Should we just stop building?

John Diamond-Nigh


Asheville has been hyped to the skies. That’s favored some; it hasn’t been good for many citizens of the city or for its recent architecture.

The title of a recent piece in an architectural journal proposed that we should just stop building. It was rhetorical, of course, but the gist of the piece was to ask why we continually build too much and build so badly, at such an environmental cost. Whether for political ambition or unreflective developmental greed, we don’t think twice; it falls, we are assured, under the sanctifying heading of growth.

Walking in Asheville

Forward thinkers in architecture uniformly suggest that the game has changed. Old notions of growth are growing obsolete. We need to build less, we need to build smarter, and we need to build to elevated green standards, which has not been the case at all in Asheville.

There is, as well, a psychological dimension to this. We don’t need a Frank Gehry or Jeanne Gang to design every new building in Asheville. But well-designed, even original buildings, enhance any city. Oversized corporate schlock demeans it and even makes walking around the streets oppressive.

For example, I walk downtown to visit the library, and to get there, I must pass through a gauntlet of new hotels that are so ill-suited to their context and to the scale of the street that I get to the library in a miserable mood. The street no longer even feels real.

All of which brings me to one critical role for architecture: to interpret and advance the unique character of a city, not to sand away that uniqueness with off-the-shelf buildings of staggering grandiosity and banality, a case in point being the new Embassy Suites hotel.

A bit farther along on my walk home, I pass an equally disenchanting new structure, filling up most of a block and reminding me of another function of good architecture: to balance “fill” and space; to actually site something, not simply gobble up all the oxygen with a mass that’s shaved to the outermost dimensions of the site. Vast buildings in small cities are like elephants on a basketball court.

Boomtown building

Asheville is a living museum of great past architecture, a sort of declaration of our independence from standard idioms of design, a declaration of our civic guts. Yet what of that distinguished legacy is reflected in our current and utterly unremarkable boom?

There has been one good building built in Asheville in the last decade, one at least that is in the public eye, and that has been the new art museum. Highly modern, yes, impeccably made and as distinctly “Asheville” as the Grove Arcade. I enjoy looking at it, just as I enjoy City Hall and the I.M. Pei building across the plaza. Each in its own way declares our independence; each says, yeah, here’s some tailor-made stuff by good designers that really fits.

Architecture can be grand; it can produce a Fallingwater just as easily as it can adapt to vernacular scale and pattern. It can be tactful. As much under threat in Asheville as the more commercial zones are the city’s neighborhoods. Not to dwell on my own lamentations, but a house that’s highly out of place, one purposed simply to squeeze more people in, has soiled the ethos of my own neighborhood.

Builders, too, can be good architects. The builder who helped me build our house, which I had designed, was dieu donné — God-given in the way he made suggestions and revisions, enlarging windows, extending eaves and relocating doors in ways that made our house more suited to the scale and spirit of our neighborhood, more tactful and even more fun to live in.

Lesson? That even in small homes, especially in small homes, architecture should move quality-of-life discussions forward. The “need is great” slogan alone is neither a convincing argument nor a recipe for the best city outcomes.

Much of the worst of what is happening now I attribute to that “hyping to the skies.” To overgrowth. To an expeditious banality that could have come from some data warehouse in Phoenix. And to a failure to take the time to really care for the marvelous culture of this city.

John Diamond-Nigh is a poet, artist and retired professor, with a long-standing passion for design and architecture.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

17 thoughts on “Should we just stop building?

  1. North Asheville

    ” . . the new art museum. Highly modern, yes, impeccably made and as distinctly ‘Asheville’ as the Grove Arcade.”
    Thank you for recognizing the architectural significance of the new art museum. The leadership and determination of Pam Myers was crucial for this to happen.

    • Charlie

      Both the Grove Arcade and Museum of Art projects were made possible partly from occupancy tax dollars from the TDA. So were Orange Peel, Wortham Center, Civic Center, etc

      • Robert McGee

        Occupancy tax dollars are mostly made possible by the people who live here.

        • Charlie

          visitors pay the occupancy tax when they stay in a hotel, b&b or airbnb. so, not really, unless a local stays in lodging. visitors also pay the nightly rate which helps pay wages to local residents. to the tune of about a billion dollars a year for local residents. locals supply the hospitality and services, if that’s what you are trying to say.

      • North Asheville

        Thank you for explaining hotel occupancy taxes and pointing out how TDA funding has contributed to projects we, as well as tourists, value.

  2. blueridgeguvnor

    While I disagree that we should stop building, I do agree that we should have some kind of design standard that will result in a more aesthetically pleasing and functional Asheville. Bring back Art Deco

  3. indy499

    The feds estimate the US population will grown by 30 million+ by 2025.

    Seemingly a shock to some, a % of those people will reside in our area.

    We are either going to build or have a much larger homeless %

  4. Nostupid people

    Building cap! Our infrastructure is already failing us, why the hell doesn’t anyone care? The future is doomed if we don’t have people with half a brain in office to make educated decisions. Time and time again our city council has proven to be a cluster screw up. We must replace them in order to build our city back.

  5. Think about it

    Just perhaps, building or not building should be consistent with the status and capacity of the infrastructure in place. Because, the infrastructure is deteriorating and without appropriate expenditures related to repairs, replacement, or expansion, building upon building is indeed going to exacerbate the issues and just keep rolling in this never-ending cycle of madness.

  6. WNC

    Not enough housing
    Not enough hospitals
    Not enough schools
    Not enough improving jobs for the lower 30%
    Way to much deadly drugs from China assembled just before or after crossing the border
    Spending hundreds of Billion on others while citizens languish in 3rd world conditions in cities

    Let’s close the border.


  7. Keith Thomson

    The United States Constitution, Article 1, section 2, clause 3, requires the “actual enumeration” of “persons” by a Census every ten years. Democratic representatives support the Constitution, even when White Nationalist ideologues don’t.

    • WNC

      The Constitution gives wide range to Congress on how to conduct the census.
      People who want open borders typically want to count Illegal aliens to add extra votes in Congress. Therefore they are willing to have open borders that allow illegal immigrants, drugs, bankrupt cities, overwhelmed services and have citizens who are underserved to help foot the bill.
      Might this be why minorities are switching from the former “working man’s party” in eye popping statistics. Are these the white nationalist you mention?

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.