(This is Part 1 of a three-part series. See Part 2: )

For a century or so, zoning and building regulations have existed to ensure public health and safety. Now and then, they’ve affected architectural aesthetics as well–for example, New York’s light-and-air zoning laws indirectly created the city’s characteristic stepped-back skyscrapers–but dictating how buildings should look was never their intent.

This is no longer the case. Over the last few decades, more and more city governments have adopted a process called design review, in which building plans are judged not just for adherence to health and safety codes, but also for aesthetic merit. In many jurisdictions, conformance with a design review board’s recommendations has become a de facto requirement for obtaining a building permit, so that in effect, our civic building departments now decide what constitutes “tasteful” architecture for the rest of us.

Is this such a bad thing? Doesn’t design review prevent people from building too bulky, too tall, or too close to their neighbors? In a word: no. Those aspects have long been simply and effectively controlled by zoning regulations, and design review adds nothing to this enforcement power. Instead, it presumes to make subjective judgments about whether a given design–perhaps yours–is “good” or “bad” according to temporal standards that are far from unassailable.

For consumers, there’s also an important difference between the longstanding use of zoning regulations and the so-called guidelines of design review.

Zoning regulations are specific, quantifiable, and can be easily verified; a project either complies with them or it doesn’t.

Design review guidelines, on the other hand, provide no such clarity. They are necessarily vague, physically unquantifiable, and impossible to verify, simply because architectural taste is highly personal and totally subjective. Applicants are thus saddled with the maddening task of meeting amorphous design goals based on unquantifiable standards, which are then supposed to be fairly judged by a design review board rife with varied, and often conflicting, personal biases.

All this is done in the name of discouraging “bad” design, with the powers-that-be naturally supplying the definition of good and bad. Or, as the Web site of one California city smugly puts it, “[design review] provides a framework by which elements of poor layout and design of a project may be prevented.”

The trouble with such do-gooder “prevention” is that all judgments of taste are invariably tainted by the aesthetic bias of their own time. I shudder to think how the above city’s design review board, had it existed in 1900, might have treated the work of a young Frank Lloyd Wright.

This same aesthetic myopia also explains why design review guidelines often include absurdly voguish standards, such as requiring buildings to have “traditional” detailing or limiting them to a prescribed range of colors.

One ultra-posh suburb goes so far as to righteously forbid the use of aluminum windows, as if this were performing some kind of cultural service. Given modern architecture’s debt to aluminum, it’s an idea that makes about as much sense as banning hats for being out of fashion.

Such wrong-headed and historically ignorant decrees in no way promote timeless design. In fact, mired as they are in the aesthetic biases of the day, they do just the opposite. Had any of our greatest architects–or, for that matter, any of our tawdriest merchants–had the misfortune to encounter the design review process as it stands today, our national landscape would only be the poorer for it.

***

What’s your opinion? Send your Letter to the Editor to opinion@inman.com.

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