A few weeks ago I happened across the first rendering of a new developing going in at the corner of Snelling and Selby Avenues in Saint Paul, via the Twin Cities Business Journal. The building is going to be be a six-story mixed-use complex housing a Whole Foods on a corner that has contained a rather awkward three-story bank and a surface parking lot.
It’s quite a change, but the posted rendering elicited the following comment on Twitter from David (of Transportationist and Streets.mn fame):
The comment got me thinking. I seem to have heard lots of similar sentiments lately, particularly as the debates intensified over dense development around the University of Minnesota. This architecture is sub-standard, people would write. It’s “cookie cutter” and has no charm or character.
It’s not that I don’t empathize with the critique. I don’t really know anything about modern building materials, but compared to an older brick building, many newer condos seem to lack detail. At the same time, when compared to the vast majority of post-war apartment architecture (a good example is Laurel Village on Hennepin Avenue), most contemporary designs seem to be an improvement. So which is it? Is contemporary mixed-use architecture boring or innovative? Repetitive or a vast improvement? Ugly or beautiful?
To The Architects!
I was curious what actual architects might say about this “cookie cutter” critique, so I reached out to a few architecture friends and colleagues. I asked them the following questions:
1) Do you think recent apartment / condo developments in Minneapolis are ugly? Why or why not?2) Do these developments all look the same? How could the city improve them? Or is everything fine?3) Is development today more or less “cookie cutter” than it used to be?
Robert Roscoe, owner of Design for Preservation in Minneapolis, and an observer of the urban design of cities – their opportunities and predicaments:
The word ‘cookie cutter’ is interestingly relevant to condo development. There are nice looking and tasty cookies, and there are cookies like every bakery does to copy other bakeries. In and near historic warehouse areas, the architectural style is often what I call “19th century warehouse revival.” Others hang a variety of exterior material sheets in place, as if the building is a sales center for these materials. But there are very well designed places out there.
Peter Crandall, is an architectural designer, urban researcher and city enthusiast who has worked at architectural design firms in the Twin Cities and as a research fellow with the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota.
1) I don’t think they’re ugly so much as superficial. Many recent developments seem to draw on aesthetic trends in modern architectural housing, yet they only employ “design” or “architecture” on the surface, dressing up what is essentially a wooden box with flashy features like aluminum siding or chunky overhangs. Their allure doesn’t hold up to close inspection and likely won’t hold up with time. If I may cite the eminently quotable film Clueless here, many of these developments are “full-on Monets.” From a distance they’re OK, but up close they’re a big ole mess.
2) I think they do all look the same, in many cases because they are being built by the same developer who probably does employ a “cookie-cutter” technique to their design. What is lacking is a sensitivity to context. How can these developments draw from and enhance their architectural and urban surroundings rather than just insert themselves into the landscape. One thing the city could do is employ some design staff to develop more rigorous guidelines on a micro-level and not just let developers dictate the agenda. We need to think of housing as a vital part of our infrastructure that can create and enhance a sense of place and not just as a quick fix to an immediate shortage.
3) Development has been going the way of the “cookie-cutter” for decades. In much the same way that wealth has become concentrated in other sectors of society, design has become relegated to the 1% of projects that can afford a starchitect. In most cases the budget for actual design time is so tiny that an architectural firm can only employ a formulaic approach in order to stay profitable. More recently cities are so desperate for development after the economic crash that they’ll let in almost anyone with the financing, and give them free reign to build however they want, masterplans and zoning be damned. It’s essentially a race to the bottom.
In the end, it’s hard to know what to think, how much our city should be pushing for better design and quality, and how much we should attempt to get as much development built as we can.
The more I think about it, for me the larger question isn’t about facades. Rather, I care about how a building functions. Sure people can have opinions about the merits of certain styles of development, but from an urbanist perspective, the key is to make sure that a building has density and an activated ground floor. To me, these are the things that really matter, that create street life and a more sustainable city. Apart from that, everything else is tasty gravy.