Brad Buchanan spends his summer weekends, and some predawn mornings, atop an ATV checking on his cattle along Kiowa Creek. [...]
But each weekday, Buchanan shifts gears... The weekend farmer who's also a longtime architect ... is five months into his job as Denver's head city planner.
That juxtaposition — an Eastern Plains rancher responsible for making key decisions about Denver's increasingly dense urban footprint — has some critics of the city's building bonanza grumbling. — denverpost.com
In that ancient fable of localized identity, a city-dwelling mouse and his country-dwelling cousin try out life in each other's shoes. There are countless versions of this story, found in civilizations from all over the world. Invariably, when each mouse visits his cousin, he feels uncomfortably out of place — the food is strange, it's not clear what's dangerous, life's pace isn't quite right — and is relieved to return home.
Regardless of whether these stories end by taking a side, favoring city-life over country-life or vice versa, they all concede the idea that some folks get along better in the place they're from, and that makes them less capable in the other place. This classic urban v. rural dichotomy doesn't seem to matter much in contemporary architecture practice. It's common in the global economy for a firm that's based in a dense city center to build a monument in a rural setting, or for developers to flip properties in China from their offices in Ottawa. If the design is bad, it reflects badly on the designer's skills, regardless of where they grew up.
But occasionally, outcries against globalized "franchised" architecture will bubble up. Franchised architecture derives value from being recognizably part of a larger, successful brand, not because of its relationship to the environs. The Coke logo, in any language, is undeniably the Coke logo; a Zaha is a Zaha, at home and abroad. Proponents of "local" architecture advocate for a direct connection between designer and site, and criticize franchise architecture for allowing too much ethical and cultural distance between designer and the project's reality (Zaha has certainly been criticized for this before). Lived expertise is the gold standard of local architecture, but deciding whether an architect is "local" isn't that easy.
Take the case of Brad Buchanan, the recently appointed director of city planning in Denver, Colorado. Buchanan's policies favor density, transit-oriented development and walkability — strategies many developing urban areas favor. Before being appointed, he's was an accomplished architect and has positive developer relationships in Denver. But he also lives on a ranch with his family, just outside of Denver — a fact that, for some residents, eclipses all professional competencies. The thinking goes that his "country" lifestyle keeps him from truly being in-tuned with Denver residents, and erodes his personal responsibility for his work — because hey, he can always go live on that ranch of his if things go south.
Such suspicion is an extreme symptom of the local architecture argument, but it could actually harm cities in the future. As cities are stressed to densify and inter-city transit networks expand, distinctions between urban centers and suburbia become blurrier, and populations mingle more freely. It's integral that a city planner not myopically obsess over the particulars of their city's limits, but embrace city networks, such as the "Sun Belt" cities of the American southwest, and the "mega-regions" of Los Angeles County or the San Francisco Bay Area. Severing links to outer networks compromises a city's health. It's not about whether you're in or you're out, but whether you're part of the network.
Not to mention, an insistence on local architecture would probably atrophy creative development. Distinguishing between local or franchised architecture is a false dichotomy; there's far more diversity at play. Postmodernism griping aside, a bit of imported collage here and there can provide a refreshing strangeness in a cityscape, and break up monopolies of corporatized "locatecture". Same goes with city planning — cities benefit from swapping data and experiences with other cities, incorporating the ideas of experts in given fields, and creating stimulating, diverse environments. Bringing in identity politics to judge architects or city planners is a sure way to get nowhere. Moving beyond the parable's Podunk/urbane binary, are you a mouse, or a human?