Widespread Use of Design Review Would Be a Fitting Legacy for Atherton

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, December 10, 2005

Architect Charles Atherton, recently retired secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, died last weekend after being hit by a car as he crossed Connecticut Avenue NW near the Uptown Theater.

Atherton was both a professional colleague and a friend, a man whose contributions to shaping this city will not be forgotten. His legacy is embodied in countless projects -- memorials, monuments, parks, plazas and scores of buildings -- that he helped commission members effectively administer, analyze, interpret and, most important, aesthetically refine through the federally mandated review and approval process.

Atherton's service to the commission and to America's capital spanned nearly four decades, long enough for him and the CFA itself to be identified as a single entity. And that entity, by law, is responsible for reviewing the designs of federal and D.C. projects in Washington, including streets and parks. It also reviews private-sector projects in designated areas of the District where development of private property affects federal property.

The commission, whose members are appointed by the president, does not focus on zoning or building codes. It does not generate design concepts, nor does it adhere to or sanction any particular artistic style or philosophy.

Instead, its mission is to consider a project's aesthetic attributes related to urban design, landscape design and architectural design. In so doing, it has two fundamental duties: to evaluate and pass judgment on design concepts to ensure that they are visually, culturally and historically appropriate for their site and intended purpose; and to promote the highest possible design and construction standards in the interest of achieving durability and permanence.

The CFA review begins when applicants submit project design proposals to the commission. Project sponsors and designers advocate and defend their proposals at public hearings. Commission members discuss the design and then suggest -- and sometimes demand -- design changes prior to approval. Occasionally, the CFA rejects a design outright and asks applicants to try again.

Ideally, the changes the commission suggests are based on sound reasoning and informed judgment. However, with diverse personal views about form and beauty among members, decisions may not always be unanimous and may at times seem arbitrary. After all, commissioners are not immune to the influences of design culture and evolving architectural fashion.

Nevertheless, the CFA's scrutiny is invaluable. By filtering out design missteps and mediocrity, the process raises the design aspirations -- and achievements -- of government agencies, developers and architects. For these reasons, Atherton's death could inspire another legacy: a process of effective, formalized design review by other American cities and counties, with the CFA serving as one kind of model.

In most jurisdictions, you can get a building permit, as a matter of right, to construct almost any project as long as it complies with zoning, building code, life safety, accessibility, energy and environmental regulations. Aesthetic considerations are rarely addressed.

Many politicians and public officials, along with property owners and developers, tend to be uncomfortable with, if not strongly opposed to, measuring design quality as a condition for a building permit.

They believe that aesthetic assessment is a matter of individual taste. They contend that aesthetic quality cannot and should not be regulated, that it should be tested and judged in the marketplace.

They further argue that obligatory aesthetic review delays the development process and increases costs.

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.

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