Bruce Monighan Q&A

In December, local architect Bruce Monighan took on the role of Sacramento’s Urban Design Manager. He shares his vision for creating a distinctive regional style, using steel shipping containers in architecture, attracting the next generation of downtown dwellers (hello, flexible micro-apartments), and building a city for the 22nd century.
Portrait by Jeremy Sykes

What does an urban design manager do? 
It’s the most senior architectural position within the city. Essentially, I oversee new projects coming into the city and provide opinions, policy and policy execution. The city wanted an architectural design perspective—not [in terms of] the right color, the right shape, but thinking about how things go together and what’s appropriate.

What kind of authority does the city have to approve or disapprove projects?
We’re looking for a collaborative approach. There’s a series of design guidelines for different kinds of uses, and there are standards in there that we ask people to meet as part of the basic criteria of the project. But design is subjective. I may look at something and it may not appeal to me personally as a style, but if it’s well executed and well balanced and meets the guidelines, then we can always agree to disagree on style of the design. We [just] want to make sure that it’s being absolutely the best that it can be.

In 2005, a developer proposed a replica of the Parthenon on top of a skyscraper on Capitol Mall. Is that an example of how the city weighs in on urban design matters?
Yes. I had nothing to do with the city at that point, but I do know the staff was pushing back heavily on that. They thought that it was an inappropriate top to the building. You can look at the guidelines and it’ll say, “Urban buildings should have a distinctive top,” and you can say, “Well, that’s a really distinctive top,” and somebody else can say, “But it’s really a caricature of something else—an inappropriate city landmark.” In the end, the city’s perspective won out on what was best for the city.

There has also been another more recent controversial design topic in the city—the use of steel shipping containers in architecture, which is a huge design trend around the world. When Der Biergarten on K Street wanted to use shipping containers in its design, the city was resistant to the idea. However, a newer venue—the Federalist Public House & Beer Garden—opened in December, successfully adapting that style. Do you have an opinion about using shipping containers in urban architecture?
I sure do. Maybe six or seven years ago, I got very interested in shipping container design and I wanted to know what was happening throughout the world because I thought it was an amazing way of using an existing product. It was a way of building things in a modular basis, and it was very interesting from a design perspective, and I was very interested in pushing that forward. I think that in a lot of ways there just wasn’t enough advocacy for it [at the time that Der Biergarten opened in early 2014]. In discussing [the urban design manager] position with the folks here [in City Hall], that question came up and I said, “I’m a very big advocate of container architecture done well, and I think we can show lots of examples of it done well, and therefore we shouldn’t preclude it being done in its purest form.” So I intend to have that on my agenda. I want to see that door opened up. I really do. I’ve seen huge apartment complexes made out of that stuff; you can work very sculpturally with it. You can open them up, you can close them up, and you can stack them up like giant Legos. I love it.

What are some of the things that you hope to accomplish during your tenure?
We’ve always tried to emulate other cities rather than figure out who we really are. Portland and Seattle have a very strong sense of regional architecture; the Bay Area has a strong sense of regional architecture. This place is unique and it’s special, but we’ve never attempted to define our regional style. There’s so much here relative to the cultural history and the physical history of the valley—the colors, the sky, the trees, the weather, the winds—but we don’t talk about how to exploit that in our built environment. I would very much like us to begin to have a serious conversation and move in a direction of a valley regional architecture.

It doesn’t mean we have to dictate what architecture looks like. But people need to have a sense of regionalism in their mind as they craft their solutions, and I’d love to advance this discussion of regional design. I really want to reinforce that those people who are investing in Sacramento have a responsibility to bring their A-game. For the longest time, we were simply a government city and I think, in a way, a dumping ground for a lot of projects that could have been better. I’d like to see Sacramento viewed as a top-tier city for what it presents both in the public realm and the private realm—in buildings, in pedestrian places, in parks—so that people view us much the way they view Austin, as a really cool, fun place with a mix of great new buildings, great preservation work, great culture, a great vibe of the people who live there—and it starts with our place-making. I don’t want to say that we’re not moving in that direction. I think we are. But I really want to reinforce that all of us have an obligation to up our game here.

How do you go about advancing that conversation? I assume that by the time projects get to you, they are already largely designed.
The city has always encouraged very early meetings with developers and architects. A lot of projects that get built in the city take advantage of those early project meetings and conversations, and before people get heavily invested in design and documents we can have that dialogue: “What are we trying to achieve? What’s important? How do you make a profit out of it while making a contribution to the neighborhood or to the city?” I don’t think there are many good examples [of a regional style] because not many people have stopped to analyze what’s important.

It’s not like I think we’re going to see an ultimate building that becomes the regional style. I think what we’re going to begin to see are buildings that speak to the natural environment and maybe even the cultural or physical environment. We don’t need fake rivers and things like that. It doesn’t have to be a literal translation. It’s more about informing yourself of the place in which you live. So I think there are a lot of things that we can talk about in regard to buildings that is reflective of where we live.

Are there some specific examples of buildings that currently exist that you feel, from a design standpoint, reflect that regional style?
Well, I’d cite a building that’s been up for a long time. It’s the low-rise building [designed by Dreyfuss & Blackford Architects and built in 1986] that houses CalPERS, with the vegetation that grows all over it.

Lincoln Plaza at 4th and Q streets?
Yeah, Lincoln Plaza. So here you’ve got a [six-story] building with as much square footage as, I think, a 12- or 14-story building, and they pulled it all down and they spread it out. That got rid of a lot of the exposed windows, so it needed much less artificial cooling to it. It has a lot of greenery. So when you walk around in it, it feels like a park and very much like living in Sacramento, but it’s still a concrete building with vegetation attached to it. To me, that is a building that really speaks to who we are as a city and how we live in a natural environment. It makes for a very sustainable kind of living and working environment.

Bruce Monighan cites Lincoln Plaza in downtown Sacramento, which features landscaped terraces and a green roof, as a prime example of regional design style. (Photo courtesy of Dreyfuss & Blackford Architects)

Bruce Monighan cites Lincoln Plaza in downtown Sacramento, which features landscaped terraces and a green roof, as a prime example of regional design style. (Photo courtesy of Dreyfuss & Blackford Architects)

But as downtown grows, it will need to grow vertically. How do you create a skyscraper that reflects a regional style?
Part of [achieving] that would be [to determine] what’s happening at its base because as you go up, it becomes a sculpture—it’s something in the skyline. So a lot depends on what’s happening at the ground level and what the pedestrian connection is and the immediate surrounding environment.

Even with a tall building, our environment is one where people are going to want to get outside, so I think one of the things you’re looking at [for a regional style in a residential skyscraper] is potentially a fairly thin building so that you can have flow-through ventilation, or buildings with balconies on them so people can experience the outside. I’ve seen versions of high-rise residential buildings in other parts of the world that have a very green environment on the outside of them; there’s really this connection to the ground through landscaping up into the building.

When it comes to buildings in and around downtown, we seem to have a lot of beige and neutral-toned buildings. Why is that?
Yeah. You know the beige originally came from all of the state buildings because it was not controversial. They could stock a lot of the paint, so it was easy to repair. People were afraid of white because it was too bright of a color in the sun, but nobody wanted to use real color, and so Sacramento had kind of an oatmeal color for the longest time. Nobody objects to oatmeal, but it’s just not very exciting, and we can be so much more than that.

You’re coming into this position at an interesting time because we’re coming out of a recession and now we’re looking at the arena, Downtown Plaza, the railyards, the Powerhouse Science Center, the new B Street Theatre and a streetcar system to name a few projects currently in development. What are you seeing that most excites you?
I’m not sure that it’s a specific project. What I love is something a little bit more philosophical. All of this is showing a belief in ourselves. And I love the cautious optimism that’s beginning to come out of this. If we can move it to the point where enough good stuff has been built and we’re attracting the right people, then I think that will be my biggest thrill.

I saw some interesting data the other day. The baby boom generation has been considered the big bubble that has driven everything for so long relative to policy and money and future housing. But I saw some data that shows the millennial generation is as large a population group as the baby boom generation, so we’ve got the 20- to 30-somethings who are going to have a huge impact on our built environment over the next 10 or 15 years based on their preferences. And they want cool cities. They want cool places to work. They want cool places to hang out. So beyond this push for some of the big things we’ve got going now, what I’m really excited about are all the spinoffs that are going to create unique, smaller-scale architecture.

What do you feel that the city needs the most that we don’t have right now?
I don’t think that we’ve yet achieved the right housing mix downtown. The apartments [that are being built] are larger and more expensive, and we haven’t jumped into what I refer to as efficiency units—200- to 400-square-foot units that are well located with a lot of support services [like places to eat, drink and shop], and in that five- to seven-story range. I think we need that because there are a lot of people who need a more affordable place to live in an urban situation. And it could be something relatively unstructured so it’s highly flexible and people can modify it and make it their own—fewer walls inside, or movable walls, and fold-down [features, like beds]. I like that idea of flexibility so you can modify it to your changing lifestyle or changing taste rather than having someone pre-design how you’re going to use that place.

The other thing that’s important to me is the willingness to build a 21st- or a 22nd-century building. We have a tendency to try and design everything in the context of what’s around it, and so much of what’s around us now is very old and not necessarily great to emulate. I’d like to encourage people to be respectful of the neighborhood and the context that you’re in, but be bold enough to design something that’s going to get us into the 22nd century.