Faking it: Why Asheville needs new design guidelines

Laura Berner Hudson Photo courtesy of Laura Berner Hudson

BY LAURA BERNER HUDSON

The news that the BB&T Building will receive a much-needed makeover has produced unsurprising shouts of praise from most Ashevilleans. Built in 1965, the reflective late-modern tower is tough to love with its dingy, fading facade, taut planes and lack of real connection to the plaza level.

But for many of us who grew up here, it’s served as our only bona fide modern skyscraper — a tangible, irrefutable sign that Asheville is a city, not just a town. The glass-and-metal exterior hangs from the steel structure in contrast to the heavy, load-bearing masonry buildings surrounding it; the reflectivity of the glass echoes the Vance Monument at sunset. And while it’s not deserving of landmark status, the former Northwestern Bank Building has made a significant contribution to Asheville’s architectural record, and its modernist design is a testament to the city’s continually evolving texture and diversity.

There’s no disputing that buildings have useful life spans and eventually require alteration and reconstruction to remain functional and relevant. Enhanced energy requirements alone demand that the aging tower be reskinned.

One approach to revitalizing the dated façade would be to expand on the principles of the minimalist International Style, which valued advanced technology, progress and freedom from historical references. Reconstructing the exterior with a high-performance glass skin would provide an exciting opportunity to fulfill the promise of modernism in ways that the original building didn’t.

BB&T Rendering
THINK BEFORE YOU REDESIGN: Rendering of BB&T Building renovation. Image courtesy of McKibbon Hotel Group

Instead, the new design calls for wrapping the tower in a pastiche of quasi-historical, borrowed styles in an attempt to mimic a bygone era. The problem with this approach is that the building’s linear, boxy form remains: Where each change of material suggests that the elevation is stepping back, the reality is still a flat exterior rendered as a slightly three-dimensional trompe l’oeil, giving only the illusion of depth. No matter how beautiful the detailing, the result is a modernist building in art deco drag.

We love historic structures because they trigger a sense of nostalgia, and nostalgia is an easy sell. But adding faux historical details to a building of a completely different era merely panders to our desire to have it both ways, and the resulting ersatz architecture is, at best, satisfactory or banal. Asheville’s actual art deco buildings shine like gems within the matrix of other styles that enfold them; surrounding them with clichéd reproductions serves only to dilute the quality of the real thing.

This isn’t just about taste: It’s about Asheville’s need for good design policy. The current design guidelines recommend that a building’s essential original design characteristics should be respected, and that themed designs that don’t respect the original character should be avoided unless the façade is “lacking in historical significance or architectural detail.” Why isn’t modernism recognized as having historical value?

Surely we can recognize that different eras have shaped the city and given it a unique identity. And though many condemn modernism as soulless and ugly, in reality it was a social movement — a response to cultural upheaval that united art and technology while celebrating rationality, democracy, equity and optimism.

In practice, Asheville’s design guidelines acknowledge and respect only a narrow slice of the city’s built environment, with a clear bias against architecture that doesn’t reinforce a specific historical theme that is heavy on ornamentation. Thus begins a process of homogenization, where everything is made to resemble a mythical past, creating a discomfiting synthetic environment in which a tidy unreality takes precedence over more complicated authenticity.

The National Park Service, the federal agency charged with managing historic preservation, describes Asheville as city with as many architectural styles as there are buildings, arguing that this diversity reflects the community’s own diversity and distinctive culture. But the downtown design review guidelines seem to reject that eclecticism.

Shouldn’t we question a policy that promotes unreality, sameness and repetition? Wouldn’t we be better served by one that encouraged the integration of new layers to the city’s architectural fabric, representing the ideas, language, technology and materials of today? It’s essential that any new building respect the surrounding character, but nostalgic misrepresentations merely confuse the relationships among adjacent structures over time.

Consider the Diana Center at Barnard College, whose mix of clear, opaque and fritted glass panels gives a simple box architectural complexity. The all-glass design by Weiss/Manfredi Architects translates brick masonry into a luminous, energy-efficient exterior that’s in conversation with the historic buildings surrounding it, respecting context while honoring the creativity of our own time.

Some might think all this is no big deal. What does it matter if a tired old structure — a poor imitation of the Seagram Building — undergoes cosmetic surgery to travel back in time? Art and architecture are inherently subjective, after all. But architecture is more than decorative — it is real and important, tying us to the political, economic and social issues of the day. A city is a living, evolving organism in which new layers are continuously being woven into the urban fabric, and the environment we build for ourselves shapes our experience, our community and our identity.

When serious, authentic architecture is rejected in favor of simulacra, we exchange reality for a mythical past where everything is made to resemble what might have been. In turn, we blur the boundary between copies and genuine history. It is the elaboration of continuously changing ideas that makes a city truly authentic, and if we don’t embrace this vitality and diversity, we risk becoming a generic, theme park version of what we never were instead of an authentic manifestation of who we truly are.

Asheville native Laura Berner Hudson recently moved back home after 15 years on the West Coast. An architect, she currently serves on Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission.

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24 thoughts on “Faking it: Why Asheville needs new design guidelines

  1. AVL LVR

    While I personally did not support this design, I think it is authentic for a tourist town to look like a tourist town. This hotel building is meant to appeal to tourists who want an escape from the ordinary BB&Ts style throughout the country.

    Instead of going after this building, I would focus on banning mobile homes which have absolutely no architectural value whatsoever.

    • NFB

      Mobile homes are already banned inside the city limits and in the county are the only places some can afford to live other than the homeless shelter.

      • AVL LVR

        Good on Asheville. I hope the county follows suit. I would also implement incentives to remove the existing trailers.

        Trailers are only affordable in the short-term. What did people do in the 1800s before these monstrosities were invented? They learned to build their own log cabins or homes. Instead of buying mobile homes from Warren Buffet and having the money leave the area, support the local economy and have local builders do it. Everyone will be richer (and more skilled) for it.

        • NFB

          In case you haven’t noticed,no builders, local or not, are building affordable housing. That is why we are having a housing crisis in Asheville and Buncombe County. You solution of everybody building their own log cabins is absurd. Solutions for the 19th century are not applicable to the 21st. Lacking a viable alternative to mobile homes, your dislike for the ascetics of mobile homes is not a valid reason to ban them thus denying many in the area the only housing they can afford. Your screen name makes the claim of loving Asheville, but you seem to have little concern for the people who make up the local community who are outside your own circle.

          • Yep

            Small / tiny houses are popping up and city is encouraging more backyard living quarters, which can be rented. I see the convenience of living in a tiny house but probably not for me as I age. Great for the
            hipsters!

          • Chandler Thorbenstrause the third

            Aesthetic. Unless you mean hermits.

        • “Trailers are only affordable in the short-term. What did people do in the 1800s before these monstrosities were invented? They learned to build their own log cabins or homes”

          Trailers and mobile homes are affordable housing. The city and county have put restrictions on this affordable housing. Now the progressives in charge of eliminating a source of affordable housing claim that “we” have an affordable housing problem. Who is “we” kimosobe?

          When I see mobile homes, I do not see a “monstrosity,” I see poor people living well. I do not instead require that they defer their happiness, learn homecrafting, take up the axe and saw, clear-cut trees in the city, and spend their valuable time and energy hewing their existence out of the wilderness with the help of child labor. How barbaric you progressives are.

          • hauntedheadnc

            You think AVL LVR is a progressive? Really?

          • “You think AVL LVR is a progressive? Really?”

            That’s it? That’s your response? You’ve never actually formed an argument, have you?

          • Peter Robbins

            I believe you were being asked a question, Mr. Peck. For purposes of clarification. Mature people sometimes do that before forming an argument or response of their own. What is your answer?

          • hauntedheadnc

            Peter Robbins — In the defense of everyone’s favorite sociopath, the question was rhetorical. I know he’s deflecting and spinning, just as I know that if ever some morning while preparing for breakfast he finds that the milk (or the viscera of little children, or whatever he eats) has gone sour he shrieks at the milk jug that it is progressive. He views the word as some kind of insult, and not only that, but the very worst thing you could call anyone.

          • Peter Robbins

            Hmmm. I guess that explains the Progresso spaghetti on his wall.

  2. bsummers

    “Shouldn’t we question a policy that promotes unreality…?”

    Hey – back off!! That’s our bread and butter you’re talking about.

    • Fred

      Yes, bread-and-butter industry that promotes minimum wage jobs for people who rely on tips. Smart thinking!

      • bsummers

        Not supporting the tourism industry – I was making a joke about how Asheville has this rep as a funky weird magical place, and how promoting that rep is actually killing that magic.

      • Craig Randolph

        Couldn’t agree with you more, Fred. In another post in here, I tried to point out that , even though tourism is how a lot of people earn a living, most tourism related service industry jobs are relatively low paying, no health benefits types of jobs …which are not conducive to being able to totally support your own family upon. An earlier post , important that a tourist town look like a tourist town. has really left me scratching my head…..first, what makes a tourist town LOOK like a tourist town? The way that old wild-west pub in ‘Vacation’looked like? Already got that. Outlet malls..got that. Are we any closer to looking like a tourist town yet? Vast majority of folks , when vacationing , want to avoid tourist towns that look like tourist towns. (I, for one do) Rather go to where the locals hang out and to chat with, to really pick up on whats different about this city that is different from my own hometown. Lastly, awesome post in here earlier, NFB. Psst…according to another’s post, Warren Buffet can give ya a deal on a mobile home ….Can’t quite wrap my head around how some (well, just one actually, that I’m aware of) are SOOO paranoid about mobile homes. …am breathlessly waiting the appearance of another absurd post concerning some irrelevant issue dejourie from our resident Asheville lover. Of which I am one of also.

  3. Fred

    Asheville has lost its way. The architecture is a visible sign of this.

    The new art museum is something out of NY, DC or Miami, so inappropriate for Asheville. Of course, lets hope our tourists don’t travel out of a two block area when they are here. Otherwish they really won’t know where they are because Asheville looks like any other poor town in the USA. There is no continuity in our landscape. Helen GA made itself a go-to place just because of building facades. Yet – we allow modern, aluminum siding, cookie cutter, buildings to pop up anywhere. Biltmore Village is doing the best job for keeping a neighborhood feel and having continuity in landscape. But if you are on Merrimon, Patton or Tunnel …. good luck finding character or creativity. Both things Asheville is known for.

    But let’s keep putting ourselves on lists. Let’s keep getting excited about people moving in town from other places because of our charming town and then lets continue to be excited while they change it..

    I say we need a stronger historical community. A stronger sense of history. Let’s keep the big builders out and have aesthetic codes they must adhere to..

    • luther blissett

      “Helen GA made itself a go-to place just because of building facades.”

      Helen GA is a kitsch superficial gingerbread town. Are you really arguing that Asheville should Gatlinburg itself up some more because that’s full of “character”?

    • hauntedheadnc

      There’s no continuity, and that’s some kind of problem?

      I dare you to find the continuity between the Drhumor Building and the S&W Cafeteria building, between city hall and the courthouse, and between the Jackson and Westall buildings, just for starters. Asheville’s architecture goes out of its way to clash. It’s been that way for nearly a century, and that’s part of the reason that downtown feels so vibrant and refreshing. Let’s also not forget that when all that Art Deco was going up, that style was also something out of New York and Miami (specifically Miami Beach).

      • AVL LVR

        It would be interesting to turn the BB&T building into a giant gingerbread house. Maybe it can be a giant medieval guard tower .

        • hauntedheadnc

          It would be more interesting if Asheville were to become a center of legitimate neo-historical revival architecture as well as a center for cutting-edge modern design, rather than attempt to force an entire city to conform to one’s aesthetics, said aesthetics mainly driven by a distaste for anyone who’d have the gall to be seen in public not wearing their Gucci and Prada.

          • luther blissett

            I totally agree with this. Asheville should be an ideal environment to test the often-repeated argument that it’s impossible to build civic architecture that taps into the aesthetic influences of the early 20th century with the sensibility of the 21st: “the materials are too expensive, the skills no longer exist.” Instead we get pastiches like the planned BB&T facelift, or generic Charlotte-style lumps designed to fit anywhere while belonging to nowhere.

            I wish Ms Berner Hudson the best of luck on the Planning and Zoning Commission: she’ll need it.

  4. Paul Blythe

    The BB&T building is ugly, it’s always been ugly. Just because it’s called International / modernist doesn’t change that. I applaud those who will try to make dreary eyesore a bit less unappealing.

    • Big Al

      International…? More like Internationalist, i.e. Stalinist. Convenient for a town full of Reds.

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