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.

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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.

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What City Is the Future of Utah County?

Yesterday, my former colleague Genelle Pugmire reported on a new project in Vineyard that’s beginning to break ground. From the article, it looks like it’ll be a commercial project, though from what I understand the ultimate goal is to build a big, sprawling, suburb in the same area.

That’s obviously unfortunate — we don’t need more sprawl, of course — but one thing in particular stood out from Genelle’s article:

Last year [project manager Steward] Park was invited to speak at the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce Summit at Sundance. He said he followed Provo Mayor John Curtis — a relative of Park — who was bragging about growth in his city.

Park quipped, “I said, with all due respect mayor, the future of Utah County is at Geneva.” He added that with what is planned there is no doubt.

In other words, some cities in Utah see growth as a kind of competition and are actively trying to become the region’s center.

I’ve long felt that there is a finite amount of growth and investment money that will pour into Utah County in the coming years. That amount may not be fixed, but it also isn’t endless. What’s telling about this article is that some cities and developers agree with that perspective and are chasing whatever investment they can get.

Provo needs to out compete these sad little suburbs. That means making things like infill, in particular, happen; Provo doesn’t have sites like Geneva Steel that can be redeveloped but it still needs to add a lot of housing to accommodate population growth. Ultimately, Provo is an appealing place that has a lot to offer, but without a lot more diverse and affordable housing the biggest population boom in memory will be diffused across the valley and a tremendous opportunity will be lost.

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Attached Homes in Salt Lake City

While driving around Salt Lake City recently I saw these two homes:

Two old, attached homes in Salt Lake City

Two old, attached homes in Salt Lake City

As is apparent, these homes are attached to one another. They’re also apparently historic and have a “house” feel to them. Or, in other words, they don’t look like condos, town homes or apartments.

This type of arrangement is common in some parts of the world but rare in Utah. However, it shows that it’s possible to cut out the wasted space between houses without turning your street into Brooklyn (much of which is very nice, though). And yet, as I understand Provo’s building laws, this would actually be illegal to do today.

This also has some other obvious benefits: energy savings, less yard maintenance, etc. And while these houses are clearly not in a high density neighborhood, this design could be repeated over and over to create many attached homes. Or not; like everything, it’s just one more option for increasing density without sacrificing quality and there are almost infinite options for the final configuration.

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Gradual Redevelopment Trumps Mega-Projects

The Atlantic Cities recently reported on a new study that shows having housing of different ages promotes social ties. The article proclaims that “Jane Jacobs was right” notes that “the results should get planners to stop and wonder whether newer is always better.” It continues,

Empirical results show significant links between housing age diversity (historical development pace) and four measures of neighbourly social relations, even when controlling for other neighbourhood housing features, social composition and individual sociodemographics. It may be that gradual redevelopment preserves community ties, which may take decades to form and which new residents may ‘inherit’ from previous neighbours.

There are a few lessons for the Wasatch Front that we can extrapolate from this study:

Neighborhoods with a diverse mix of building ages foster the most social ties.

Neighborhoods with a diverse mix of building ages foster the most social ties.

1. We shouldn’t be building sprawl, which by definition lacks buildings of diverse ages. This finding seems to support my view that gussied up suburbs like Daybreak aren’t going to be really great for a 100 years or so — after they experience redevelopment. And in any case, it’s tragic that we’re building sprawling, car centric places that aren’t going to be worth anything until long after we’re all dead.

2. Flipping the article’s thesis on it’s head, we should be adding new structures to historic neighborhoods. Just as contemporary neighborhoods like Daybreak don’t work because they’re entirely new, old neighborhoods need diversity as well. This supports the idea that we need infill in historic neighborhoods. I don’t know why this isn’t happening in Provo’s residential neighborhoods; the benefits far outweigh the challenges.

Historic buildings are great, but it's also important to continually add new structures to the mix as well. This fun new building is located in Salt Lake.

Historic buildings are great, but it’s also important to continually add new structures to the mix as well. This fun new building is located in downtown Salt Lake.

3. “Social ties” should be a goal when deciding how to plan our cities. Provo is more or less doing this right now with the Center Street redesign, but few other projects seem to begin with the primary goal of fostering more, better social interaction. However, if we do take that as our objective many disagreements — and pointless NIMBY complaints — will be easier to solve.

4. And, finally, Jane Jacobs’ style observational analysis is a valuable way to understand the built environment. That may seem obvious, but our most expensive projects along the Wasatch Front — the I15 Core project, the proposed super street, the interchange catastrophe — are operating under an entirely different set of assumptions.

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Victims of Predatory Towing, It’s Time to Be Heard

by Mike Roan

During each of the last 2 weeks* I’ve attended discussions hosted by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, at the Utah State Capitol regarding House Bill 115. The bill is designed to begin to address what I consider to be the egregious and predatory practices of some towing companies, which tow cars without owner or police action.

Parked cars in Provo.

Parked cars in Provo.

Last week, a group consisting of 12-15 towing companies, along with representatives of Provo City, Ogden City, UDOT, Utah realtors, a couple of property owners and me — as the only regular citizen with no direct economic interest in the issue — agreed to make a few minimal changes to the current statute regulating the towing industry.  Those proposed changes are:

  • Towing companies would be required to accept credit cards for payment.
  • Towing companies would be required to provide people being towed with a copy of ‘their bill of rights,’ which explains state statutes and city ordinances (where applicable) relating to charges, operating procedures, methods of contesting tows, etc.
  • UDOT would study the rates tow companies charge and other aspects of the industry, the findings of which would be submitted to Mr. Stratton in the late summer of 2013.
  • Cities’ and municipalities’ rights to regulate areas not addressed by the state would remain unchanged.

In spite of this agreement, when the amended bill (HB 115) reflecting what was agreed upon was presented to the House Business and Labor Committee on Friday, March 1, the towing industry showed up en masse to oppose the bill.

Those speaking in favor of the bill were Mayor Curtis, Gary Williams (Ogden City Attorney), a representative of the league of cities and me.

If you would like to see the law changed to reduce/eliminate predatory towing in our city and state, please contact your Utah state house and senate legislators now!  If you don’t know who they are or how to contact them, visit le.utah.gov for their names and contact information.

The towing lobby in Utah is very strong and without substantial citizen input nothing is likely to happen. Let your voice be heard!

The learn more about this topic or HB 115 see this report by Fox 13.

Mike Roan is a more than 30 year veteran of the financial services industry. He has degrees from BYU and Northwestern University and is the neighborhood chair of the Riverside Neighborhood. He has lived in states all across the U.S., as well as Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and other Asian countries. He is a father of six children, a graduate of Provo’s Citizens Academy, and has initiated a number of local initiatives.

*Editor’s note: more time may have elapsed now because the editor took forever to post this after receiving it. 

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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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