In the midst of its “Green Rush,” locals are increasingly frustrated with the architecture behind so many recent developments.
“Every building going up is tan, brown, red or burnt red,” says Brad Evans, moderator of the Denver FUGLY Facebook page. “That’s every color. I have 50 buildings from townhomes to multi-family buildings that are the same color, same façade,” the former Jefferson Park resident adds.
Evans recently relocated to the suburb of Lakewood in part to escape the proliferation of “ugly” architecture. “The whole neighborhood was basically being torn down; they were building these shit boxes, so that was in my face every day and I was getting tired of it,” he says.
Colorado’s population has swelled 10 percent since 2010, with the capital city attracting an estimated 82,387 people. Between 2014 and 2015 alone, Denver metro added 58,474 people. To support the Green Rush—the nickname for the current boom that coincides with Colorado’s legalization of marijuana—an estimated 10,000 new homes are to be constructed in Denver each year through 2018.
“One of my favorites [is] right on the edge of Old Town Arvada, they built this Tetris-shaped tan, brown, and rust building,” Evans smirked. “It’s almost a joke—how ugly can we make it?”
Jeffrey Shepard, principle of Roth Sheppard Architects, postulates, “Because it was happening so quickly, it was easy to see that buildings were being put up with no respect for the street or context of Denver. They were just being put up because we needed housing, and my contention is that that’s not what we do. That’s not what architects do and that’s not what cities should do: just deliver the bare minimum to the public.”
After his op-ed “Denver is a Great City, so Why the Bad Buildings?” ran in the Denver Post, Shepard received more than 3,000 emails on the topic.
“I could show you projects all over the country that look like exactly what’s being built in Denver,” says Christine Franck, Director of the Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture (CARTA) at the University of Colorado. “Developers would say ‘this is what we have to do, this is what’s selling, this is what people want,’ and I would say ‘this is the chicken and the egg.’ Is this what people want or is this what’s being sold?”
One-size-fits-all construction is one part of the problem. Shepard argues design across the nation should be regionally particular. In the case of Denver that means responding to abundant sunshine and aridity. “Regions that have the best architecture are often regions that respond to the environment,” he explains. “Well, we have an opportunity here to say ‘My god, look at how many sunlit days we get here, now how should architecture begin to respond to [our] climate?’ I should not be able to see an apartment complex here that looks exactly like one in Atlanta. Either Atlanta did it wrong or we did it wrong. The reason it shouldn’t happen is because we’re responding to different climatic conditions.”
Denver is not quite alone in its rejection of modern development models—residents in Aspen, Seattle, and Kansas City have started their own FUGLY forums each with 50 members—but the speed of development coupled with the skyline making headlines, makes it a topic of particular importance to the Mile High City.
At CARTA, one of Franck’s research projects, “Documenting Change in Denver,” focuses on construction from 2014 through 2016 as Denver “moved into this unprecedented phase of growth with a number of factors impacting new development: [including] pent up demand for housing newcomers, increasing land values, buyer expectations of larger homes for smaller households, density as a goal, projects so large they require institutional financing, nationally-based architects building similar products in different markets, [and] greater reliance on technologies like SketchUp to design.”
Founded during the Gold Rush, Denver has survived many periods of boom and bust, including the late 19th century Silver Boom and a notable period of Post-World War II growth fueled by oil and gas companies. In a yearlong project, Denver Urbanism’s Ken Schroeppel mapped out the city’s construction of single-family homes over 15 decades, from the vernaculars and Italianates of the 1870s through the 1950s ranches and Cape Cods, up until the early millennium characterized by modern, postmodern, and neo-eclectic designs.
Some consider Denver’s postcard image cemented in Silver Boom wealth, in the old west feel of Larimer Square and Capitol Hill’s Victorian mansions. Many think brick when they think of Denver, but others picture the corrugated metal of industrial RiNo or the stucco builds along Santa Fe. The city also boasts original wonders by architecture greats including the Denver Art Museum—a two-part construction consisting of a brutalist tower by Gio Ponti and an explosive deconstructivist addition by Daniel Libeskind.
“My favorite building is probably the Michael Graves library, it feels like this institutional building but then it’s totally whimsical about it,” Evans says. “And everybody hated that, when they first built it, everyone thought it was fugly.”
In addition to respecting the context of neighboring construction, Shepard looks for a sense of honesty, “Walk around NoDo or RiNo, and look at the fabric of the area, and it's the fact that every building isn’t a jewel that makes it work. It’s the fact that some of these are just warehouses, they just happen to be built honestly.” Shepard continues, “They’re not trying to use brick like paper, gluing it on, they’re trying to show that brick has a materiality and a support quality. That’s the pragmatic use of the material. New buildings say, ‘Well, brick used to be important to the Denver area, so let’s just slap some of that on the outside.’”
While some shrug off the subjective nature of aesthetics, Shepard says designing beautiful places means acknowledging classical ratios and creating a syncopated rhythm of elements. The best models, or jewel sites, don’t have to come from Rome or Paris, but can be found right down the street.
When he first took office in 2014, City Planner Brad Buchanan initiated discussion on good design by looking for jewels and asking citizens to identify their own favorite places.
“We wanted to elevate the conversation about design in the public realm. In your day-to-day, you might not stop and consider why you like these places,” Buchanan says. Since the city revamped the zoning code in 2010, Buchanan says, “We have been adding and implementing processes in places where people say it’s important to enhance design.”
These overlaying rules can help fine tune development and give districts that opt for design review a working outline. Denver is home to 52 historic districts* which have adopted their own style guides. By the Denver Post‘s count, 20 neighborhoods have adopted “mandatory review by the planning department in addition [to] 7,000 structures in designated historic areas where renovations must undergo design scrutiny.”
The most hated design of the Green Rush is undeniably the slot house. As defined by the city, it sounds harmless enough: “a multi-unit residential structure consisting of attached dwelling units arranged side-by-side and primarily perpendicular to the street.” But these towering blocks that extend to the lot perimeter, tucking away entrances and driveways, have raised so many complaints that the Denver City Council passed a yearlong moratorium on “garden court” construction—a design easily modified to get slot houses past review boards, garden court buildings are characterized by the open space in the middle of the building. The city also assembled the Slot House Evaluation Task Force to understand why the buildings generated so much hate and what rules might discourage similar development.
“We were looking at these buildings and the designs do not seem to try to make any statement of beauty or civility to the public realm,” says Franck, a member of workgroup. “Slot homes, or large block multi-family buildings, all of them are being built in a very boxy style that isn’t really a style, it’s very utilitarian.”
Franck argued, “The person most impacted by the architecture being built today says ‘that just doesn't look like Denver.’ Neighborhoods have strong characters, suddenly there is this invasion of boxes. What’s happening is a challenge to someone’s identity.”
While some might say these critiques of Denver’s new buildings are just reactionary responses of people afraid to change, Franck disagrees. When NIMBY concerns of population density are voiced, she says, “If you really drill down, it’s not density. It’s not development. It's that these new buildings don’t reflect the identity of the place that exists.”
“I believe firmly that when normal people respond negatively to new development, they often do so with worries about increase in traffic, lack of parking, [and] school crowding. But, when I dig down into their concerns, they often do not realize how dense their neighborhoods already are, and when pressed, they will finally say, in exasperation, ‘well, it just doesn't look much like Denver,’” she says. “Neighborhoods that have Design Overlay Districts, or Historic Districts and design review or that developed a neighborhood plan seem to have [fewer] new ugly buildings and less protest.”
Franck considers 1145 Ogden Street and the uptown Swallow Hill Residences among boom-era buildings that successfully add to neighborhood context. Other examples of newly constructed multi-family residencies recognized by the city include winners of Mayor Michael Hancock’s 2016 Design Award like the Freight Residences in RiNo, the Denizen on South Broadway, and One City Block in Uptown*.
To further influence positive change, some Denverites have embraced the YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) movement. “Denver isn’t full, and people aren’t going to stop moving here,” Andy Sense recently wrote for Denver Urbanism. “United by a common ethos: [YIMBYs believe] affordable living is a right, and densifying our neighborhoods is essential.”
Even Evans, who has made a sport of spotting fuglies, says, “I’m definitely not anti-development. How do we get smart stuff built? That’s the conversation we keep having [in Denver FUGLY]. And how do we get people to stay? That’s what I keep asking.”
What’s at stake may be more than meets the eye, and Evans knows if he doesn’t do something to stop it, awful architecture just might follow him to Lakewood.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that 52 neighborhoods in Denver are designated historic districts. Such districts do not equate to entire neighborhoods. This article also gave the incorrect location for One City Block. It is in Uptown, not Washington Park.