Monday, March 21, 2011

Blair Kamin on the Arts District

Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune has the kind of balanced and objective outsider's view of the Dallas Arts District that is either needed or easily dismissed as "WITH US OR AGAINST US, SHUTUP SHUTUP HATER SHUTUP!":
Here in this can-do, Sun Belt city, the picture looks entirely different. The Dallas Arts District gathers this city’s major arts museums and performance halls in a 19-block area to the northeast of the shimmering downtown skyline. The district is billed as the nation’s largest contiguous urban arts district, and that’s not its only distinction. It may be the only place on earth where buildings by four Pritzker Architecture Prize winners (in this case, I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas) sit within blocks of each other.

Is it a good idea to organize arts buildings in such a clear and concentrated fashion? Or does the more mixed-up Chicago way make better sense? I ask because, despite its impressive architectural firepower, the Dallas Arts District can be an exceedingly dull place. There are no bookstores, few restaurants outside those in the museums, and not a lot of street life, at least when there are no performances going on. Even some of the architects who’ve designed buildings here privately refer to the district as an architectural petting zoo — long on imported brand-name bling and short on homegrown-urban vitality.

This singular statement might as well be worth 5,000 words. Imagine them as you will. You can't say I didn't warn you about the architects making fun of Dallas whilst working on the projects.
These are, in short, buildings to be proud of, but their urban design is not ideal. The theater’s sunken plaza might as well be a moat while the sleek opera house is set back so far back from the property line that it almost resembles a suburban office headquarters. The buildings resemble stand-alone objects, not altogether different from the flashy office towers that loom above them.
We too often function from a one-track mind when it comes to cities, almost derivative of single-use zoning in itself as if any object within a city can exist without context. Of course, context is always necessary because nothing exists outside of its place. Calling all of these big, blunt objects (office towers included) urban or even "urbanly designed" (sic) is like looking at a christmas tree farm and calling it nature, natural, or even the more derogatory, "naturalesque." It is urbanesque at best, not a full interdependent ecology.

The Dallas Arts District needs the fine-grained economy and the related architecture and floor space to allow it to exist to provide the detail between the big pillars, the life between the events if you will. Unfortunately, this is often a deal breaker as we are too reluctant to impose upon the supposed seven architectural wonders of the world. Don't want to step within the framed view of them. But real cities exist with context. Urbanism isn't photography, where you can frame something and change the meaning. It is drama and it has depth and context.
Perhaps, but hundreds, if not thousands, of new housing units are required to lend the district the urban density it needs to thrive. And the district still has deep-seated hurdles to overcome, from its lack of fine-grained urban texture to the way its older buildings turn their backs on the freeway to its lack of convenient light-rail stops. It would be sad indeed if Dallas, having importing some of the world’s best architects, wound up creating the dullest arts district money can buy.
Zing. Ouch. Not sure I've ever even unleashed that much sneering derision. The bolded statement gets at what I mean when I discuss return on investment. Urbanism is greater than the sum of parts. If the puzzle pieces fit together, you get a pretty picture. If they don't, you have a mess of cardboard on your hands.

Two things to keep in mind. Where does the new residential come from? Most of the real estate is already spoken for. Furthermore, most of the residential recently built, proposed, planned, or under construction is nearly all very high end, for the kind of people that probably wouldn't be caught dead intermingling amongst the rabble. "How do you eat your snickers bar? With your hands?! Eww." /Costanza'd.

Secondly, and surely nobody wants to point out the elephant in the room regarding all of these predominantly privately funded monuments to themselves efforts towards revitalization like the Arts District buildings, Thanksgiving Square, etc. To improve these things as they exist within the urban context, to urbanize them, means to desecrate them in the eyes of the individual benefactors. We have to wait until they, ahem, move on, until we can fix them. I've got time. Harsh, I know, but cities live on a different timeline than do we. Future generations adapt what they're given into something more useful to them. It is as true and inescapable as our own mortality.