Part 1

The last few years have been an exciting time for urban Louisville. Downtown and many of the neighborhoods surrounding it have experienced an explosion of new activity, that just a decade ago would have been unthinkable. Construction sites of all shapes and sizes have sprouted up across the urban core, bringing new apartments, restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues to neighborhoods like Schnitzelburg, Butchertown, Paristown Pointe, Old Louisville and Portland.

But with new growth comes growing pains. Issues like gentrification, transportation and housing affordability, while not as acute when compared with larger cities, have become prominent in local discourse (as they should). But there are other, less prominent questions that have become the focus of much public discussion; the most frequent of these being the topic of good (or the absence of good) urban design.

When it comes to urban projects, the court of public opinion tends to hand down a variety of judgments. The renovation of existing buildings, especially historic ones, are always praised; they should be, for they preserve Louisville’s architectural history and put an often underutilized or abandoned building back into productive use.

New construction, however, is another matter; more often than not, an entirely new building built in downtown Louisville tends to receive at best a lukewarm reception from members of the public.

Criticisms of new construction can be varied; some, for example, decry a perceived lack of parking or the exacerbation of local traffic woes. But many others center on the design of the building itself, especially if it is built in a 21st-century architectural style.

Louisville seems to struggle with being comfortable with modern architecture, regardless if it’s the design of a home, business, or public building. To a degree, this is understandable; Louisville is a historic city and, despite the best efforts of urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s, is home to neighborhood after neighborhood of Antebellum, Victorian and Edwardian-era buildings.

Courtesy of Old Louisville Neighborhood Council

This creates a very distinct flavor of architecture in the city, one that centers on brick and hand-cut stone laid to create simple yet sturdy buildings. As a result, the glass, steel and concrete of 21st-century construction, sometimes arranged in unique and exotic forms, can be jarring.  

But Louisville’s apprehension about modern-style designs should not simply be pegged as excessive or close-minded, for in some ways it is completely justified. This is attributed to the fact that new buildings are sometimes built with significantly lower architectural quality than the historic buildings that surround them (and sometimes replace them).

To be fair, making such a generalized statement about any one building or style can be challenging because architecture tends to be very subjective. Beauty, as the old saying goes, is in the eye of the beholder.

Additionally, what architects, art critics and the general public find attractive in a building can change over time; what was considered to be avant-garde or abnormal in one decade may become accepted and valued architectural practice in another.

Columbia Building | Courtesy OldLouisville.com

A prominent local example of this is the Columbia Building, a long-demolished Romanesque office tower that stood at 4th and Main. When it first opened in 1900, its red sandstone facade was actually blasted by local critics for its “severity and lack of ornamentation.” Today, such criticism would be nothing short of laughable, for if it were still standing the Columbia Building would undoubtedly be a cherished historical landmark.

But despite the slippery notion of what makes beautiful architecture beautiful, there a few design concepts that modern constructions inherently struggle with. The most noticeable problem is that new buildings tend to look very generic; the same boxy style, the same materials (concrete, bare metal, colored panels, etc), and in some cases the same layout.

According to the local architect Steve Wiser, they simply lack the intricate architectural details found on older buildings; there is no distinctive base or parapet, no unique framing around the windows, nothing to catch a person’s eye. In short, said Wiser, “They have no soul or essence, nothing that speaks to you; they’re just a volume of space people occupy.”

This is in sharp contrast to historic buildings, which are intimately shaped by local traditions, histories and available construction materials. This is what makes historic architecture vary so widely across the United States; why the wooden shotgun houses of the South differ from the brick and stone rowhouses of the Northeast, and why the pine-shingle-sided homes of the Chesapeake Bay are distinct from the adobe-clad dwellings of the arid Southwest.

There are some signature modern buildings that strive to be unique and connected to their location through their design or decoration. But it is for more common for new buildings to, by comparison, to have a repetitive, assembly line-built impression that is detached from the communities and neighborhoods in which they are built.

A cold and lonely street-level experience at the Government Center in Boston. | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Newer buildings, especially in the urban context, also struggle with creating an open and welcoming environment for pedestrians. For a city building, the street level is a crucial component of its design, for it more than any other is what sets the tone for how someone will experience it.

Here is where residents, workers, or simple passersby will interact with a structure the most; here is what decides how a structure will integrate into the surrounding streetscape. The street level is what creates a building’s “first impression.”

Older buildings, especially those that pre-date World War II, do an excellent job of creating a favorable first impression. Historic storefronts, with their large windows and often ornate stone or brass details, create a warm, open, and welcoming atmosphere for pedestrians.

The design of their facades also prioritizes human-scaled elements at street-level; even large buildings, like the Stark Building or the Seelbach Hotel, do a good job of keeping the design of storefronts and entrances at a scale that doesn’t overwhelm pedestrians.

They send a clear message: “Please come in, and experience what this building has to offer.”

Modern buildings, on the other hand, frequently present blank walls or oversized design elements to the street. It often seems like the people that design them prioritize the “postcard view” over the “street-level view”; creating buildings that look impressive from an airplane, with the perspective of an average citizen walking down the street treated as an afterthought. Such a design sends a clear message to passersby: “unless you have business here, go away.”

Why do modern buildings so frequently exhibit such design features? The short answer is simply, cost. According to a recent article at curbed.com, “The reason our cities are filled with so much of the same kind of building is because it’s the cheapest way to build an apartment.”

Creating unique, or more ornate building designs costs money. The simple, bland makeup of the current crop of new constructions are relatively cheap to build and can be erected quickly and efficiently.

Additionally, by installing the same building models in different markets, even more costs can be cut in the design phase of the construction process. Development firms are, after all, for-profit enterprises; to make a profit and build a lasting business, it is in their best interest to cut costs as much as possible.

This is a simple reality of the real estate development business, and it should not be ignored in any conversation about building design or construction. But the question that should be asked in response is: Has the quest for cost efficiency gone too far?

A historic tobacco warehouse in Lancaster, PA, exhibiting elaborate architectural features.

| Photo by Porter Stevens

My current residence of Lancaster, Pa., is filled with relics of America’s 19th-century industrial heritage; warehouses and factory buildings that once housed everything from tobacco and farm tools to umbrellas and floor tiles.

Yet, despite their industrial nature, they often sport elegant designs; facades of brick and stone built with ornate cornices, window frames, arches and columns.

These are not private mansions or downtown headquarter buildings; they’re purely utilitarian buildings. They were not built by philanthropists or non-profit organizations, but men of industry; men who were just as conscious and concerned about cutting costs as any developer now.

Despite that, despite there being no city planning agencies or design review boards to compel them to, these men were willing to spend the extra time and money to make their factories and warehouses beautiful. That culture, that mindset, is something we’ve lost over the last 100 years.

Part 2 will examine how to regain the mindset of creating a strong architectural culture. 

Porter Stevens is a Louisville native currently living in Lancaster, Pa., working as a community planner for Lancaster County. Stevens still maintains a strong interest in urban issues in his hometown and in learning about ways to revitalize its urban core. He has written previously for Insider Louisville and was a contributor to Broken Sidewalk.

Porter Stephens obtained a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Louisville. He now works as a zoning official in Hampton, Va.