Good Buildings Go Up, Good Buildings Come Down 

Most architects in Boise will wax eloquent about the signature buildings in the downtown area designed by themselves and their firms. They are also quite generous with praise for the public and commercial projects designed by their fellow architects.

Turn the question on its head, however--ask them what they consider to be the worst-designed buildings in the city--and the conversation can quickly become stilted.

Overall, Boise Weekly's discussions with representatives from four respected architectural firms (Cole + Poe Architects, CSHQA, Hummel Architects and Johnson Architects) about the best and worst architecture in Boise revealed a diverse range of opinion in regard to both completed projects and those currently under construction. They also indicated that local architects share a common desire to see this city reach its full architectural potential. They are eager to play a role in designing Boise's future.

The Most Interesting and Innovative Buildings in Town

Here is a condensed account of the favorites:

Bruce Poe, AIA, a principal at Cole + Poe Architects, ranks the recently completed Metro Express Carwash and the Front 5 Building among his firm's most noteworthy projects. "Clarity, simplicity and boldness are themes that are interwoven throughout the designs," he said. The Front 5 Building will likely be the first LEED-certified office in Idaho. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a rating system developed to promote sustainable "green" buildings that are environmentally friendly.

Poe also appreciates many buildings not designed by Cole + Poe. They include The Veltex Building for enriching the urban environment, the new Water Center on Broadway for the effort to incorporate sustainable design elements, the parking garage between Idaho and Main for incorporating playful forms and color, and the Hummel office for its combination of hard and soft materials and its linear form.

The architects at Hummel listed many projects among the firm's best, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Snake River Area Office. "The design is a metaphor for what the building represents--erosion, a combination of rock and water," said designer Greg Ugrin. The exterior concrete incorporates patterns of the earth's crust and there is a rain collection system. They deemed the Linen District one of their favorite projects by an outside firm due to its innovative approach, re-use of existing buildings, planned pedestrian accessibility and sensitivity to historical context.

Walt Lindgren, an architect at Johnson Architects, considers St. Mark's Catholic Church on Northview one of his firm's signature buildings. "It is a timeless design, using contemporary materials and methods," he said. "I wouldn't say it is cutting edge, nor was that what the Parish was looking for." As for buildings designed by other firms, Lindgren cites the Union Block, the Old Fire Station on Sixth and Idaho and the Belgravia building as examples of fine architecture.

Ted Isbell, AIA, an associate at CSHQA, is proud of his firm's involvement with the new Boise Airport. "I think the most admirable thing about the new terminal is that it really serves as a very nice gateway for the city and state and is built of quality materials," he said. His favorite non-CSHQA designed buildings in the downtown area include the Idaho Building, the Egyptian Theatre and the Boise Depot. He also likes parts of the Idaho Water Center and the Veltex Building for their materiality.

The Difference between an Attractive Building and an Ugly One

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Yet most architects agree the difference between a structure that inspires admiration and one that disappoints often hinges on a few critical design elements.

Ed Daniels, AIA, architect at Hummel, believes architects and designers must stay true to their materials and use them in an honest way. His mantra is "no faux." Along with his colleagues at Hummel, Daniels points to artificial finishes and ersatz river rock as examples of design concepts gone astray. "It's possible to take any of your standard materials and use them in a creative way to create a statement for the client," Daniels said.

Scale and proportion are other key design factors. "[The buildings] I like are the ones that try to connect with me," said Lindgren. "They maintain a human scale. The ones I do not care for are those that are oppressive and do not attempt any connection with me." Stephanie Clarkson and Lindsay Erb, interns at Hummel, also respond strongly to the way a building interacts with the public. Clarkson said good architecture inspires people to step inside. Erb expanded on the point by adding, "I like buildings that address the street well. It should be easy to find the entrance."

Of course, good architecture is more than the sum of its parts. "I am impressed if I can look at a building and it clearly communicates the underlying design concept of the architect through the sensitive interplay of materials, form and space," Poe explained. "I am disappointed when I see buildings that are 'constructed' and not designed. It is when forms are thrown together without any underlying rationale and when materials are used inappropriately. When this is combined with a lack of understanding of spatial relationships, it creates a disjointed building. It is just parts and pieces that have no relationship to anything. It sends a confusing message and it really is not architecture."

Isbell says the buildings that most impress him are tactile and provide multiple levels of understanding. "What this means is that a building can demonstrate different qualities to the observer at different distances, from different viewpoints and under different environments (daytime and nighttime, for example) in the urban landscape," he said. "A 'tactile' building engages me when I interact with it on a personal, pedestrian level through its textures, surfaces, colors and the interplay of light and dark."

Why do Ugly Buildings Get Built in Boise?

The most commonly cited reason for the unsightly buildings here and elsewhere is the drive by owners to cut costs by skimping on materials. But money alone is not the root of all architectural evil. Architects also cite a lack of artistic vision on the part of owners and the public, weak project management and less-than-stringent city requirements among the reasons ugly buildings come to fruition in Boise. Isbell said, "The planning and zoning regulations only require a minimal level of explanation about important qualities of the building."

Mike Simmonds, a principal at ZGA Architects and Planners and a member of the Boise City Design Review Committee, confirmed that city ordinances do not dictate how the various design components of a project must be assembled. He said the city encourages good design, but can only request changes that are within the guidelines of the ordinances. Even if committee members believe a particular design will result in an ugly building, he said, staff must recommend approval if the project meets the intent of the ordinances.

The committee does have the ability to influence projects, though. "The design review staff works very hard in dialoging with applicants and working with them to achieve an appropriate level of design," he said. He noted that throughout the design review process, the staff looks for ways to improve projects while respecting economic realities. He adds, "I think the committee pushes the envelope of project design within a reasonable and realistic context. There is no question that some projects may have been much worse were it not for the design review process."

Here's the Dirt: The Worst-Designed Buildings in Boise

Architects in the City of Trees are tight-lipped on the subject of "bad" Boise architecture. Nonetheless, three buildings in particular stand out as the worst-designed projects in the downtown area: The Grove Hotel/Bank of America Centre, the Ada County Corridor Project and the WinCo store. These projects provoked local architects to offer well-considered, albeit measured, commentary as to why the structures rank among the least aesthetically pleasing designs in the city.

The Grove Hotel/Bank of America Centre

The Grove Hotel/Bank of America Centre has suffered a reputation among the general public as an eyesore ever since its grand opening. Its hulking mass stands on the corner of Capitol and Front, and the colorful River Sculpture installed on the exterior wall is not enough to relieve the gray-brown monotony of the facade.

Poe attributes the building's imperfections to a function of economics. "The Grove Hotel is an example of bottom-line-driven design," he said. "It was designed to capture as much leasable space [as possible] in a structure that is devoid of detail and constructed of materials that lack permanence." Isbell agrees the urge to minimize construction costs played a role in the building's dismal appearance. "If you were to take off the tower and just consider the base of the building on its own," he said, "I don't think anyone with the city's interest at heart could approve that design. I think the overall problem with the building is that it is cheap-looking."

Isbell and Poe also take issue with the hotel's relationship to its surroundings. Isbell believes the design is crowded onto a site that is too small to contain it, and that the tower is set too close to the street. He said it would have been better to construct the arena across the street and surround it with shops and restaurants at ground level. Poe dislikes the way the building "encroaches on the view corridor to the State Capitol."

The Grove Hotel is the anchor of the Bank of America Centre sports and business complex. Lindgren says the Centre as a whole "communicates an unfortunate message of oppression and cheapness." He considers this especially unfortunate given its prominent location and size in downtown Boise.

The Ada County Corridor Project

The Ada County Corridor Project (along Front Street near Broadway) includes the recently completed Ada County Courthouse, Idaho Water Center and Civic Plaza Apartments. In the estimation of Daniels, "The architectural design was a huge opportunity that was just missed."

Although Daniels and his colleagues tend to agree the vision for the Corridor Project was sound, they fault the Project's low-quality materials and street-facing windows that do not open. They also conveyed dissatisfaction that the Project is anti-pedestrian, does not provide a clear link with downtown and fails to relate to the history of the area.

Poe did not cite specifics, but said, "The two buildings directly east of the new County Courthouse don't have any real design focus. They consist of forms that don't seem to relate to each other or to anything else."


WinCo, across the street from the Ada County Corridor Project, earns no praise from local architects either. Poe describes the grocery store as "an example of brute force--slamming a box onto a site without regard to anything beyond its walls." He continues, "As an urban design element, Broad Street is meant to be continuous, creating a pedestrian/vehicular corridor connecting 8th Street Market and Broadway. Instead, the WinCo building and its asphalt parking lot effectively block that opportunity."

Isbell takes issue with WinCo's relationship to the rest of the city as well. He said, "I think the idea of acres and acres of parking along two prominent streets and across from a wonderful amenity like Julia Davis Park shows a lack of respect for the city. This is a suburban solution that never should have been built there. The Ada County Courthouse, which centers its axis on the street that has become the delivery road for the store, is not much better."

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