Paul Menter

I am a big fan of New Yorker magazine cartoons. I remember one from many years ago. A CEO is sitting behind his large wooden desk. A subordinate employee sits pensively across the massive barrier from his boss. The CEO has both hands outstretched in the direction of his subordinate. His hands are closed in fists, with their palms facing down. You cannot tell if he is holding something in them or if they are empty. The caption reads:

“I’m bringing you into the decision-making process. Which hand is your paycheck in?”

Every time I experience or observe an organization paying lip service to its particular brand of inclusiveness, I am reminded of this cartoon. The emerging popular opposition to the design of the city of Aspen’s proposed Rio Grande office building serves as my most recent reminder.

As it turns out, some notable Aspenites are interested in improving the architectural design of the proposed structure, the construction of which was approved through an “either-or” vote last November when the city positioned it against the option of acquiring Hopkins Avenue properties from Chicago developer Mark Hunt, as a legal tactic to settle a lawsuit.

With genuine deference to the building’s architect Charles Cunniffe, I respectfully agree with the primary thrust of these arguments. However, you might wonder as I do where these building design aficionados have been for the past four years. I first wrote in May of 2015 in this column that the city should strive to design a building that is “architecturally significant and rooted in its community’s culture.” (What makes for a great city hall? Aspen Daily News, May 19, 2015.)

Now I must admit, the city of Aspen’s long-drawn-out question of if, and where, to build its new city offices building has been the gift that has kept on giving for me. I have written not fewer than 11 columns on the subject. Once the United States entered World War II, it took the Allies less time to vanquish the Axis powers than it has to merely finalize plans for a new city of Aspen office building. And only now is the building’s design surfacing as an issue of concern? Clearly there was something wrong with the review process.

The fact is, there has never been a community vetting of the proposed building focused on its design and impact on its surroundings. How did this happen? Well that takes us to the heart of the issue. Successive city councils have taken the position, recommended by then City Manager Steve Barwick, that the voters should not have a vote on the approval of their new city offices building. So opposed was Barwick to giving the voters a say that at a July 11, 2017, work session, he infamously compared an up or down vote on the new city offices building to a “mandatory colonoscopy.”

Here’s the rub. Public process follows its intention. If a city council is considering the design of a building for bureaucrats who likely crave corner offices with mountain views (and who wouldn’t?), they will accept options that merely meet their staffing requirements. Conversely, if a city council is considering the design of a building that its voters, who will pay for it with their tax dollars, must approve, they will require that the building’s design be something those voters will actually support.

Meeting the needs of the bureaucrats (of which I was once one), is important, but it is an entirely different, and frankly visionless question when compared to designing a building to the standards of the people who will actually own it. With no vote in the offing, the building’s review focused on capacity and efficiency rather than beauty and community.

Aspen is one of the world’s great small cities, and it deserves an architecturally significant city hall (OK, office building, whatever) that reflects the community’s values and character. If you can’t persuade your voters that the new building is to their benefit, then what in the world are you doing proposing one in the first place?

Yes, there was a long, and sometimes tortured, review process. Many options were proposed for the council to consider. As I have written, the staff work on much of that process was in my view, excellent. All of that is both beneficial and necessary, but not sufficient when it comes to the question of a new city building on the intersectional ground of Rio Grande Plaza. The missing “X factor” has always been the knowledge that the final project would not require a public vote, so the building’s design and integration with its surroundings at that critical point between Aspen’s downtown core and the Roaring Fork River was never front and center.

If you don’t need their approval, you don’t design it for them. It’s that simple.

The conceptual drawings depict a building that is far from terrible, but it could be so much better if its design had been intended from the beginning as a flowing connection that symbolically and functionally ties the community together.

Like the CEO with his fists outstretched in the direction of a subordinate, the city of Aspen paid lip service to its mandate to include the community in the process for deciding not just what and where, but how to build. The results speak for themselves.

Hopefully it’s not too late to change the outcome and design a building of which the Aspen community can be proud.