By Seth Richardson
Last week, Dave Munger, president of the Council of Neighborhoods & Organizations asked the Colorado Springs City Council a couple of loaded questions: “What is a neighborhood?” and “who decides that?”
Munger, who is concerned with fascistic notions of “neighborhood character” and “not in my back yard” control of other people’s property, interfered with developer Kristine Hembre’s Horizon View subdivision plan because it wasn’t rustic enough to suit Munger’s aesthetic tastes.
Munger’s desire to control other people’s property is particularly pernicious because he argued that every tiny group of existing homeowners, no matter how small, should be given veto power over the development plans of their neighbors for no better reason than their particular aesthetic sensibilities. And Vice Mayor Larry Small, who mouthed platitudes about respecting private property rights while simultaneously destroying Hembre’s property rights, is a hypocrite of the highest order. Small said, “I am very sensitive to the right of people to use their property. This is about compatibility. They can still develop their property, just in a more compatible way.” But the essential question is why should Vice Mayor Small, or anyone else, have the power to determine what’s architecturally “compatible?” Architecture is art, and has been for thousands of years, and art is expression, and freedom of expression is explicitly protected by the First Amendment. How dare Small or Munger or anyone else presume to infringe on that right and substitute their tastes for those of the landowner?
“Neighborhoods are defined by their character, their inhabitants,” said Small, which while true, is wrongfully used as an excuse to infringe on architectural expression. But the historical facts of life are that neighborhoods, like cities, evolve and change over time as the needs of the occupants change and it’s an injustice and an act of tyranny for the “character” of a neighborhood to subsume the right of a property owner to use and enjoy his property for no better reason than to pander to the aesthetic desires of his neighbors.
If architect Frank Lloyd Wright were alive today, he’d blow his brains out in frustration at the sclerotic aesthetics of government-supported NIMBYism. Fallingwater, Taliesin, the Robie House, the Wescott house, Graycliff; none of these masterpieces of architecture would be permitted to exist in today’s atmosphere of static, unchanging “neighborhood character” driven development review.
When did the selfish aesthetic desires of one’s neighbors take on legal significance? How did the subjective aesthetic judgments of a city council member come to enslave the free expression that is the design of one’s home? How did the desires of one’s neighbors for sameness and stultification come to be raised above the rights of the individual? How did we allow this to happen, and why do we permit it to continue?
Neighborhoods are indeed defined by their residents, but until very recently, with the advent of covenant-controlled cookie-cutter architecture brought on by the financial realities of large suburban developments, one found an entire universe of architecture in a few square blocks.
Parts of Colorado Springs, the pre-1960 areas, are shining examples of diversity of architecture. Just drive down Nevada Avenue from downtown to the north and look at the houses. Literally every style of architecture is represented in the old part of town north of Bijou and west of North Wahsatch. From mock-Tudor to Wright’s Prairie style, to Craftsman style bungalows to Spanish haciendas and everything in between can be seen cheek-by-jowl in a glorious riot of architectural anarchy. This old part of town is one of the most beautiful and diverse neighborhoods in all of Colorado, and it’s utterly impossible to assign it a “character” other than perhaps to characterize it as a soul-filling example of individual liberty and freedom of expression that characterizes the way things ought to be done.
So, what is “neighborhood character?” It’s the synthesis and conglomeration of the character of the people who live there and their personal expressions of individuality as manifested through their choice of architecture and lifestyle. Neighborhood character cannot be artificially created or preserved, it just exists as a natural and ever-changing manifestation of the many and varied tastes of the residents. It’s an organic and ongoing process of creation and decay that should not be embalmed just to satisfy your neighbor’s desire for sameness.
Who should decide what the character of a neighborhood is? No one, and everyone, through the organic evolution of the individual aesthetic tastes and desires of the people who live in it and change it to suit their needs and desires. No one person, no government and certainly no group of selfish, self-interested individuals holding themselves out as having aesthetic authority over others should be permitted to interfere with the superior right of every property owner to decide for him or her self how they will express their individuality through architecture.
And the only way to protect the organic evolution of neighborhoods and indeed entire cities, is to make sure that those who are elected to represent us understand and abide by their duty to protect the individual’s right to First Amendment freedom as expressed through architecture and their duty to resist the insidious forces of architectural fascism.
Let architectural anarchism run free, as it has done for thousands of years, and enjoy the art that is the essence of architecture that results.