opinion, a design review board is a good thing in general, provided that they are comprised of intelligent people with insight. There is great freedom within restrictions and lots of spontaneity within control. I would even argue that freedom and spontaneity without restrictions and control generally winds up in chaotic, ugly stupidity. And, I would definitely NOT advocate for Seattle to lose it’s “modulation” on facades, for instance. (Think of the “refrigerator box buildings” of the 70s in many American cities.) It is not the rules per se, but how the designs themselves are executed in the big moments and in the fine details and choices. And it is a lack of design education, I believe. Too many people (designers, owners, developers…) defer to what HAS been instead of innovating for what could be. Again, I like rules – it just depends upon whether they are smart rules, intelligently interpreted, or not. You can see the results of a lack of design rules in places like Aurora Blvd and Route 22 in NJ, or Admiral Wilson Blvd in Phili, or… well, the list goes on an on; there is probably an example of this in every town in the USA and maybe over the world. Alternatively, you can point to the plague of too many rules in places like the historic nazi Germany, I suppose, or, arguably some contemporary suburban housing projects in the USA. But, some of the blandness of materials and facades is the result of the development of the industrial revolution and how it evolved into the 20th and 21st Century, hand in hand with economic pressures, all pushing handicraft away and relying upon machined materials and construction and how these have been administered in design decisions. But, mostly, it is a lack of design intelligence. Seattle sameness points to a lack of understanding about design and a lack of imagination on everyone’s part. Seattle design is like a learned helplessness. Designers and architects should take a greater role in decisions about places, and, in my opinion, ALL people should be educated about design since it affects all of us 24/7. (I do see how this might lead to more arguments, but bring it on! Let’s argue about design for a change!) Architects should not be afraid of working with developers, nor should architects underestimate the perceptions of developers, and visa versa. There is an animosity that has led the two — those people with the money to build, and those people trained to design the buildings — to undervalue each other. Many of the building design problems in Seattle, from my point of view, include the fact that the developers and the economy demand maximizing the space and building to the edge of the code, volume-wise; too many people have absolutely NO design training or appreciation; and even those who have design training defer to a dulled down context instead of being innovative. Whether you are going to be an architect or not, all of us should learn about design.