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Vision Quest 

Does the Queen City's new architecture measure up to the town's royal reputation?

Published March 28, 2007 at 10:54 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen
  • John Anderson

Here's a quick thought experiment for anyone who is familiar with Burlington's built environment and has a strong sense of its visual aesthetics. Close your eyes and take an imaginary tour of the buildings and public spaces you pass on a regular basis. Which ones stand out as interesting, attractive, inspiring or unique?

Perhaps City Hall, the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Chittenden County Courthouse or the Masonic Lodge comes to mind. Traveling past the University of Vermont, you might note the Billings Library, Williams Hall, the Ira Allen Chapel or any of a half-dozen other historic structures on campus. If Art Deco is more your style, perhaps the Flynn Center or even the Oasis Diner makes the cut.

Would it surprise you to learn that none of those landmarks was built in the last 50 years?

Deservedly, Burlington has earned a reputation as one of the most livable cities in the United States. Church Street is an award-winning model for downtown pedestrian malls. The city's waterfront, parks and neighborhoods are, by and large, safe, clean and well maintained. Many local businesses and institutions have embraced green-building practices. But when it comes to architecture, Burlington isn't raking in many awards or showing up on the cover of Architectural Digest.

Burlington hosts plenty of public discussions on creating affordable housing, but not many on building houses that will still have aesthetic appeal in 200 years. The Queen City is home to Seventh Generation, which produces nontoxic household products, but we rarely discuss what the cityscape will look like in seven generations.

For a modern, progressive city with no shortage of worldliness or artistic energy, the Queen City's contemporary architecture isn't especially innovative or cutting-edge. It's fair to ask: What is Burlington building today that will be hailed as great architecture tomorrow?

A few among us dare to dream big. A special exhibition at the Fleming Museum, titled "Burlington and Winooski 1920-2020: The Evolution of Our Built Environment," aims to illuminate the future by invoking the past. Through a combination of maps, photos, models and film archives, the show explores our triumphs and our catastrophes - natural and manmade - from the 1927 flood to the urban renewal of the 1960s, to the ECHO Center ribbon-cutting in 2003.

The exhibit also includes some wildly imaginative ideas - in particular, three decades' worth of sketches and designs by Burlington architect John Anderson.

"Great architecture, like great art, gets you thinking about things in a new light," Anderson says in a recent interview. "It evokes emotions, it challenges you, or it makes you angry. But it's provocative and makes you react and see things in a new way." According to Anderson, though, great architecture is something that's missing from Burlington's vision for its future.

Many Burlingtonians haven't heard of Anderson, even though they may pass his work every day. His recent projects include the new Carrigan Wing for the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at UVM, which was completed in January 2006. The building's rounded glass façade reveals an egg-shaped mural inside, which depicts the history of food, from the dawn of agriculture to the age of genetically modified organisms.

Anderson also designed the new Lake Champlain Chocolates warehouse and distribution center at 444 Pine Street, which opened in September 2006. Like the Nutrition and Food Sciences Building, 444 Pine immediately suggests to passersby what's happening inside. Its brown copper awnings mimic rectangular bars of chocolate and look good enough to eat.

The "SkyGate Murals" at Burlington International Airport are also Anderson creations. Each of the four murals covers the interior surface of a skylight and depicts a distinct, color-coded theme: cosmology (blue), the world's alphabets and notational systems (red), cultural pictographs and icons (green), and scientific diagrams and formulas (yellow).

However, Anderson may be best known for his designs that weren't built - outlandish imaginings of a futuristic landscape. One, which can be seen in the Fleming exhibition, is a glass-covered mall running the length of Main Street between UVM and the lake. Inside, a gondola or ski lift would shuttle passengers up and down the hill year-round in climate-controlled comfort.

Another Anderson drawing portrays a hydroelectric dam on the Winooski River, complete with a community center, boardwalk, band shell and restaurant suspended beneath the I-89 bridge. Though that design was never realized, some of its features, such as the riverfront boardwalk, were eventually incorporated into the redesign of Winooski's downtown.

Most famous of all are Anderson's 1970s illustrations of a permanent dome covering the city of Winooski. Though he didn't conceive that idea himself - Winooski's then-Community Development Director Mark Tigan proposed it - Anderson drew the sketches that helped give it legs. The idea eventually sparked a dome symposium that was attended by Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome. It even caught the attention of Time magazine, which ran an article on the Winooski dome project in December 1979.

Anderson has no shortage of way-out visions. One of his series of sketches titled "waterfront fantasies" features a large chunk of movable land that disengages from the waterfront each morning and sails across Lake Champlain, barge-like, to Plattsburgh. Meanwhile, a similar "land barge" would sail from Plattsburgh to Burlington and dock in the same location as the first, fitting like a puzzle piece.

Outrageous? Unworkable? Maybe. But as Anderson explains, society needs creative thinkers who challenge the prevailing attitudes about what is possible. He likens architecture to high fashion, where runway models are often dressed in weird, even freakish, outfits. Eventually, though, elements of those fashions trickle down to the racks of local department stores.

"I was trained at Yale to go out of the box, to think way out there," says Anderson, 64. "If you start with the status quo and go out as far as you can, then all the forces at play - money, taste, angry neighbors - will rein that vision in."

Anderson considers Burlington's contemporary architecture conventional and provincial. It may be functional and serve the needs of its clients. But it doesn't rock the boat or challenge the status quo. It's an odd stagnation, he says, in a community where most other creative pursuits - music, visual arts, politics, software development - are pushing the envelope.

Reasons for Burlington's architectural conservatism aren't hard to find. Anderson explains that when he works with clients, whether on commercial or residential projects, there's always a point at which they ask about resale value. Am I overbuilding for this neighborhood? Will this design rile up the neighbors? Will it get the green light from the powers-that-be?

"That tends to keep things in this pablum of mediocrity," Anderson says. "It's not bad. It's just not inspiring."

As a result, he says, we see buildings like those that have appeared in recent years along Battery Street and the waterfront - contemporary designs that offer a vague nod to the past but don't take any risks. Or we see "country gentleman houses," such as those in Charlotte, that look like everything else on the block because developers know the model sells.

Then there's the new Davis Center under construction at UVM. As architectural landmarks go, Anderson suggests, this should be an important gateway building, not just for the university but for the entire city. In his opinion, though, it's a missed opportunity.

Why? Anderson contends that the center's design doesn't echo or even relate to the flow of people and traffic that pass it all day and night. Nor does it welcome travelers or tell them they've "arrived somewhere special."

Likewise, the Davis Center's scale - that is, the appropriateness of its design to its size - makes the human observer feel insignificant, Anderson says. Instead of being an inviting structure, it's big and imposing, forcing the eye to look around or beyond it.

Finally, Anderson suggests, a building in this critical spot should be an icon that reflects the 21st-century values and sensibilities of UVM's student body and faculty. Instead, he says, it's "formal and conservative, and suggests something very institutional and corporate.

"Colleges and universities around the country are building new and exciting buildings with name architects, and they're doing it to help their identity move into the future," he adds. "And what did Vermont turn around and spend $60 million on? This thing that goes backwards in every way."


Architecture is highly subjective. One person's monstrosity is another's masterpiece. But is Anderson on to something? Do other members of the development community agree with his harsh critique of Burlington's contemporary architecture?

Beth Humstone is co-curator of the Burlington and Winooski exhibit at the Fleming Museum and former executive director of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl. She now works as a design consultant and teaches planning at the University of Southern Maine.

Unlike Anderson, Humstone doesn't have a problem with the size or scale of the Davis Center, especially given its goal of increasing density on the UVM campus. That said, she doesn't think it's the right building for the site.

"I don't think the design is very interesting. It's very mundane," Humstone says. "That's disappointing for such a prominent building, not to have something more exciting."

Actually, Humstone is hard pressed to name many modern structures or public spaces she likes in the city - though Church Street, the ECHO Center, the new condos adjacent to the Hood Plant and the new Lake Champlain Chocolates building make her list. She also likes the new apartment building at Depot Street on the waterfront. However, she thinks it doesn't relate to anything around it and isn't "part of the tissue of the urban area."

The design elements of Burlington that really don't work for Humstone are the empty spaces downtown. They include the parking lot next to the fire station and the gas station across the street, both of which are gateways to the city's urban core.

For the same reason, Humstone isn't happy with the new Subaru dealership building under construction at the corner of Shelburne Road and Flynn Avenue. That too, she says, is an important gateway - and a missed opportunity.

"It could have been a really great group of small, commercial buildings for the South End neighborhood," she says. "Instead, it's going to be a big parking lot. That's disappointing."

Humstone is unequivocal about what she'd like to see more of in Burlington's future - more "infill" - that is, building on previously developed or underutilized sites within the city rather than sprawling outward and consuming precious wilderness and farmland. As she points out, the Department of Planning and Zoning did a study on the potential for building up the urban core under current zoning ordinances. It found that the city could create 3 million square feet of new commercial space downtown without tearing down a single building.

"To me, that says there's this tremendous potential that's unrealized in this city for how we could grow," Humstone says. "I'd like to see us take advantage of some of those opportunities and have more options where people can live and walk in downtown."


Very few people think and write about Burlington architecture on a regular basis. Louis Mannie Lionni is one of them. Lionni, a former architect from New York City, moved to Burlington in 1979. He's now editor and publisher of 05401, a semi-regular magazine about "architecture, planning, food and sex."

Lionni, 74, is a self-described "grouch." He has strong opinions about Burlington's architecture, and he's not afraid to express them. He readily acknowledges that "Ninety-eight percent of the people in Burlington would disagree with me, without being able to tell me why."

That said, Lionni agrees with Anderson's assessment of the Davis Center as a missed opportunity. He calls it "a faux-replica building on steroids."

"It seems to be a collection of this and that, styles and materials put together to create a visual interest for people who have a sound-bite attention span," he adds. "It pretends to be this little house on the prairie, but it's not. It's this huge house on top of the hill."

Lionni doesn't see a lot of other modern architecture in Burlington that he likes or that reflects his values. He's not a fan of the ECHO Center or the new Lake and College Building on the waterfront. He calls the latter "a baronial fantasy made out of steel studs and sheetrock . . . which tries to mitigate its size by appearing to be a clump of smaller buildings."

A few newer buildings in town do appeal to Lionni's architectural tastes. For instance, he likes the Living and Learning Center at UVM, which he calls "the only innovation that the university ever had the courage to do." He also approves of the Hauke Family Campus Center at Champlain College, which he says "creates a space in there, one of the few places where that happens in Burlington." And he enjoys the design of St. Mark's Church and rectory on North Avenue, which, he says, reflect the innovations that were shaping the Catholic Church in the 1960s.

Lionni says it's no secret why Burlington architects are risk averse: They have a conservative clientele. "The people who pay for architectural services - the developers - don't have architectural ambitions. They have financial ambitions."

The problem is that architecture has become too commercialized, Lionni suggests. "When I was a young architect, I'd spend 10 percent of my time looking for work and 90 percent of my time working," he says. "Now, architects spend 90 percent of their time looking for work and 10 percent working."

Lionni doesn't dispute Anderson's assessment that Burlington architecture is provincial. But he disagrees with the claim that it's at least functional. "I'm 74, and there's a good chance I'll spend 20 years not being able to drive," he says. "Based on current life spans . . . there's a good chance that you'll have people living here for 40 years and not being able to drive. This is not a good city if you don't drive."

Lionni would like to see future designs that make the city more "humane and accessible" - more park benches, pocket parks, outdoor artwork and recreational spots. He points to Paris' pedestrian culture as a model for Burlington to emulate.

"For me, it's a fabulous city. There's a toilet on almost every corner," he says, only partly in jest. "People there have been trying to figure out where to sit outside for a thousand years, so there are places for it."


City Councilor Tim Ashe (P-Ward 3) serves on the Community Development and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee. He also sees Burlington architecture as provincial and risk-averse - and he thinks he understands why.

"Is it that we don't have creative developers? I don't think that's it. Is it that we don't have good architects? It's definitely not that," Ashe says. "It's what I call the 'We'll-have-change-over-my-dead-body' crowd."

Ashe believes developers go the safe route not necessarily because they or their clients are wedded to tradition, but because they know those designs are more likely to get approved and avoid costly and time-consuming litigation. Burlington needs a more predictable design-review process, he says, one that "doesn't scare the daylights out of developers."

Like Humstone, Ashe thinks Burlington needs to embrace density downtown. That means building upward, he says. "If people believe in smart growth - and I think most people in Burlington do - then we have to accept that you're not going to like every building. You have to be prepared to see one building you don't like in order to see five that will blow your pants off."

He points to the Hood Plant condos as an example of a stylish, urban design that respects its past while also looking forward. And, he adds, it demonstrates that "tall and dense can be good dance partners."


For all his visionary thinking, Anderson admits that public consciousness raising is "not where my head is at these days." He's still involved in architecture, though he's scaling back that work to focus on smaller-scale art. Until last year, Anderson was on the Vermont board of the American Institute of Architecture, where he created a design competition open to all Vermont architects. It wasn't about winning projects but about "how far out we can go with our design thinking." Anderson has also been involved in discussions about adding a new criterion to the city's design-review process, one that rewards developers who come forward with artistic and innovative concepts.

Finally, he's working to inspire the next generation at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, where he's helping young people develop an appreciation of their physical environment. Considering how important architecture is in our daily lives, Anderson says, most of us lack even a basic vocabulary for discussing or critiquing it.

Do we need one? Do our buildings really shape the way we live? Anderson thinks so. "We probably spend 80 percent of our lives inside architectural spaces, and most of them are pretty boring," he says. "If you spend 80 percent of your life inside uninspired, conventional spaces that are almost always a box of some sort, what's that going to do for your sensibility?"

Sidebar: Back to the Future?

At a panel discussion last Sunday at the Fleming Museum, held in conjunction with a current exhibit entitled "Burlington and Winooski 1920-2020: The Evolution of Our Built Environment," panelist John Anderson suggested a "fix" to sprawling, unsustainable suburbs: more density. "Create little pockets of growth," he suggested, "connected by mass transit."

Anderson, a Burlington-based architect, contributed a number of visionary drawings and concepts to the museum's far-reaching show examining the history of urban development in Vermont's "twin cities." The most provocative was his rendering of the dome over Winooski, an idea inspired by Buckminster Fuller's geodesic designs that provoked both titters and semi-serious conversations more than a quarter-century ago.

At that time, the core of Winooski's downtown was essentially a parking lot - the result of sweeping urban "renewal" that ran out of money after the bulldozers cleared it. This and a 27-acre tract in Burlington, also razed and then long abandoned, were the subjects of Sunday's talk, and of two short films preceding it. The other panelists were former Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle; Vermont Law School professor of law Mark Mihaly; and Monica Farrington, who grew up in both Winooski and Burlington's destroyed neighborhoods. Elizabeth Humstone, former executive director of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl, moderated the panel.

The first film, by photographer and Winooski resident Dan Higgins, is a two-minute, time-lapse view of an old building's destruction and the creation of the current traffic roundabout; the second, by filmmaker Patrick Farrington (son of Monica), details the fascinating, heartbreaking history of Burlington's Champlain Street Urban Renewal Project of the late 1960s and '70s. With old footage and interviews with former residents of the torn-down neighborhood - in the center of which now sits the Burlington Town Center mall - Farrington paints a picture of a real, old-fashioned community in which the residents all knew each other, and could walk to a neighborhood market, barber, auto repair shop, churches and schools. In short, exactly the kind of neighborhood many "new urbanists" advocate in the 21st century.

Though there were no tall buildings, both the Burlington and Winooski cores of yesteryear offered many aspects of what is now considered "good density" - a lively, pedestrian-friendly mix of residential, retail, restaurants and service providers. In many parts of both cities, that mix is now largely compromised by modern, often short-sighted, zoning laws.

With "2020" hindsight on the failures of previous urban renewal projects, the Fleming exhibit rightly suggests that those currently planning and developing Vermont's towns should absorb the lessons of the past while preparing for the realities of the future.

Pamela Polston

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

About the Artist

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen

Matthew Thorsen was a photographer for Seven Days 1995-2018. Read all about his life and work here.


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