New York City is littered with places like Ground Zero where the aspirations for grand architecture have left dead zones. Meanwhile, thanks to an enlightened director of Design and Construction, David Burney, a British architect, all kinds of great little buildings (firehouses, libraries, community centers) have sneaked into the Big Apple. Read the story in New York.
It seems like a good idea for Seattle, now that the age of grand public buildings and starchictecture is over. Mayor Newbie might start by insisting on good design for modest public buildings, not lowest-bidder stuff, and building up the authority of city planner Ray Gastil, who worked on some of this stuff in New York City before returning to his hometown in Seattle. There's a good example of this in the branch libraries, using some of the best local architects and greatly enlivening many urban neighborhoods.
Small can be beautiful if you follow some policies like those in New York. Insist on good design, even if you have to reject the first proposals. Put together a list of the top local firms who have done great work and arrange so they are short-listed in bidding. Convince these firms that public work need not be "last-resort" work, hampered by tight budgets and endless review processes that produce mediocre compromises. Shift the bidding process so you are not stuck with the lowest bidder (who will often get the job that way and then drive up the costs with change orders). And then really advocate for the integrity of striking designs.
I can think of two other illustrations of this kind of thinking. One is Columbus, Indiana, where a local philanthropist funded the architect fees for public buildings, if they drew from an A-list of some of the country's top architects. (Hint to the Allen Foundation.) The other is Scandinavia, particularly Sweden, where fine design is coupled with egalitarian democracy, making the case that even ordinary things like milk cartons should exhibit beautiful design, with credit always given to the designer.
The magazine article sums up the effect of David Burney's small revolution:Burney'ês wave of public buildings is striking for its motley vigor. Each design emerges from a specific constellation of site and response, not from some officially sanctioned style. Instead of imposing uniformity, the DDC is demanding imaginativeness. Rather than choosing designers that will do what they'êre told, it is asking them what can be done. And so the agency quietly demonstrates that architecture is not just a tool to sell luxury condos, but a democratic art.