I had never before seen this man who was shaking my hand and, in fact, he was only speculating about who I may have been as well. But since I was dressed like an office worker and walking around with a bunch of grizzled contractor-types, my role was maybe given away.
“Excuse me, are you the architect?” he said. “I just want to shake your hand, man … thank you for giving us this place.”
To me, this was perhaps the most genuine accolade an architect could receive. It came shortly after the opening of the Denver Human Services Eastside facility, which houses a full spectrum of social and family services, from adult food assistance to family Medicaid to child welfare, for more than 80,000 Denver residents. The firm I work for, RNL, completed the project, and it held special significance for me not just because I was the project designer but also because it had the potential to play a significant positive role in Clayton, one of my home city’s poorer neighborhoods.
As it turned out, the man I met that day had just finished talking with his caseworker. Prior to this facility opening, he would have driven across town to do the same thing in a building with obvious security measures, few windows and even fewer engaging public spaces. He told me this new building made him feel dignified about helping himself.
A long time before meeting that man, I stood dumbfounded in front of a group of Clayton residents during the early stages of our work on the facility. I had just finished talking through a series of slides about functional adjacencies, site orientation and design ideas when I was stopped.
“Don’t you think what you’re doing is a little too fancy for this area?” someone asked. “Shouldn’t we have just a regular building?”
Clayton, an inner-ring suburb of Denver, is comparatively poorer, less educated and less connected than the rest of the city. It was understandable to hear that residents felt skeptical about change in their neighborhood, but it was a surprise to hear that they didn’t think they deserved it. The introduction of a progressive new building was an alien concept at that early design presentation, and, making the topic murkier, here I was—an outsider—presenting what I thought the neighborhood needed.
It’s one thing to assume that new developments in underserved neighborhoods will bring about positive change, but they can also quickly lead to gentrification. Making a positive, relevant impact in such places takes extra listening and thoughtful translation. Contexts like these speak to authenticity in design that is not merely academic or compositional, and not just about meeting our expectations, as designers, of a final product. Instead, it focuses on highlighting features of the neighborhood that make it what it is. Rather than slamming expressions of ego into the landscape, attending to the human ecosystems that we designers work within helps us avoid gentrification and remain true to a place’s character.
At that initial community meeting, I realized that for our design to bring about positive change in Clayton, it needed to start as a dialogue with residents. The design process for Eastside became more than articulating a nice piece of architecture. Instead, it became a translation of community-centric design decisions: for instance, orienting the building’s long dimension away from the street and partially burying the first floor to minimize the structure’s scale; creating a cantilevered roof that, at the entry, reaches out to the neighborhood in a welcoming gesture that recalls nearby front porches; and designing the parking area to accommodate a bus loop, providing space to drop riders at the entry, as research showed that half of the building’s users took public transit.
Promoting a sense of pride and dignity was critical inside the building as well. Bright, transparent public spaces are filled with local art honoring notable everyday institutions of the neighborhood; Denver Human Services staff work with clients in calm spaces bathed in daylight; and, though DHS needed a highly secure facility, most of those security measures are hidden in plain sight.
In the end, Eastside did, in fact, become a “fancy” building, but it did so by highlighting its community. To get there, the design team had to stop leading from the outside and start listening. By the time the project was under construction, we had held several more meetings, hosted a barbecue and were regular visitors to the nearby high school, giving construction tours. Now that the project is complete, there is a rotating display of art from neighborhood students and a space for community gatherings. This fancy building is now as much a part of Clayton’s fabric as any of the humbler structures surrounding it.
Neighborhoods are like ecosystems, and it’s sometimes easy to ignore what makes a system work by introducing something alien. Designing in a way that dovetails with and even improves an existing system is much more delicate work, but the effect in places like Clayton can be considerable. This kind of socially conscious, authentic architecture starts and ends with the community it serves.