Suppose you wanted to go out and buy yourself a new suit of clothes, or perhaps a new car. Now suppose that, after you’d chosen the one you liked, you had to appear before a board who would rule on whether they found your choice acceptible. If they didn’t, you had to change your ideas until they were satisfied. Sound Orwellian? It isn’t. This is essentially what a civic design review board is empowered to do. The only difference is that the taste being dictated is that of your own home.
As we saw in the last two columns, design review is an increasingly common civic institution under which building plans are evaluated, not just for adherence to health and safety codes as in the past, but also for aesthetic merit. Alas, in far too many jurisdictions, this arguably well-intentioned idea has mushroomed into a disgracefully intrusive process that throws roadblock after roadblock before anyone wishing to build a home or addition, never mind how simple or invisible. In at least one metropolitan city, for instance, hapless homeowners are now required to submit photographs of the homes of their twenty nearest neighbors before their plans can even be evaluated.
The pity is that, in return for such draconian burdens on citizens, the design review process has brought no quantifiable improvement to the built environment. In fact, by allowing momentary aesthetic vogues to masquerade as building regulations, it has probably done just the opposite.
However dissatisfied we may be with the state of our cities and suburbs--and we ought to be--civic design review is a cure that’s far worse than the disease. If the history of architecture has taught us anything, it’s that aesthetic ideals are fluid and cannot be distilled into commandments. Nor does judging building plans against a slew of totally subjective aesthetic regulations--essentially, legislating taste--lead to more sensitive or more appropriate design. On the contrary, cities with stringent design review guidelines are often among the worst transgressors in the cultivation of gross and overblown pastiche architecture.
Across the nation, design review boards are busy micromanaging design details, materials, and even color choices for architects and homeowners. Applicants are typically compelled toward approvable outcomes by so-called guidelines, such as one town’s none-too-subtle suggestion to use “natural materials (i.e., wood siding and fieldstone).” Hint, hint.
Meanwhile, in contrast to this kind of tyrannical aesthetic control, obsolete zoning practices continue to encourage McMansionization, suburban sprawl, and pedestrian-hostile design.
If we’re serious about improving our built environment, the proper avenue is not through the arrogant dictation of aesthetics, but rather through the objective, specific, and above all unbiased mechanism of more intelligent zoning regulations.
Municipal governments have long held the power to enforce matters of health and safety, and rightly so. Over time, these powers have evolved to rein in unreasonable density, bulk, energy consumption, and other quantifiable aspects of construction--again, rightly so. Yet presuming to dictate the ethereal, subjective, and ever-changing entity of architectural taste, especially on a citizen’s private property, crosses a dangerous line. Simply put, your taste is none of the government’s business.
I will be traveling for the next five weeks and will be unable to post until late August.