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Widespread Use of Design Review Would Be a Fitting Legacy for Atherton
These concerns are not without basis. But all of them can be dismissed if the design review process is intelligently structured, efficiently managed and publicly transparent.
Design review is most effective when members of a review board, committee or commission are well qualified, with no financial or political stake in what they are reviewing. Although they inevitably possess their own beliefs, sensitive and sensible design reviewers still can look at project designs with a critical eye and an open mind.
Another way to reduce skepticism about aesthetic review is to articulate explicit design goals, standards and guidelines, a kind of design code. Depending on project location and circumstances, such codes range in scope from being exacting and prescriptive to being generic and open-ended.
For example, in historic neighborhoods such as Annapolis, Old Town Alexandria, Georgetown or Capitol Hill, design codes are appropriately specific about exterior materials and details, window proportions and entry doors. In other neighborhoods, design codes might focus on massing, public open space, landscaping or access to sunlight.
Yet no design code can compose or impose a design, which is why the design review process is indispensable. Even with precise criteria, an uninspired designer can always produce poor architecture. You need only look around you to confirm this.
I disagreed at times with Atherton and the decisions made by the Commission of Fine Arts. But I have never questioned the importance and value of the commission, both as an aesthetic steward of the nation's capital and as a design review model worth emulating elsewhere. Thus I can think of no better way to commemorate Atherton's life and accomplishments than to see the process of design review embraced more widely.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.