Category Archives: building

Grace, History and the Role of Buildings

I’m currently reading John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and last night I came to several passages that bear on the discussion about the importance of building durable, beautiful buildings generally.

In Chapter 2 of Volume 1, Ruskin sets out to explain how to see which architecture is good and which is bad. He presents two criteria:

…we require from buildings, as from men, two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it; which last is itself another form of duty.

This is a simple even obvious set of criteria, and yet so many buildings fail it. I’m thinking of this idea in the context of a building like Provo’s city hall, which after a mere 40 years is completely falling apart. Clearly, it has failed in it’s “practical duty” if it can’t outlive a pair of Toyotas.

But entire cities of modern buildings also fail this test. My parents suburban tract home, for example, is sliding off a hill along with the rest of their city. I will almost certainly outlive their house. And how many suburbs of Las Vegas or Phoenix  are both poorly built and entirely graceless?

In any case, Ruskin goes on to argue that buildings also have another function:

…talking, as the duty of monuments or tombs, to record facts and express feelings; or of churches, temples, public edifices, treated as books of history, to tell such history clearly and forcibly.

In other words, buildings record the past and “speak” a story.

The Zion's Bank Building in Provo.

The Zion’s Bank Building in Provo.

This seems to be one of the things we have forgotten in many of our modern buildings. What story are we trying to tell with any of the buildings that have been built in Provo in the last generation? When I look at something like the Zion’s Bank Building, I can only assume we’re trying to tell the world that we’re cheap and tasteless.

Ruskin’s point is especially important because it offers a reason to build that isn’t rooted in the cold economics of post-recession America; in the end (and as a comment pointed out on yesterday’s post) buildings shouldn’t always have to make money.

If they did, or if that was what mattered most, we wouldn’t have inspiring places like St. Peter’s Square or the Berlin Wall art installation.

St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. This is designed to "speak"  well.

St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. This is designed to “speak” well.

The Berlin Wall isn't a building, but it is a piece of the built environment that is more concerned with what it "speaks" than with economic concerns.

The Berlin Wall isn’t a building, but it is a piece of the built environment that is more concerned with what it “speaks” than with economic concerns.

These are spaces that tell stories rather than generate revenue. And that’s a much higher calling.

A few paragraphs later, Ruskin brings his various criteria into a convenient, three-point list:

1. That it act well, and do the things it was intended to do in the best way.
2. That it speak well, and say the things it was intended to say in the best words.
3. That it look well, and please us by its presence, whatever it has to do or say.

Ruskin offers these points as evaluation tools; he’s trying to establish a way to judge existing buildings.

But for growing cities in Utah and elsewhere, they also offer a kind of very basic checklist or starting point. As we consider which buildings are worth saving and how to begin new ones, these are some of the first issues we should be bringing up.


Filed under building, Downtown

Remember, Provo Needs A New City Hall

My former colleague Genelle Pugmire reported over the weekend that the city council is preparing to discuss a bunch of issues. Some are surprising — how long shaved ice stands can operate? really? — but at least one could use a fairly radical approach:

Items on the work agenda include:

• Discussion of the city center — The 40-year-old city center has size and seismic issues that need to be addressed.

As I argued in this post, Provo could actually use an entirely new city hall. The issue is that there aren’t just seismic problems, there is an array of structural and cosmetic failings that would require considerable investment to fix. At the same time, interest rates and construction costs are cheap so there’s no time like the present to build something better.

The current city center is literally falling apart.

The current city center is also a fairly… unsatisfying structure, architecturally, to say the least. Set back from the street and hidden by retaining walls, it’s easy to forget what it looks like, or that it even exists. It’s one of the few buildings on center street for which I cannot visualize a profile; like much of the architecture of it’s era, it’s a formless, indistinct structure.

In this post, I argue that a great city deserves a great city hall, and Provo certainly doesn’t have anything very impressive right now. Typically, I like to make economic arguments here because most people can come together to agree that efficiency is a good thing. But buildings are also an expression of civic pride; they embody and convey a community’s sense of self and values. And unfortunately, the current city center tells the world that  Provo is a dumpy little town.

A great city deserves a great city hall, like this one in Pasadena, not the building Provo current has, which looks like a run down dentist’s office.

That’s a subjective argument, I know, but the point is that if Provo is ever going to build a new city hall — and it surely will someday — now is the time to do it.

Genelle’s article also mentions one other thing worth bringing up here:

• The 50-plus initiative — The city Strike Force Committee will present its Provo 50-plus initiative, which includes a vision for Provo for the next 50 years.

I love the idea of looking 50 years down the road. It’s why I hope the city builds a new city hall, and does many of the other things I argue for here; in the end we need to be thinking about what will make more vibrant for many generations to come.


Filed under building, Downtown

Central Bank Update

Last week I wrote about the need for aesthetic diversity in a city and gave an example of old and new architecture mixing in a Salt Lake neighborhood. One curious example of this phenomenon that’s playing out right now in Provo is the Central Bank remodel on the corner of University Ave and 100 North.

As of about a week ago, this is what it looked like:

Central Bank is renovating the facades of it's buildings in Provo.

Central Bank is renovating the facades of it’s buildings in Provo.

Eventually, this group of buildings will have a historically-influenced look.

Eventually, this group of buildings will have a historically-influenced look.

One of the most interesting things about this project is the historic brick that has been uncovered on this building.

One of the most interesting things about this project is the historic brick that has been uncovered on this building.

This post shows the project at an earlier stage, and this post includes a sketch of the final product.

The interesting thing about this project is that it’s taking a hodgepodge of older buildings and uniting them with one single facade. My impression is that reaction in the community to this project is positive, though I know a number of people who lament the fact that the modern building on the corner will become something less firmly rooted in any particular architectural style.

I’m grateful that Central Bank is investing in the community, though I also wonder at the faux-historical final product. The great thing about downtown Provo, or most genuinely interesting places, is that they’re not knockoffs or replicas of something else, historical or otherwise. That’s why downtown Provo is better than, say, “lifestyle” suburbs like Daybreak that merely imitate an organic city. It’s why visiting Paris or New Orleans is vastly more rewarding, to say the least, than going to Las Vegas or Disneyland, respectively.

All of this is to say that perhaps we should more critically consider the wisdom of mixing pseudo-historical buildings into  actually-old architecture that embodies our heritage. The Central Bank project — which is not terrible by any means and may be quite nice in the end — offers an occasion to reflect on whether or not we want our city to be a living, evolving record of each generation’s greatest works, or a generic version of the past that could have been built anywhere.

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One Reason To Oppose Aesthetic Regulation

Yesterday I wrote that Provo could use more row houses, but I made a point to say that I’m not advocating aesthetic regulations. My feeling is that while a lack of aesthetic regulations can produce a lot of ugly buildings, it also allows for the creativity and diversity that are essential for a vibrant city. And in the end, a strong market should get rid of undesirable buildings over the long term.

Here’s an example of why I don’t want aesthetic regulation:


This home is located in Salt Lake City. It’s clearly a historic structure and even bears more than a passing resemblance to the Reed Smoot House and the Hines Mansion.


This contemporary building, which I think is quite charming in its own way, sits just down the street from the historic home in the first picture.

The pictures above show that old and new architecture can coexist. In fact, really great neighborhoods are usually filled with this sort of thing. Provo doesn’t have a lot of cool modern buildings, but even “historic” homes in the city cover a surprisingly wide time span; at least at one point we were trying to build an architecturally diverse city.

Another good example of this is Barcelona, which mandates how structures use space but not the exact look of the facades.

But if we start rolling out aesthetic rules this can’t happen. Instead, we’ll end up with a bunch of pointlessly nostalgic, lesser buildings.

I didn’t always have this opinion of aesthetic regulation. In the not too distant past I wished we had some way of preventing the kind of buildings that proliferated in Provo in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

But as I started to critically consider the idea of forcing buildings to look quaint I began to change my mind. In the end there’s a lot to lose by only allowing a knockoff version of the past.

The solution, as I indicated yesterday, is spatial regulation. This is a concept that broadly falls under the umbrella of “form-based code.” The idea is that builders have to work with certain setbacks or heights or sidwalk sizes or whatever, for example, but can work creatively within those confines.

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Invisible Guzzlers, Or, Buildings and Energy Use

Right now in Utah we’re beginning to have a discussion about the damaging effects of cars. But if we really want to improve air quality, our health, and generally live in a better world, we should also consider tackling another big polluter: buildings.

An oft-overlooked source of pollution is buildings.

An oft-overlooked source of pollution is buildings.

A recent Slate article notes that in New York City 75 percent of carbon emissions come from buildings. The article quickly points out that in most other parts of the county buildings produce a smaller percent of the emissions, but the point that buildings create pollution is still an important one for any region. And it’s particularly important in Utah because there’s also very little discussion about the need to build more efficient buildings.

The really interesting thing is that the article suggests retrofitting buildings to make them greener:

[…] retrofitting almost every building in the city to keep the heat in during the winter and out during the summer. In a nod to Rudy Giuliani, Bill Bratton, and James Q. Wilson, I’ll call it the “triple-pane windows theory” of greenhouse-gas reduction.

The article gets into some and interesting strategies that are specific to New York but that have varying levels of applicability to cities along the Wasatch Front.

And again, this is an important topic that warrants more discussion in Utah. Aside from the occasional LEED certified buildings — which aren’t always that environmentally friendly after all — few people are apparently bringing this up.

One of the easiest ways to cut energy use is to simply turn the air conditioning off. And unlike something like driving — which is sometimes needed to get to work, school, etc. — cooling the air is purely discretionary for most people.

One of the easiest ways to cut energy use is to simply turn the air conditioning off. And unlike something like driving — which is sometimes needed to get to work, school, etc. — cooling the air is purely discretionary for most people.

One other thing also deserves mentioning here: air conditioning. Though the Slate article mostly discusses heating, the need for air conditioning is also often accepted as a foregone conclusion in discussions about energy efficiency.

Yet air conditioning is far from necessary. Though humans have heated their living spaces for millennia, modern forms of air conditioning — and the grossly inefficient buildings it has spawned — has only been around for a few generations. Steve Mouzon calls this the “Thermostat Age” when he points out that historically,

buildings we built had no choice but to be green, otherwise people would freeze to death in the winter, die of heat strokes by summer, starve to death, or other really bad things would happen to them.

The point is that there is one easy way to drastically cut energy usage and emissions: turn off air conditioning and, over time, build structures that don’t need it. It may seem like a challenge when those hot days come along, but in the end it’s really one of the easiest and most obvious ways to cut our individual energy consumption.

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Filed under building, Development, environment

How to do Stairs Right

Last year, I argued that we’re designing buildings that promote obesity. The problem is that our buildings fail to encourage physical activity — specifically taking the stairs — even when it would be easy to do so. More specifically, the problem is that so many buildings tuck their stairs out of sight while making elevators very prominent. It wastes energy and it eliminates the opportunity for little bursts of activity.

When I wrote that post, one of my examples was Provo’s Fourth District Courthouse in downtown. In that building, the elevators are the obvious choice, while the stairs are kind of hard to find.

But a few days ago I visited West Jordan’s courthouse and was surprised to see a good example of stairs featured prominently in the front of the building:


The entryway of the West Jordan courthouse.

In this picture, the front door of the building is to the right by the windows. The elevators are behind the stairs. That means visitors see the stairs first and are never in doubt about their location or availability. In other words, the architects have designed the building to prioritize stair usage; the structure literally communicates more effectively to its audience.

Not coincidentally, while I was in this building the stairs were used at least as often as the elevators.

Stairs and better-designed buildings aren’t going to completely solve the obesity epidemic. But they will help in some small way. And in the end, this is perhaps how we should approach much of our urban design: by slowly fixing the spaces that discourage any kind of physical activity.

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Density, Parking and a Charming Neighborhood

Continuing with the density theme, I recently read this post from New World Economics. The website is spartan and the post is very long, but it persuasively makes the point that higher density and good design produce better neighborhoods than low density places — which it refers to as “Suburban Hell.” Even if you don’t read the whole post, I’d recommend clicking over to see a whole bunch of pictures of what good density actually looks like.

One of the most important points the post makes is that adding density increases walkability, is environmentally friendly, and supportive to local business:

The high population density itself does a lot to solve the problem of automobiles, because, at that level, a lot of things are now in walking distance. Although a family will still want a car to interact with the rest of Suburban Hell America, nevertheless, within their neighborhood, it should be possible to walk to the school, bank, grocery, hardware store, restaurant, bar, dentist, friend’s house, and so forth, which cuts down the amount of trips necessary by car (and consequently automobile traffic within the neighborhood) considerably. As we noted earlier, when there are 30,000+ people within an easy walk, a business also doesn’t need to have twenty or a hundred parking spaces to be viable.

In other words, the more people in a given space the more vibrant that space becomes. And again, click over to the post to see what “adding density” actually looks like.


Filed under building, Development

Density Is Needed Everywhere In Provo

Last week I was saddened to hear that at a city meeting a proposed apartment building was criticized because, among many other reasons, it ostensibly added density to the south Joaquin neighborhood.

The development was rejected — an outcome I favored because it had too much parking and therefore probably didn’t add much density after all — but in the aftermath I felt it’s probably time to revisit this topic. (I’m also speaking generally of anti-density rhetoric I heard about second hand, not of any specific person or comment. My impression was that many people said great things at this meeting as well and I mostly don’t know where specific people fall on this issue anyway.)

So here’s the thing: density is good.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to argue that adding density would preserve and enhance the character of pioneer neighborhoods — not destroy it — and that it could be done without tearing down actual pioneer homes. Here are some posts I’ve written in the past as I’ve researched that thesis:

One of the few communal gardens in Provo… and it also happens to be next to a pocket of higher density housing. That's not a coincidence, it's a necessity.

One of the few communal gardens in Provo… and it also happens to be next to a pocket of high-ish (or more accurately medium) density housing. That’s not a coincidence, it’s a necessity.

Jane Jacobs and Density 101

Density Without Destruction

Decoding Density

Community Gardens Require Density

More People Means Less Traffic

Building Cities for Trick-or-Treating

Mo’ People Mo’ Money

Why Density Matters

The Way To Get More Retail Downtown

Dense Cities Will Save America

What Houses Close Together Look Like

Let me be clear: I support much higher density everywhere in Provo. I think adding density to the Joaquin neighborhood above 500 North — which I’ve been told is the plan — is great for example, but relatively inconsequential due to the demographics and size of that area.

Instead, I’m in favor of adding density in Joaquin below 500 North, in other Pioneer neighborhoods, and elsewhere. These areas are proximate to downtown, already somewhat denser than other neighborhoods, and have thousands of acres of wasted space that could be developed into higher density housing.

This is one way to increase density: putting awesome homes really close together. This doesn't really exist in Provo, so if we wanted it we'd need to aggressively pursue it.

This is one way to increase density: putting awesome homes with shallow setbacks really close together.

It’s also worth mentioning that “density” is not synonymous with Manhattan or Chicago; we don’t have to demolish everything and put up glass towers — though a few wouldn’t hurt so people who prefer that option could actually live in Provo. Density can be increased with low-rise multi-unit buildings (generally my preferred option), single family infill, alley homes, accessory apartments, etc. Pocket neighborhoods are explicitly a density-increasing strategy; if you like them, you like increasing density.

It has been my assumption that most people who oppose density are really opposing bad design. Most examples of medium or high “density” in Provo are horrible apartment complexes surrounded by terrible parking lots. In many cases these examples aren’t really dense; a student fourplex surrounded by eight or more parking spots might seem dense, but a few row houses with less parking may actually be denser, while also being more attractive and livable for families.

This site includes several apartment complexes. But it's also poorly designed. The apartments are also so spread out by parking that this isn't actually high density; rather it's pretty low density.

This site includes several apartment complexes. But it’s also poorly designed. The apartments are also so spread out by parking that this isn’t actually high density; rather it’s pretty low density. Low density and bad design are both problems that need solving in Provo right now.

In any case, I join with critics of bad design; we should demand livable spaces for our cities and not tolerate crap. There was a fair amount of crap in the recent proposal for the Joaquin neighborhood — mostly in the form of the parking lot — and so it was rightly rejected.

But I’m not going to mince words here: if you truly oppose density you’re wrong. As I’ve argued over and over and over again on this blog, density leads to increased safety, more downtown retail, better restaurants, more diversity, more walkability, and even more green space. It reduces the strain on government and increases efficiency. When density and good design converge — think Paris, Rome or even Rio de Janeiro — the experience is viscerally, almost ineffably, pleasurable. The reason we don’t have these kinds of spaces in Provo isn’t because they can’t exist, it’s because we continue to make well-intentioned but very poor decisions — often about density — about our city.

As I wrote above, I favor adding density all over Provo. I oppose plans to unilaterally prevent density increases in south Joaquin or anywhere else for that matter. And I fundamentally believe that more people should have the opportunity to enjoy the city’s big trees, old architecture, walkable infrastructure and burgeoning cultural scene.

In the end, if Provo resists adding density it’ll lose a lot of interesting people who currently see in it more potential than perfection.


Filed under building, construction, Development

Houses of Worship, Not Cookie Cutter Churches

One of my favorite things to do while traveling is visit magnificent churches. I like it so much in fact, that I’m reluctant to travel to places that don’t have great religious buildings.

Good religious architecture is one of life's great pleasures.

Good religious architecture is one of life’s great pleasures. This baroque church is located in Seville.

More than other utilitarian structures, houses of worship are overtly supposed to embody the values and faith of their creators; a great church shows that a community of people came together to glorify something they felt was important.

I was recently reminded of how diverse great religious structures can be while reading this Atlantic Cities article on “13 Eye-Catching Houses of Worship.” Though I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to religious architecture, the slide show demonstrates that new buildings can be as unique and inspiring in their own way as historic structures.

Utah consistently ranks as one of the most religious states in the U.S. Salt Lake is one of the most religious big cities, and Provo is presumably even more so. And there are interesting examples of religious architecture, with the LDS Church’s Provo Temple and Provo Tabernacle standing out.

But a lot of the religious architecture in Provo is, frankly, awful. The new stake center on 900 East immediately comes to mind as a bland, cheaply built structure on a woefully designed piece of asphalt (in a place where congregants could and should walk to church).

This sprawling structure was recently completed on 9th East and has numerous problems. Why, for example, are there so few windows and therefore so little natural light? Why is it surrounded by a massive parking lot when it serves mostly young, able-bodied people who live within walking distance. Why is it just so darn ugly?

This sprawling structure was recently completed on 9th East and has numerous problems. Why, for example are there so few windows and therefore so little natural light? Why is it surrounded by a massive parking lot when it serves mostly young, able-bodied people who live within walking distance. Why is it just so ugly? Is this how we want treat our faith?

Bear in mind that the building in the picture above is a multi-stake center, not a little local church. If it was a Catholic building, it would look like a cathedral or an abbey, not like a prison. And this isn’t an isolated incident, as the area around the Towne Center mall demonstrates:

South Provo.

South Provo and several churches.

Four churchs are visible in the picture above, though they nearly blend in with the mall on the lower right. Significantly they’re all built with a cookie cutter design and are surrounded by enormous parking lots — again in a place where many people could theoretically walk to church.

No one expects any organization to build only magnificent buildings; sometimes it’s just about whatever works.

But while every building doesn’t have to be grand, some should be. And yet I cannot immediately think of an LDS building  that was built in the last 20 years in Utah County that was was not an architectural disappointment. (The point isn’t to single out the LDS Church, which I happen to be a member of. Rather, the LDS Church is simply the largest religious property owner in the area and happens to have a lot of spiritually bankrupt architecture.)

The LDS Church also has an illustrious architectural past that produced grand structures like the Salt Lake Tabernacle as well as charming country chapels like this one in Levan:

This chapel is notable for including the words "Holiness to the Lord" above the door. The phrase is more common on LDS temples.

This chapel is notable for including the words “Holiness to the Lord” above the door. The phrase is more common on LDS temples.

Or this one in Provo:

This building, which today is no longer a church, is located on 5th West in Provo.

This building, which today is no longer a church, is located on 5th West in Provo.

Other religions have also built impressive religious structures in Utah. Salt Lake City has a handful of beautiful religious buildings, but other communities have noteworthy examples as well:

This Catholic Church is located in Park City. Unfortunately, Provo's best example of Catholic architecture was pointlessly demolished several years ago.

This modern Catholic Church is located in Park City. Unfortunately, Provo’s best example of Catholic architecture was pointlessly demolished several years ago.

Sadly, there’s good reason to fear the future; the LDS Church is currently transforming the Ogden Temple — which was similar to the one in Provo — from a modernist building to a cookie cutter structure. Hopefully a similar fate is not in store for Provo.

In Provo, the church also recently converted an interesting little modernist building in my neighborhood to a McMansion style office:

This building is located on the corner of 6th East and 1st North.

This building is located on the corner of 6th East and 1st North.

The transformation is detailed in Alan Peters’ blog — which has a lot of great Provo-related stuff. He writes,

This makes me sad. It was a unique-for-its-setting modern building; now its just another boring LDS-Church-plastic-style building. The building was actually built in 1964 as a seminary building for the now closed Farrer Junior High School. The seminary closed when Farrer became a middle school and that’s when the Family History people moved in. Farrer is completely gone now, replaced by the brand new Provo Peaks Elementary.

Is this really all our faith means to us? Cheap, generic structures surrounded by seas of asphalt? Shouldn’t at least a few buildings be designed to make us think of God?

English critic John Ruskin apparently thought so when he argued that buildings must be good on more levels than one:

We require from buildings two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.”

Gaudi also pointed out that human creations, including buildings, are more than just containers meant to do a job:

The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.

Certain parts of select religious structures in Utah are designed to do just that. But spirituality isn’t a piecemeal thing and an utilitarian building with a pretty room isn’t the best we can do.

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

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Houses in the Alleys

In a series of recent posts I’ve written about the need for infill — or adding structures to under-used areas of existing neighborhoods. And as a landlocked city surrounded by neighbors that have room to sprawl, infill isn’t optional for Provo; either the city sucks it up and makes it happen, or it continues to have suburban density and languishes.

Luckily, there are a number of cities that provide examples of how to do infill beautifully, responsibly and successfully. Toronto is one of them.

In that Canadian city a study discovered that more than 6,000 new homes could be added without altering the streets-cape. And perhaps most relevantly to Provo, they take advantage of deep lots:

“It’s a gentler way of densifying the city without creating vertical buildings,” says designer Elaine Cecconi. “Plenty of lots in the city are about 200 feet deep, which is more than enough space.”

Unfortunately Toronto has hit some snags and the so-called “laneway homes” have become harder to build. But over in Vancouver a similar project continues. There, a relatively well-known laneway project is growing and diversifying, as evidenced by these diverse housing projections. That article is also useful for the image it includes of a laneway home; Provo could definitely use more houses like that replacing rundown places like this:
A parking lot in a residential neighborhood.

A parking lot in a residential neighborhood.

Further south, Washington D.C. is also working to update its zoning codes, though not without controversy. Case in point, this post from Greater Greater Washington shows a charming little home in an alley and points out that some people bafflingly fail to see the benefits of adding that kind of housing.

The point is that I’d rather have either of the houses pictured in those last two articles than the parking lot in the picture above. More importantly, Provo has acres and acres of effectively empty space to build on; it could effectively “sprawl” inward, adding just as much housing as surrounding municipalities.

The choice belongs to residents and city leaders. But it is a choice and an important one at that.

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