Is There a Place for Design and Beauty in Planning Documents?

As cities strive to improve the "design" and "beauty" of their buildings, how can such attributes be mandated by planning documents if their mere mention is verboten, asks Karrie Jacobs.
October 17, 2012, 12pm PDT | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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Jacobs looks to New York City's recently released East Midtown Study, which provides recommendations for upzoning the blocks surrounding Grand Central Terminal to produce the city's next generation of distinct towers, for a parable about the quest to remove subjective judgements of design or beauty from the planning process, in favor of objective evaluations of quality.

Jacobs is encouraged by an initial draft of the Study that included language in support of "extraordinary buildings" and "superior design," which leads her to ponder whether, "[i]n a city where the developer has always been the most powerful shaper of built form, could city government finally be tipping the balance toward the architect?"  

In the final document, however, any mention of "design" is notoriously absent. When Jacobs questions planning director Amanda Burden about the omission, she responds: "It really can't be subjective according to somebody's taste or whim. This is too important to the city's future, too important to the skyline." In place of trying to judge the nebulous concept of "beauty" or "superior design", Burden contends that distinct elements such as a building's contribution to the pedestrian realm or its relationship with neighboring buildings can be measured objectively. 

"At the same time she denies that the word 'design' has a place in the East Midtown Study, Burden says that the proposed zoning is intended to incentivize 'great new iconic structures.' But you can't achieve icon status by adhering to a checklist," argues Jacobs. "Generally, what you get is a tall, fat building with a novel spire on top and a spiffy subway entrance at the base. I thought introducing a squishy, qualitative notion like 'superior design' was a good idea, quixotic for sure, but also kind of brilliant. I had hoped-naively, as it turns out-that the city was emitting a signal (like a dog whistle that could be heard only by architects), saying there was room for genius in its plans."

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Published on Tuesday, October 16, 2012 in Metropolis
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