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Architecture and Politics in Palo Alto

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Architecture and Politics in Palo Alto

Dr. Douglas Smith is an arts historian and resident of California’s Palo Alto–where Stanford University and many high tech companies, including SurveyMonkey, call home. Architecture and building aesthetics are both passions of Dr. Smith’s. Living in a fast growing city like Palo Alto, he wanted to find out how his fellow residents feel about the new structures and developments going up around town. What better way to do that than with–yep, you guessed it–a survey?

Take it away, Dr. Smith!

Residents of Palo Alto have become increasingly concerned lately about the city’s booming local real estate development market and particularly with the appearance of many new buildings they don’t like. Newspapers run editorial after editorial about ugly new buildings.

Since I’m an arts specialist, though not architecturally trained, it seemed time to get involved. But how to convince anybody that mine was not just one opinion among many others, and how to read the public’s mind on important local issues? SurveyMonkey’s headquarters–coincidentally located two blocks from me–offered the means.

I strolled around downtown taking digital snapshots of representative buildings old and new, good, bad, and ordinary. I had survey questions in mind about each. For additional context, I also added photos in my survey of world-famous buildings. The process was easy and I was pleased with the image quality within the survey as well.

Palo Alto Architecture

The survey contains a dozen comparison photos where the respondent is asked to choose which of two buildings in the same genre (churches, office buildings, city halls, etc.) is more aesthetically pleasing. Another set of questions asks the respondent to rate the aesthetic quality of individual buildings from “Wretched” (1 point) to “Breathtaking” (10 points). I had two goals in mind: 1) Test a rating system I’ve developed over the years 2) Measure the public’s opinion on particular local structures. Many respondents expressed their gratitude in the Comments Fields for giving them a voice in the public debate. One more survey goal accomplished!

Our local papers are very interested in the “ugly building” issue. In two weeks almost 900 people have responded to my survey and garnered local media publicity. Preliminary survey results and a subsequent City Council meeting generated even more attention. The editors love to report what their readers are thinking about controversial topics, especially when one can show data from fairly large survey samples.

My question style probably does not conform to ideal survey standards in terms of sober phrases and emotional words as I’m a writer who is passionate about the subject. The response percentages are consistent with a dozen other surveys on architecture performed elsewhere over the last thirty years, indicating that the public tends to prefer traditional styles to modern ones by a large margin, usually 3:1 or greater. The data I collected with SurveyMonkey has given me the encouragement I needed to pursue not only local goals but also a larger project on the dicey question of how to rate the quality of an architectural facade.

I welcome your opinions as well. You can take my survey below.

Dr. Douglas Smith is an arts historian and resides in Palo Alto.

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