Giving people a say in the look of their city.
Austin, Texas — While some may praise Detroit's downtown Renaissance Center, with its tall towers and fortress-like base, California architect Charles W. Moore criticizes its style as ''hermetic,'' shutting itself off from the rest of the city.
Boston's new Copley Plaza complex may be exciting to some, but to Harvard law Prof. Charles M. Haar, the project ''completely turns its back on the people.''
Both men would have preferred designs that fit in better with the surrounding neighborhoods and, in one way or another, welcomed people in.
Name the development project, and there are bound to be people who like it and people who don't. But who should decide what is acceptable and what is not?
In many cities, citizens no longer have to sit idly by and watch development occur, hoping they'll like it when it's finished. More and more communities have been setting up design review boards to judge proposed projects. These boards typically include some nonarchitect lay members of the community.
But like development projects themselves, the trend toward community design review boards has its fans and its critics.
''Design review kills us,'' says Denise Scott Brown, a Philadelphia architect and planner. The effect of most design review boards has been stultifying,'' she said here recently at a national conference on city design and the environment, sponsored in part by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library.
''You'll get nothing bad, but you'll get nothing new'' from such reviews, she contends. The review boards should be required to use objective, measurable standards, not subjective ones, she argues.
Architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia of Coral Gables, Fla., goes a step further in his criticism of community review power on proposed development. ''I do not think there should be aesthetic rules, or street setbacks (requirements in some communities that buildings be set back a certain distance from the street or sidewalk) and boundaries.''
He has helped design a modernistic residential building with a giant hole in it, a proposed high-rise with an indoor park several floors high up, and a proposed shopping-office complex in Texas where people can drive or walk between buildings. ''Architecture has to pump your blood, give you some excitement,'' he says.
But when Mr. Fort-Brescia showed a slide of one of his buildings to the conference here, Professor Haar noted that the building cast a long shadow across the neighboring building. In approving designs for projects, a community review board should consider such things as the shadows the building will cast on other buildings and the effect of the building's occupants on the local transportation system.
He supports design review boards if they have good criteria spelled out and have qualified members. Cities need a ''unified design pattern,'' he says.
Walnut Creek, Calif., has had a design review commission since 1973. The commission has eliminated ''a lot of mediocrity'' in development projects, says Randy Jerome, a planner on the city payroll. He cites the case of a developer from out of town who tried to get a building approved that was just ''a concrete box with a little bit of brick work.'' The commission told the developer to submit a new design, which he did.
The commission has two architects, a landscaper, and two community lay people. Unlike many such commissions, it is not just an advisory board, but actually has power to approve or reject proposed projects.
Do architects on the commission ever present their own work for review? ''Quite often,'' says Mr. Jerome. Developers hire them because they are on the review commission, he says.
Does this present a conflict of interest? They do not vote on their own projects. But ''the other commissioners may feel they won't be as hard on him - he's one of their own,'' he adds. ''That's one thing I don't like about it.''
On the other hand, the architects on the commission who present their own work know ''what the community will accept,'' he says. And if architects were prohibited from designing projects while they were serving on the commission, they would not serve, he says.
E.Joseph Wallis is an architect and chairman of the design commission for affluent Mercer Island in Washington State. He says the commission has helped win major improvements in the design of a federal Interstate highway across the island, among other projects.