Monday, November 2, 2009

More on Arts District and Tearing Repairing Scars

NY Times Architecture Critic Nicolai Ourousoff has clearly been spending some time thinking about the unveiling of the Dallas Arts District and what it means within a global context, a bit self-referential if you ask me of his own maturation from starchitectural sycophant of days gone by. Nonetheless, it is the most comprehensive and best understanding of the issues I have ever seen from him:
Yet as the dust settles on the last of these projects, what begins to emerge is a more complex image of America’s cultural values at the birth of a new century. The formal dazzle masks a deeper struggle by cities and architects to create accessible public space in an age of shrinking government revenue and privatization. At their most ambitious, they are an effort to rethink the two great urban planning movements that gave shape to the civic and cultural identity of the American city.
And in a brilliant summation:
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.)
Now back to Dallas:
This was especially true in Dallas, where the freeways that border the arts district site to the north and east were built with money partly from the 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. In a pattern repeated across America, these projects were bulldozed through thriving African-American and Latino communities, cutting them off from the city center. By the time planners unveiled the first proposals to build a new arts district, in the 1970s, much of the site had deteriorated into a wasteland of empty lots, industrial buildings and corner bars. Planners envisioned a necklace of cultural institutions along a 68-acre site that extends east from the Museum of Art along a tree-lined street.
Aside from the socio-economic and physical scars, he touches on the key issue. The Dallas Arts District, situated on Woodall Rogers Freeway, is a roadside attraction. There is a key distinction there between that and a PLACE. It is a curiosity. The thing about curiosity, once you scratch that itch, attention to it wanes.

To save the Arts District and give such cultural institutions the monumentation that they deserve (after all, I'm in no way against the Arts, but rather in the sloppy execution of the District), the freeways have to come down and be replaced by a similar effort as the Ringstrasse in Vienna. Given the nature of the rails and the freeway on the West side of downtown, I imagine that is the most difficult side to transform, but certainly a horseshoe can be created around the North, East, and West sides, turning the highways into boulevards, the highways as the extend into the city slowly retreat and give way to a dense system of gridded city streets. Stitching back together the various neighborhoods torn apart by the freeways and reinstituting the multiplier effect that dense cities have, instilling what one urban historian described, "the winds of intellectual advance blow strong in cities..."

I am fully aware of the time frame, but cities operate much longer lifespans than any of us. This is at least a fifty year plan. Using the incrementalism of Copenhagen's reversal from city turned over to the car into the most livable city in the world as a model, the plan has to start with baby steps. First, you convert the existing inner loop's system of on/off-ramps into a more urban context, by getting rid of any high speed on/off ramps as drawn geometrically in the form of cloverleafs and flyovers. These are poison to cities. As I've pointed out before, they are like a single point source for rainwater runoff, collected and gathered into one pipe, then released into a stream channel not meant for the load, thereby eroding the banks and killing the ecosystem. On/off-ramps release too many cars into a single point, thereby eroding the urban fabric.

This weekend I had an ahha! moment when thinking about the conventional argument that this is a crazy idea and that "highways deliver people to the city." While that is somewhat true, they also take those same people away from the city meaning it's a net zero sum game. However, when looking at it deeper, one realizes that because the highways so ruin the urban character and livability, those are all the people that choose to live elsewhere, but still commute into the city for their daily grind, because commercially it still makes sense for businesses to be part of that intellectual and financial foment.
Furthermore, as we see in Dallas, all development receded from anywhere near the freeways. Therefore, the highways have been a net loss. Even moreso when calculating for the cost of maintenance (roads and personal autos), the cost of running a bus system to reach delocalized destinations, personal injury/healthcare costs of the direct injuries (crashes) and indirect injuries (birth defects, asthma, random gunshot wounds), etc.

So we built the highways (similar idea with suburbanism) as some bastardized form of bizarro Keynesianism, to stimulate economic development, but we got a whole lot of (continual) cost, and zero long-term benefit. Little by little, bankrupting all of our cities and states.

Mr. Ourroussoff, anything else to say?
The results could have been worse.
Well, yeah. I suppose nothing could have been done.
And the divisions that continue to separate this enclave of high culture from the nearby communities remain deep.
As deep as a sunken freeway?
So far these proposals have come to naught, and just as in Dallas, vast lots bulldozed decades ago remain undeveloped.
The disconnection he refers to from downtown, isn't as severe as those in the other directions as created by the freeways. Those can be repaired with an upturn in the development market (easier said than done right?). Rather than being a roadside attraction, they could each be a centerpiece along a similar Ringstrasse, thus creating a system of open space linkages around downtown, with the Arts District, City Hall, the Convention Center, the West End, and Victory, all benefitting (or in most cases, salvaged as integral parts of the City) as the inner loop becomes a seam for the City rather than a scar, or in other words, a magnetic place that attracts rather than repels people as is currently the case. No amount of deck parks will change that.