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Quintessential Boise: An Architectural Journey

Book by Charles Hummel and Tim Woodward

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This graphically sumptuous guide to Boise architecture represents an ambitious attempt to encapsulate the best of Boise's buildings. It also tackles a variety of urban issues connected to the city's worst eyesores. The architectural commentaries are largely by Charles Hummel, Boise's erudite and distinguished architect, who hails from Idaho's longest lived family architectural firm. Keeping the book usefully on-track is a five-star rating system based on identity, scale, utility, consistency and impact, all valuable measures of architectural worth, even if mired in subjectivity. For example, the "impact" of Garden City architecture varies tremendously, depending on a person's socio-economic standing. And the treatment of it here seems romanticized, transforming blocks of sleaze bars and substandard housing into "the valley's service center."

Yet there is much that is admirable in this architectural guidebook. The overwhelmingly rich array of period photographs and maps makes judgments about architectural beauty come alive, particularly in the chapters focusing on Boise's picturesque North and East ends. In terms of critiques, the Grove Hotel and Hampton Inn are properly assailed. Some judgments will be certain to stir public debate about design, something Boise has needed for decades. The Basque Block is docked one star because of an inconsequential storefront window array on a corner. While handsome Bown Crossing earns five stars, the equally embryonic Linen District is treated with mild doubt about its future viability. Some judgments of architectural quality are debatable because of how architectural beauty is detached from political and social context. Whether one finds the juxtaposition of the pastoral Idaho Botanical Garden with the Kafkaesque Old State Penitentiary "quintessential Boise" or jarringly surreal has much to do with personal political and philosophical preferences. And issues of sustainable architecture are bypassed largely, explaining why the Banner Bank building receives only one brief sentence. But five stars for Quintessential Boise for raising such provocative and necessary questions.

Hummel and Woodward will be at a book signing on Thursday, April 22, 5 p.m. at Borders Books in Boise Towne Square.