Thursday, June 14, 2007

Greensboro's Architectural Drought

Davenport, Iowa, by any standard a backwater burg, recently added a world-class piece of modern architecture to its downtown, the Figge Museum, designed by David Chipperfield.

I wasn't able to go in when I visited earlier this week, but its translucent exterior and unashamed modernism make a huge impression from the street. This building exudes architectural sophistication; whether you like the style or not, the building demands your attention. It is a piece of architecture that matters.

Chipperfield is working in cities all across the midwest -- Davenport, Des Moines, St. Louis -- where city leaders are angling for downtown investment through ambitious aesthetic achievements.

This is typical of the midwestern attitude of cultural striving that can be traced to the first prairie settlers, who were aways eager to bring east-coast sophistication to their little towns. If you've ever seen The Music Man, you know what that's all about.

But what about Greensboro? When was the last time we built an artistically ambitious building?

We recently tore down our only prominent piece of modernism, which has been replaced by a lackluster quasi-lifestyle center, whose style can only be described as derivative and faddish.

The new Center Pointe, important as it is for downtown redevelopment, is a step backwards in architecture. The original Wachovia building's exterior, unloved as it was, was at least a clear and harmonious expression of the aesthetic of its day. The architectural style of the new exterior has its cultural analog in the "e" at the end of "Pointe" and in the smooth jazz that plays on Center Pointe's website.

Greensboro hasn't produced an interesting building since the 1980s. How long will we continue to get our architectural lunch eaten by places like Davenport, Iowa?

[Note: I grew up in Davenport, and love it there.]

Update: Here is a positive review of the Figge Art Museum. The only criticism is that the building sits on a plinth wall, which makes for a bad pedestrian experience. This unfortunate feature is a result of the fact that the building is in the floodplain of the Mississippi river, and is required by the federal government to be protected by the wall from flooding.


Anonymous said...

David, you're right, it does make an impression, but I'm not sure I share your opinion of its quality and community contribution.

The impression is- stand back! I'm not interested in people! Better come in your car or don't show up!

The only thing worse than urban modernist buildings are suburban modernist buildings, and with the parking in front, the absurd plaza in front attracting no people, and the reflection of what looks like a better building across the street in the top photo, this building is some seriously crappy suburban modernist stuff.

Sure, it's downtown, but is it really engaging any of the urban fabric around it? Or is it just posing for the cover of Architecture Today?

It would make a terrific Eyesore of the Month on JH Kunstler's website, but that's just me.

Architects used to know how to build buildings near rivers that made a statement and did interface with their surroundings. Where have those folks gone?

David Wharton said...

You're right, the plaza is stark, but it wasn't at all uninviting to me. As the trees mature it will be better. It would also be a simple matter to move some potted greenery and some tables with umbrellas to make that space more intimate.

The parking is pushed over to the left to allow good pedestrian access from the sidewalk, and the parking area was paved with different colors to break up its monotony.

This building didn't say "stay away" to me at all. It said, "don't you want to know what's inside?" The exterior treatment made it much more inviting than many modernist buildings; the translucence gives it almost "fuzzy" edges. I was dying to get into its central hall, but I got there at 6 p.m. and it was closed.

On the river side, as the review says, there's a wall at the sidewalk level, but that's unavoidable in this case for reasons already mentioned. The view of the building from the Illinois side, especially at night, is stunning. Go to Chipperfield's site (linked above on his name) for some better views.

I know the rap against this kind of architecture as regards respecting "human scale," but I also believe that there has to be a place for the monumental and the exciting in cities. In its massing and scale, it fits in very well with the surrounding buildings. The fact that you can see the building across the street reflected on the Figge was certainly intended, and is one of the elements that helps the building blend.

This is a museum, not a house or an apartment building. Sometimes it's good to make a big impression. And Davenport isn't in danger of being overrun with modernist glass boxes. This building provides an element of surprise and delight in a mostly early 20th-century streetscape.

One of my favorite buildings is Pei's east wing of the National Gallery in Washington. It provides wonder and pleasure, both from the outside and on the inside, where you can reach out and touch Calder's massive mobile sculptures.

Anonymous said...

I visited the Figge Museum in September of 2006 and spent some time inside it. It is an elegant modernist building that seems somewhat out of place. There is a kitschy riverboat-style casino behind the building on the river, and the downtown area in general seemed tired and rundown. It's clear that the Figge was the result of an enlightened client with a large budget and the desire to create a destination building. They achieved their goal.

It's interesting to compare your comments about the Figge and your statement that "Greensboro hasn't produced an interesting building since the 1980s" with your post about the proposed new development on the Pet Dairy site. What appears to be generic suburban apartment architecture is called "urban-looking, with flat roofs, brick facing, and metal details." You also give the developer a pass for proposing the demolition of the Pet Dairy building, which is an unacceptable tradeoff. In the site plan, the new buildings don't even parallel the adjacent streets. It's a typical suburban layout that appears to disregard the existing buildings, the railroad, and the site topography - all elements that could inform a more sensitive design.

In my experience, architecture is client-driven. Whether the architect is from London or from Greensboro, the end result will be a statement of the client's goals, values and budget. If we in Greensboro have not produced an interesting building since the 1980s (a statement with which I do not agree), it's because we have had no clients who are willing to take the financial and aesthetic risks. Maybe if projects such as the Pet Dairy proposal received a higher level of criticism, that would change.

David Wharton said...

Patrick, thank you for your comments. I agree with you that the fault for our bland (or worse) architecture lies with the clients, and not the local architectural community.

I also spoke a bit too hyperbolically about there being "no interesting buildings." But I hoped thereby to get some reaction and discussion going -- and it worked!

As to the Murrow Station project, of course I'm going to defer to your expertise as an architect. But earlier versions of the site plan were even more suburban, with parking lots fronting the buildings on the main thoroughfares.

Interestingly, some of my neighbors were in favor of a plan with "more green space," though my preference would have been to push the buildings right up to the sidewalk.

It's not all one could hope for, but to me it's acceptable.

RE: Davenport's downtown -- yes, it's tired. The riverboat gambling place was part of a downtown revitalization scheme of about 30 years ago; the Figge is a newer attempt. I fear both will fail.

As a friend who worked in economic development there told me, the city center is simply imploding, while its non-growing population just keeps moving futher away by suburbanizing the surrounding farmland. Sad.

Anonymous said...

I agree, not since the Burlington Industries building has Greensboro had a building with interesting design. What is wrong with developers? Even in Charlotte they are producing som very interesting buildings. Lets not talk about the planned Carolina Bank headquarters downtown which looks like a larger version of its generic suburban style banks. The is a potential massisive development in the works for downtown that could involve some very big buildings. Lets hope the development will have an intersting design, one that can define Greensboro.