Rob Rager had some time to kill between appointments, so, like anyone with a phone, he started scrolling through Facebook. A conversation occurring on the Denver Fugly Facebook page caught his eye.
Fugly encourages discussion about design and architecture – mostly of the bad variety – and is followed by about 4,500 people; Westword deemed it the best new Facebook page in this year's Best of Denver edition. “The core of Fugly is talking about context, and what is that context,” says the page's founder, Brad Evans. “Where am I putting this [building], how does it look, what shape is it. That's what so few [developers] are doing.”
The conversation was about gabled roofs, or a traditional roof with two sides that meet at a point. It made Rager, an architect and principal at Rager Design Works, think about his interpretation of a gabled roof for his home in Park Hill. Instead of meeting at a point, the roof's sides meet at a slot. Rager likes the way sun streams down that slot. Rager decided to post a picture of his home on Fugly and engage in a conversation about design. He didn't include in his post the fact that he designed the house, mostly because he didn't want commenters to hold back on their opinions.
That wasn't a problem.
“One guy said, 'I'm sure glad this abortion wasn't built next to my house,'” Rager says. “I think that was the comment where I said, 'I'm done with this.' I felt like I needed a sedative and deep breaths.”
Rager sat down with Westword to talk about design in Denver, Fugly and “modern” architecture.
Westword: Give us your take on architecture and design.
Rob Rager: I started as an art major in college. I was a painter, but then I switched to psychology. Six years later, I got very interested in architecture, so I went to graduate school. It was a master's program for people with different backgrounds and no undergrad experience in architecture. It turned out to be really good for me, since it was very experimental, very philosophically based. I thought a lot about ideas behind architecture, how materials worked in different light, what spaces felt like. After I came out of there, I got a job in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, working for a small firm. The principal was very progressive in his design ideas. We did a lot of edgy houses for the area that, in some ways, were not well received by people who had more conservative tastes in architecture. That sort of gave me direction in believing in the philosophy of what I'm doing despite it not always being well received.
How does that philosophy relate to Denver?
It's interesting that I had that one very negative experience on Fugly, because I tend to agree with a lot of general opposition that's on there, in the sense that what is missing in Denver right now is not the quality of materials, but intention and thought that goes into buildings.
Given a few weeks to think about the interaction, I have a more even-keeled perspective on it. It's the same thing that's going on in this country. A lot of things are changing quickly and it feels out of control. That situation engenders different reactions from people. Some take it as, this is an opportunity, the doors are all open. Some people say, "Hey, wait a second, I don't like how this city looks. Get out newcomers!" The hostility that comes out is that sense of not being able to control what's around you.
I bring it back to my own take on architecture and the irony of what happened on Fugly. My take is, I try to design very personal spaces for people who have exactly the sort of living experience they want. It was interesting to me that one of the criticisms on my own house was, why is it a thing now to use so many types of windows? I said, "Well, I see a window not as an object. You're not composing squares in front of a house. It's an aperture into the world." I'm designing windows for the people who are inside, which in this case is my family. I have a square window on the floor I designed for my kids' playroom for when they were still crawling. Now the cats use it. I've started putting a cat window in every house I do. You'd be surprised by how many people lay down and look out. It just gives you a different view of the world that you get from a normal window.
I have windows that are different shapes – it's not random or accidental. I have a window that angles up against the roof and meets up against the wall so you get this interesting light coming in that's indirect. It's not like you walk by and take note of that, but all these things add up to a different experience of the house at different times of day, seasons. The window that's sixteen feet by eighteen inches on the roof – at first, you go why would somebody do that? Then you realize the moon comes across it. I can sit there with my kids with lights off, and the moon and stars are right there, and it's beautiful and not an experience you'd get otherwise.
So there's a lot of personalization in your design.
I try to create houses that are places that people go for a calming, different experience of the world outside. I do a lot of hand drawing. I do a lot of thinking about materials and actually touching them. When you get in your car, you don't touch the shape of the trim of the outside. You touch the steering wheel. Where I think places like Denver Fugly miss is, what they see is, they see, boom, an image, and boom, they're responding. When you have to critique things that your body has to be in, you have to experience standing there and seeing the cat window.
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The scary thing about me sitting here, having this conversation is, I'm a small designer. I don't have the money to market yet. So it's like, wow, the first thing people are going to hear about me is that I designed a house so ugly that it was on this website. That caught me completely off-guard. Granted, I really didn't think [posting on Fugly] through. It never really occurred to me that that level of hostility could come through something I spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours considering. It's something I completed in a certain stage of my life. I walk up to that house every day and think, I would have done this or that differently. That's what I told someone on the page who said there was too much going on in front of the house. That's my own criticism! But because it's my house, I get to have all these ideas and try them. I wish I could edit myself and make it simpler and quieter like the work I'm doing now. But those were the ideas I had five years ago.
I think what was painful was the little appreciation for the amount of effort I put into it. That's what's missing in the true Fugly buildings. They're slapped up. It was very jarring for me to realize that someone would mistake three years of design work for a building that was put up by a developer off a stock plan in three months. The language has gotten corrupted by all the vast development. Overtly, it's in a similar design language as stuff going up all over town, so people feel hostile toward it. That is eye-opening for me, too. Someone who's been a modernist – that's a misused term – or a progressive architect, that suddenly has become corrupted.
What's your take on “modern” architecture, which seems to draw a lot of ire from people?
It reads to people as something that's cheap and not done well and trashy if it's no longer an innovative jewel box on the corner. That gives me pause. But modernism is a philosophy, not a style. For me, it's the difference in the feel of raw concrete versus painted concrete, or the difference in light hitting a concrete wall versus light hitting a wood wall, or light coming in through the fall, or the feel of a doorknob. That, to me, is modern architecture.