Paula Benson likes the historic buildings in Downtown Boise more than most of the new ones. She loves the details carved into exterior stone work of the 801 Idaho Building, where the restaurant Fork is located. She likes the classic Art Deco style of the Hoff Building and the turrets on the old Idanha Hotel.
"I love modern architecture, but I really appreciate the amount of craftsmanship that went into those buildings," Benson said. "It seems to me that we've gone away from craftsmanship and more towards sort of a mass production look."
She's not alone. Prominent local architects and a materials expert told the Idaho Statesman they're not impressed with many of the Downtown buildings that went up after World War II and are still going up today. They point to the 1970s-vintage Washington Group Plaza along Park Boulevard. The Hyatt Place hotel that opened last year at 10th and Bannock streets. The five-story office building Gardner Co. just started to build at 13th and Myrtle streets. The designs of buildings like these put more emphasis on practicality than aesthetics.
"We have a fair amount of what I would call mediocre architecture," said Thomas Zabala, retired co-founder of Boise's ZGA Architects and a longtime member of the city's Design Review Committee.
David Sell, who sells building-exterior materials in Boise for Exterior Technology Systems, doesn't mince words.
"It's blasé basically," he said. "There's nothing wrong with block, brick and stucco. But it gets redundant."
Money is the main reason these experts think Boise developers have failed to generate much visually appealing stock Downtown in recent decades.
"New buildings that are just kind of put together by panel and crane are less expensive to build," Benson said. "And that is probably what drives (return on investment) for most developers."
How did it come to this?
A century ago, developers didn't have the synthetic materials that most modern buildings are made of or the cranes that put those materials in place. What they had, especially in Boise, was stone and a healthy supply of people who knew how to work with it.
"You had a lot of artisans and craftsmen, and you didn't have to produce a whole booklet full of drawings just to get what you really wanted," said Greg Allen, a partner at Boise's Hummel Architects.
Benson thinks masons and other craftsmen in those days were good enough to add eye-catching ornamentsat modest expense. As technology advanced, though, developers found they didn't need painstaking craftsmanship to put a structure together. Zabala and Allen agree.
Sometimes, Zabala said, developers' initial concepts show interesting features that suggest visually striking buildings.
"And as time goes on and the drawings firm up and the hard bids come in, the reality of cost comes in there," he said. "And the things that were approved suddenly start getting pulled off."
Beauty and the beholder
Architecture is subjective, of course, even among experts. What bores one person may intrigue another.
Perhaps no Boise building illustrates this better than Jack's Urban Meeting Place, or JUMP. Located on the north side of Myrtle Street between 9th and 11th, JUMP was built by the J.R. Simplot Family Foundation as a tribute to the spirit of Idaho agricultural titan Jack Simplot. It was designed to be a place where the public could play, study things like cooking and dance, take in a theater performance or attend a conference. A covered slide descending from a fifth-floor deck is one of its most unusual features.
JUMP underwent several design changes before construction started. Boise's Design Review Committee balked at the original plan, which called for additional slides and more colorful features, such as a group of copper panels on the parking garage. At the time, Zabala said the building would be "almost a theme park" if the plans were followed.
California-based Adamson Associates Architects reworked the design. In 2012, years after submitting the first application, the foundation won city approval to build it.
Zabala still doesn't like it. "It mellowed over time, but it still looks like a bunch of boxes put in a salad spinner and frozen in time, he said. "And it still doesn't know what it wants to be."
Sell likes JUMP's glassy exterior, partly because it contrasts the beige stucco and block that dominates the rest of Downtown.
Just north of JUMP stands the Simplot World Headquarters, also designed by Adamson Associates. It has the beige color Sell wishes weren't so prevalent in Boise. But Zabala said the structure, with its tiered, three-dimensional walls and frequent windows, "represents a higher quality of design for a major office building."
One of Boise's most recognizable buildings is Eighth & Main, the tallest in Idaho. The project, completed in 2014 by Salt Lake City-based developer Gardner Co., solved a city embarrassment: a lot that sat empty, frustrating plan after plan, for 25 years after the Eastman Building burned in 1987.
As significant as it is to Downtown Boise's evolution, though, Eighth & Main's appearance has received mixed reviews. It won no major architectural awards. Some residents complained that it looked too much like a Mormon temple atop the Boise skyline. That led Gardner to add dark glass to the southeast corner and lights that change colors along the top of the structure.
Zabala said the south and east sides of the building, which feature fins that shade windows and shiny glass surfaces, look "pretty good." He's less impressed with the north and east sides, which lack those elements.
Zabala is critical of some of Downtown's newest projects.
He's especially disappointedin Pioneer Crossing, another Gardner project. Located at the mouth of the I-184 Connector between 11th, 13th, Front and Myrtle streets, Pioneer Crossing will include a parking garage, hotel, office building and restaurant.
Zabala once worked on a proposal to build a new convention center on the same lot. That project fell apart, but local government and business leaders always hoped for a signature development to showcase Downtown's busy western entrance.
"It was a gateway project to Boise, and so we had to really do something that was impressive," he said. "When you come over the hump now and hit 13th street coming into town, it's going to be like you're out in the country somewhere. It's going to be a suburban-looking office building with a suburban hotel sitting there and an old, crappy parking garage."
Zabala calls Boise Plaza, located at 1223 W. Jefferson St., "one of the better buildings around town." The headquarters of Boise Cascade for almost half a century, Boise Plaza was built in 1971 and designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the firm that designed the Sears Tower. Today it is owned today by Rafanelli & Nahas, a Boise commercial real estate developer. The building's lack of ornament, combined with its straight lines, evokes the International style that came to dominate urban architecture in the middle decades of the 20th century.
"It's not overly ornate, but when you start walking around that building and you look at that whole first floor lifted up off the ground 30 feet or so and the interior of that lobby, all the way to the skylights above, it's really an impressive building," Zabala said. "And you've got an owner there that is very conscientious about maintaining the quality of the building."
The power of materials
Sell said a lot of Downtown's drab appearance could be solved with materials more colorful than the block, brick and stucco on many buildings' exteriors.
The U.S. Bank Building, for example, could benefit from new exterior cladding that wouldn't have to cover the whole structure, Sell said. Just a few accents that protrude from the building or add a splash of color could alter its appearance dramatically, he said.
"It doesn't take a lot to change the eye," Sell said.
Gardner COO Tommy Ahlquist said the developer considered changing the U.S. Bank building's exterior cladding after buying it in 2013. The company backed off after weighing the cost and difficulty of attaching new materials. He said Gardner concluded the building looks fine and meshes well with its surroundings, which include The Grove Plaza and Clearwater Building, a modern-looking, glass-covered office building immediately west.
With local-government prodding, the private sector could create a more beautiful Boise, Zabala said.
"As a community of architects and developers, we all need to step up our game," he said.
Boise's elected leaders want a higher architectural standard, and it starts with buildings the city owns, City Hall spokesman Mike Journee said. A long hoped-for new main library branch could be a step in that direction.
In February, the city hired world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie to design a proposed new main branch. No designs have been released yet, but city leaders have high hopes for "a great example of the kinds of things that could be done here and that it can fit in our city," Journee said.
"With a building like this, it sets a new bar for what people can think of and what people could emulate," he said.
Zabala said some of new buildings on Boise State University's campus, especially the Center for Fine Arts under construction east of Capitol Boulevard, could make the southern approach to Downtown more interesting. Sell, too, likes the plan for the Fine Arts center, which will have a colorful exterior to match an unusual geometric shape.
Government's ability to improve architecture is limited, however. Taxpayers expect good stewardship of their money and can vote out the people who spend it. The library is one building that's worth the $70 million investment the city anticipates, Journee said. Money for the library would come from taxpayer funds, public debt and private fundraising.
"It's those once-a-century buildings where you do that — a building that's going to be here the next 100, 150 years," Journee said. "And that's the way we're approaching this library project."
Allen, the Hummel Architects partner, says modern Boise architecture is not as bad as some critics say.
"I don't see anything really disastrous," he said.
Pioneer Crossing, for example, filled an empty lot. And putting multistory buildings on empty lots is one of the good developments in Downtown these days, Allen said.
"I think Boise's done a wonderful job ... of evolving from back in the '50s when I was a kid, to seeing what it's doing now," he said.
He likes the way new development has pushed along the evolution of the Grove Plaza. "It just tightened that space and it really focuses your view," he said.
Allen predicts Downtown building designs will "steadily get better and better." Partly, he said, that's because the Treasure Valley's flood of newcomers will demand it.
"There's a lot of folks moving here from bigger cities," he said. "And they have a little bit more appreciation for what architecture can do or can't do and what that does to the citizens."