October 27, 2009

The End of an Epoch?

Nicolai Ouroussoff has an interesting piece in the NY Times. It is titled "An American Architectural Epoch Locks Its Doors," and would seem to be about the end of the era of architecturally exuberant public buildings. Not surprisingly given Ouroussoff's own longstanding exuberance for innovative architecture, the article turns out to be an subtle defense of such buildings.

Ouroussoff argues persuasively that a wide variety of architectural expressions can help to create a richer and more engaging city, especially if they are part of a larger, community-centered urban plan.  He cites Chicago's astonishingly successful Millennium Park as the prime example with its Gehry and Piano's buildings facing off across a park that has intimate connections to a city with a history of architectural innovation and diversity.

As usual, the failures are more instructive than the successes. He cites Dallas' ambitious arts district as a place that still has not succeeded, despite buildings by Foster, Koolhaas, Pei, and Barnes.  He says:
What the planners could not easily overcome was the scale of destruction [of the old neighborhoods], and the resistance many felt toward breaking down old barriers. Nearly 30 years after the plan was unveiled, most of the commercial lots remain empty. And the divisions that continue to separate this enclave of high culture from the nearby communities remain deep.
To Ousousoff the epoch that is over is not one of architecturally distinctive museums, but one where such buildings operate in isolation from their communities. He is convincing when he argues that we need to recognize that architecturally significant buildings must work together with the city's existing urban infrastructure, neighborhoods, and communities in order to succeed.

While subtly defending what some would call "starchitecture," Ourousoff also acknowledges that sometimes exuberant design goes wrong:
The problem with freedom, after all, is that it allows for horrifying imaginative failures as well as works of stunning genius. When artists fail, you can ignore their work. When architects fail, you walk by their buildings every morning on your way for coffee shaking your fist. (The Milwaukee and Denver art museums come to mind.)
Going for a dramatic design and getting it wrong is one risk that museum planners need to assess.
Almost as bad is to have successful design that doesn't fit the community, especially when the real new "epoch" of museum planning is one that is driven by community. As Ouroussoff reminds us, planners need to think well beyond the museum building itself and really understand how the building and its programming engage the neighborhood and serve the local community.

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