Expressions of Urban Identity in Architecture

Recently in Slate, architect Witold Rybczynski has taken a keen look at the architectural frontiers of Denver and Seattle. Except for Rybczynski’s characterization of the Denver’s original art museum building as delicate and whimsical, his reviews resonate with my own (far less articulate) impressions.

Set on the high plains at the edge of the Rocky Mountain foothills covered in skies brilliantly blue most of the year, Denver is a city for those who love the outdoors. And its cow-town history still is palpable when the winds blow south from the feedlots in Greeley. Its residents are laid-back, friendly, and unhurried, in spite of ongoing population growth and a budding high-tech industry.

But as the city grows, its residents seem to sense that it should begin showing some urban sophistication. The city’s attempts at expressing this through its recent major cultural building projects, however, suggest (to me at least) that it is still in an “I’m still trying to figure out who I am” adolescent stage.

In passing, I was particularly compelled by Rybczynski distillation of Seattle’s essential qualities.

At the lowest point of the park is a man-made beach that re-creates the original water’s edge—the logs and driftwood are nature’s addition. Seattle is an unusual sort of urban place, where sitting on a log to drink your grande latte seems normal (well, almost normal). Such an environment requires a different architectural response than, say, New York or Chicago. Both recent high-profile projects, the library and the sculpture park, succeed where earlier designs failed. They do so by paying attention to their surroundings and by recognizing the local sense of style, rather than importing their own. Both Koolhaas and Weiss/Manfredi, in different ways, riff on the city’s unusual combination of high-tech smarts, iconoclastic roughness, and a closeness to nature: urbanism and industrial panache and driftwood.


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