Designers to blame for uninspiring developments

David Furman
David Furman David Furman

There seems to be an elevated awareness of design in Charlotte these days, which is creating healthy dialogue beyond the design professional, by concerned citizens. This is encouraging. The problem is this dialogue has been generated by less than inspiring design.

As the clouds of the great recession have cleared, and with the demographic explosion of millennials and the societal shift to a more urban society, new development projects are sprouting at a grand scale. And they are very visible, not hidden in the suburbs anymore. Especially apartments, which are assembled with a redundancy of similar parts, create an ongoing challenge to distinctive design.

These projects are driven by formulaic solutions and financial performance and are often looked upon by their creators as an institutional asset, for stabilization and resale.

It’s easy and convenient for architects and landscape architects to dismiss this negative perception of these projects as not their fault. They don’t have the budget or the time to generate good work and pass on the blame to the development community. But I think it boils down to effort.

As designers are laboring away to meet their developer-driven deadlines, many have lost track of the excitement they felt in the academic environment, when they were engaged and committed to creating a better world.

It’s not just that these buildings are beige; some are just underwhelming. Minimum requirements of our city become standards to designers, without regard to examining the specifics of a site. Should there be retail to animate the street? What is the future of this location? Is there parallel parking to buffer the sidewalk? Are we building garage edges on streets, as we did much of College and Church Streets downtown during the seventies, lining the streets with dull facades, dooming the corridor forever?

I’m laying the responsibility on the design community of which I am a member. We should know not to create super long unbroken masses along Park Road or Central Avenue. We should know not to create a 20-foot tall garage edge with cars behind bars on South Boulevard, or orient living rooms with balconies 3 feet away from a property line ripe for future development. And we should be well versed in basic design principals.

In the absence of proven capabilities to discipline our designs, I am all for regulations to force the effort. Yes, it’s very difficult to govern taste or create laws for design quality. But many of the issues could be legislated to prevent them from continuing to limit our future built environment from reaching its full potential.

Hopefully we can remember that we are not just building institutional assets for clients. We are building a city. And we have the unique opportunity to focus on creating the city in which we all aspire to live. There will always be compromise, but we in the design community must try harder to make a better place.

David Furman is a Charlotte architect.