02 April 2008

Architecture and Cities

From an insert in the March 17 Financial Times:

Any city with ambitions beyond its own fuzzy edges promotes itself as a destination for culture or shopping. If cities once established themselves through industry or trade, with courts, culture or cathedrals, now they take the short cut and call on the international starchitects to create a chunk of instant culture-cred.


This decade has seen almost every major US city seek out its own icon. Cities that were beginning to see a trickle of inhabitants back into their neglected downtowns have tried to jump-start urban regeneration through the creation of monuments. A small clique of international architects-- Gehry, of course, but also Renzo Piano, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava-- carved a seam of gleaming new arts buildings running through the centres of cities flattered finally to hit national and international headlines.

Unlikely Midwestern cities such as Des Moines, Cincinnati, Davenport, Akron and Milwaukee suddenly dominated the architecture press and appeared in in-flight magazines. Culture became the way these cities could enjoy their brief moment in the spotlight and convince themselves they were changing. A single gesture, an extravagant building, often funded by local philanthropy, appeared a cheap way of kick-starting regeneration-- far easier and cheaper than addressing social or housing problems.

Ouch. That's quite a contrast to the sentiment I've expressed in this blog, which is that one of the things that characterizes world-class cities is world-class architecture, and if Cincinnati wants to be a world-class city then it needs to project that in its buildings. Just as it is said to "dress for the job you want, not the job you have," so too should a city "dress" for what it wants to be, not what it is.

That's one reason why I'm unenthusiastic about the Banks groundbreaking. Yes, it is finally happening but the chance to build something iconic that would attract visitors from around the country and world was not taken. Commercial, retail, residential and parking space housed in run-of-the-mill buildings. Meh. It could be worse, but it could definitely be much better.


Kate The Great said...

I am torn about the Banks groundbreaking. I guess I hear a faint echo of, "If you build it, they will come," pulsating from somewhere in the distance.

People love Easton in Columbus, and I guess we can only hope for something as pedestrian (using the unimaginative meaning here, not walkability) and yet popular.

It IS too bad, isn't it? It would be sweet to have something along the riverfront with the panache of the Sydney Opera House and the popularity of Covent Garden.

I guess we can dream, right?

5chw4r7z said...

But no one thing is going to do it for a city.
Cincinnati is putting all the pieces together.
Fountain Square
The "Q"
the new convention center
Queen City Square
The Banks
The Streetcar ^fingers crossed^
new bars and restaurants.
Cincinnati definitely doesn't have all the eggs in one basket.