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Sound thinking behind strange-looking designs

I wasn't surprised by the public's negative reaction to three out-of-the-box designs dreamed up over the weekend as alternatives to Dudley Webb's proposed CentrePointe tower.

A story in Tuesday's Herald-Leader included renderings of the concepts developed during a marathon 48-hour workshop. The designs were done by three teams of students from the University of Kentucky's College of Design working under prominent architects from UK, Los Angeles and Chicago.

The designs were unconventional. A couple of them were almost bizarre. They were nothing like traditional Lexington architecture. And they were nothing like Webb's 1980s-style glass tower that has been criticized as too massive and bland to put in the middle of Lexington for the next century or so.

Readers posted dozens of comments about the designs on — and most of them were scathing.

I understood the reaction. It was my first reaction, too.

Then I took a deep breath and thought again.

These weren't finished plans, or even real ­proposals. They weren't meant to be. They were creative ideas, developed quickly and offered up to spark other ideas that might lead to something special. That's the way innovation works.

Like Webb, I was out of town Monday and couldn't attend the students' presentation. So I went over to UK on Tuesday to get a briefing from Michael Speaks, the college's dean, who organized the workshop.

”It's a lot of stuff to do in a couple of days,“ Speaks said before walking me through each concept. ”These are not final designs by any stretch of the imagination. But they show what can be done.“

Each team was told to confine itself to the block and try to stay true to the ­CentrePointe proposal — a hotel, luxury condos, a restaurant and retail space.

”These architects approached this in very different ways,“ Speaks said. But he noted that there were many things all of the designs had in common.

All three teams wanted to keep some of the historic buildings that have been a big part of the CentrePointe controversy and weave them into contemporary new construction. The most valued buildings were the Joe Rosenberg building, which dates to 1826, and the century-old building that housed The Dame music club.

All of the teams wanted to keep the Farmers Market on the block, and some added an amphitheater, a small park and other public space. Indeed, perhaps the most appealing part of all of the concepts was how they offered open, inviting pedestrian space at street level.

All three teams thought the project could be more effectively developed in phases, rather than all at once. And they all thought Webb was trying to cram too much square-footage onto the 1.7-acre block.

All chose to have several towers, rather than the one monolith Webb has proposed.

Speaks noted that in all of the designs, the towers were the wildest and least-finished part of the concepts — and the part that elicited the most negative public reaction.

”You look at these project concepts and think how crazy they are,“ Speaks said. ”Then watch the Olympics, look at what they've recently built in Beijing, and think again. They won't look so crazy a month from now.“

By late afternoon Tuesday, more than 1,500 people had voted for their favorite design in the poll. Webb's design was leading the closest alternative 2-to-1.

”We'd be surprised if CentrePointe wasn't winning, in a way,“ Speaks said. ”A lot of people want to support what's easy, what they're used to seeing, what's being done elsewhere.“

Of course, the workshop process was all backward. This type of brainstorming session should have been done at the beginning, as has been done by developers of the proposed Lexington Distillery District project on Manchester Street.

Architecture workshops like this are intended to look at the location, the surrounding areas, and the needs a building is trying to satisfy, and to explore ways to meet those needs.

The goal is to produce a design that solves all of the development's ”problems“ and adds something more: Value for an entire area, or even a city.

CentrePointe, on the other hand, was developed in secret and unveiled as a done deal. Webb has wanted no creative or public input. So it looks like we're stuck with a piece of recycled architecture two decades out of date.

CentrePointe seems to be a done deal, and Webb might continue to thumb his nose at critics.

But public discussion surrounding CentrePointe and the awareness of downtown development it has created might pay off in the future.

”I don't care how many people laugh and make fun of these projects,“ Speaks said as he paged through the three workshop concepts on his desktop computer.

Then he clicked on ­ to check the latest online poll results.

”If we can get 1,500 people to look at these ideas and think about design, then we've accomplished something.“