Sandy Ikeda raises an interesting question here in relation to a dispute over a proposed building. (I know the neighborhood but not the proposal.) He says:
Now, we’re not talking about construction inconveniences or environmental problems or the like, which are indeed the legitimate concerns of a community board, but rather how the structure fits in with the existing built environment – a purely aesthetic judgment. The Empire State Building certainly didn’t “fit” its neighborhood in the on Fifth Avenue and the 32nd Street when it was built (and it still doesn’t), but few would claim that its current location was a mistake nor that it detracts from its surroundings. Builders of large projects today are required to conduct environmental impact studies – so can “aesthetic impact studies” be far behind? (italics added)
Well of course the idea of an “aesthetic impact" statement is horrendous and should be resisted. But the question's supposition — "how the structure fits in with the existing built environment – a purely aesthetic judgment" — is a bit incomplete because we have to decide what elements we think need to "fit-in" and it's not quite clear what Sandy is talking about. My own view is try to keep "aesthetics" out of it as much possible and to focus public attention on how the building behaves and how it induces people to behave.
Anyway, the short answer to Sandy's question is Yes and also No. Here's how I start to deal with it i.e. what is legitimate, appropriate and wise subject of discussion when it comes to buildings, either by government through coercion or "the community" through lobbying. So here goes:
There are two key ways to describe a structure and both are essential:
1. plan view - what it looks like if one is directly above, and then
2. elevation - what it looks like if one is directly in front of the structure looking head-on.
(Two important asides:
• Yes, there other ways of graphically explaining a building such as section but I think that the first two get to the heat of the matter.
• Site plan is largely coterminous with building plan in high-density areas (at the extreme a place like mid-town Manhattan) because the building usually covers the entire site or close to it, (which is both the cause and effect of high land prices, btw)
I suggest that plan view is a matter of such high concern that adopted government code trumps architect's preference. For most high-density urban sites there is a correct and an incorrect way of siting the building and that is in my opinion to (more-or-less) follow the "Three Rules." The architect must deal with these Three Rules (which should be the basis for all codes aiming to create an urban place) as a rebuttable presumption. That means that he starts designing with the Three Rules and varies only from them when there is a smoking good reason. And at that point, community input is critical to help the planning authority figure out whether rhe variance makes sense from a planning perspective. (There is no special pleading for aesthetics. Sorry buddy.)
However when it comes to elevation, unless the neighborhood is one of historic, "listed" buildings worth preserving as an ensemble, the architect should be free to do whatever he and the client desire and can afford. There is no need for elevation to fit-in so long as plan does. Let 'er rip, I say. (Note: Principles for location of entrances — car and person — and amount of ground-floor fenestration are part of plan and should be designed to a code presumption with possibility to rebut.)
So the architect should be able to design whatever bizarre and unusual elevation he can devise. Go for it, Daniel! Have at it, Rem! Et toi aussi, Jean! But the plan view (the principles, at least) are out of the architect's ken. And of course out of the Community Board's purview as well, except if the architect seeks variances from the Three Rules.
So, if I were setting things up, the Codes would be so prescriptive as to plan that there is not much to discuss unless a variance is sought. Likewise, elevation is at the designer's discretion so long as certain basics (such as "No mirrored glass at sidewalk") are followed.
In all this I am assuming that basic height restrictions and massing are set and largely reflect transportation constraints. I like simple, predictable codes for a host of reasons. I think that once you get into substantial zoning bonuses, incentives and bargaining you create a situation in which the problems generally outweigh the benefits, especially if your goals are urbane street-scapes and honest government.
So that is how I resolve Sandy's question about how much freedom to give the designer: very little on plan and a lot on elevation, and community input only important when variances from a prescriptive code are sought.
Comment away and I will attempt to refine these ideas; and they really need far more than one post to explain.
Just in case anyone is curious about my stress on administration of codes: I spent the first seven years of my career as a planner, examining proposala nd trying to figure out whether they had anything to do with the goals of Washington State's Shoreline Management Act. I have spent too many years since then on the other side of the table trying to get permits through. Knowing the grave corrosive dangers of discretionary codes to civitas, I place a huge value on clear codes which are easy to administer honestly and do not induce corruption by their very complexity.