Saturday, August 19, 2006

Keepin' It Weird by Keepin' It the Same

Upon returning from my recent trip through the American Midwest, I’ve been reminded about how controversial architecture can be. Although few non-architects could tell you much about who the most famous architects are or what style a given building portrays, everybody has an opinion about which buildings are good or bad for their community. One often thinks that the construction of brand new buildings, whether they are new offices, residences, or civic landmarks is a sign of optimism and hope in the future. To outsiders, major construction projects are signs that a city is economically or at least fiscally healthy. From the point of view of poor inhabitants who have long struggled in communities offering few opportunities, the sight of construction cranes and scaffolding must buoy their spirits to witness something that is nothing but good.

But a city’s growth is also about its change into something permanently different. Although man is an adaptable creature that can overcome any change in his environment, he is also one that relishes a sense of predictability which allows him to be comfortable in his surroundings. It seems that the more a community prospers, the more concerns about quality of life arise, and the more antagonism against urban growth and change gain strength. NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard) is often a response common to wealthier areas of a city against a new development that threatens its quality of life, usually because the people in those areas have achieved an ideal state that demands predictable comfort. Although cases of NIMBY-ism usually involve issues such as ecological impact and aesthetic disruption, the underlying conflict is informed by a fear of permanent change brought on by transforming the built environment.

In talking to a small group of residents in Madison, Wisconsin, I heard many opinions against the city’s growth. Whether it was the rapid rise of condominium towers dotting downtown, the recently built Frank Lloyd Wright-designed convention center, to the brand-new performing arts center, each development was suspect as to the actual benefit the state’s capital city. The typical questions were usually: Who can afford all these condominiums? What was wrong with the old civic auditorium? Isn’t the push to build convention centers really just a last-ditch effort by the city for desperately awaited revenue? Such criticisms that center on the actual need for a new facility, the dubious speculation for the elite or its flawed economics are actually quite valid. Since these criticisms are based on established facts and existing reality on the ground, they are often more persuasive than arguments for new buildings that rely on unverifiable estimates and abstract visions.

Madison is a university town and therefore is host to an eccentric cultural scene consisting of bohemians and traditional social outcasts. Many in the city relish its role as a liberal bastion surrounded the relative conservative rural areas that characterize the rest of Wisconsin. The emergence of new structures that symbolize wealth, bourgeois aspirations (the performing arts center, condos) and competitive boosterism (convention center, luxury hotels) goes against the communal and left-wing instincts of many of its long-time residents. There is a natural fear that the very fabric of the community is threatened by a new influx of middle and upper-income migrants which bring their own set of values that contrast sharply with native Madisonians.

This is similar to what is going on in Austin, a city which mirrors Madison in many ways except that it is a bit bigger and its transition to a bustling commercial center far more advanced. The slogan over there is “keep Austin weird”, which denotes that there was a time when the character of the city was indeed far more eccentric and that it should remain so. There are large portions of the city that still contain residents of a hippy and decidedly left-wing (or morally libertarian) leanings, but it is becoming more and more in difficult to stay due to rapidly rising real estate values. Yuppies are moving in, the tech sector dominates the local economy, and suburban growth encroaches ever further west towards the Hill Country plateau west of the city while massive new highways and bridges are being built to accommodate suburbs to the north (e.g. Roundrock). The consensus among long-time residents of Austin is that it wasn’t quite the place it once was (its golden age occurring during the 1970s). Aside from its distinct topography, there less that distinguishes Austin from other cities in Texas.

To those who oppose the city’s growth and development, it’s not only the loss of what once was but also what a particular faction could call as their own. There is little tolerance among the liberal-bohemians for newcomers that follow more traditional bourgeois lifestyles, who desire single-detached houses with two-car garage on quarter-acre lots. They accuse young professional singles who are buying condominiums downtown of homogenizing the city’s once supposedly distinctive night-life, while engendering the gradual bulldozing of old community businesses with new fitness gyms, grocery stores and other modern amenities.

In essence, such constant griping sounded by these factions, whether in Austin or Madison, is in essence a distinctly conservative impulse. Their opinions on these matters is based on their wish that the city’s growth remains static; or better, for the city to undo its recent growth and to become hospitable again to more liberal bohemians like themselves. This faction organizes itself to promote zero-growth policies against further development, rallying around protecting the local environment or preserving the city’s ‘authentic’ identity. The irony is that such policies only accelerate the rise in property values and with them unaffordable property taxes. Aside from the few former hippies who became business tycoons, most of these liberal bohemians earn relatively little income running low-profit businesses like trinket-selling shops and casual restaurants, or working in low-wage jobs in larger stores. This reality further undermines this faction to maintain the old status-quo, as cities often change to the dictates of its local business elites with considerable political leverage, not citizen-based coalitions who contribute relatively little tax revenue to the city’s coffers. The most these coalitions can accomplish is to stall development, which is often opposed by cash-starved city councils accommodating developers with tax credits on the promise that a new development will generate much needed tax revenue. Such political dynamics typical in most large municipalities overwhelms any grassroots effort with its own ideas on what their city should become.

The establishment of Madison’s new performing arts complex, the Overture Center, is a case in point. City politicians, always searching for ways to levy ever more revenue under the pressure of ever-rising budgets, are usually receptive to proposals that will stimulate new economic activity and consequent new tax revenue. Along comes a wealth businessman, Jerome Frautschi, who donates 205 million dollars of his own money to build a brand new state of the art performance hall with art galleries in the center of the city. The fact that the site of the new complex is located along State Street, Madison’s most cherished street for eccentrics, instigated heavy opposition from the liberal-bohemian faction. As part of a half-mile long pedestrian promenade fronted by an eclectic assortment of storefront facades from all periods, the Overture Center’s clean Modernist lines and its large scale (it occupies an entire urban block) are obvious visual intrusions to one’s impression of State Street. But the biggest underlying threat to partisans of the traditional State Street is the Overture Center’s effect on surrounding property values and taxes. Rents for the ground level retail spaces along the street have begun to rise, ensuring that many of the low yield-locally owned businesses that offer specialized fair will be unable to remain. National chain stores have gradually taken their place, as they are usually the only kind of tenants who can absorb the higher rents. In all the city’s coffers will probably make out well in the long run, collecting higher taxes from more valuable properties, at the cost of losing the former character of its best-known street.

Another major point of disgruntlement among the liberal-bohemian faction is that the city has to now maintain the Overture Center with tax dollars. Although operating expenses for the new center are expected to be a lot larger than the old civic auditorium it replaced, they are probably a small portion of the city’s annual overall budget. And despite the fact that the building’s construction was completely paid for with private dollars there has been widespread objection that taxpayers should ever contribute to the upkeep of a major cultural landmark for the city. It’s often the case that those who complain the loudest about how their tax dollars are spent are the ones who contribute relatively the least. Those who pay the most taxes and assume the greatest tax liability of any income group are often those who do desire a world-class facility and a desire to for their city to gain broader prestige. Such abstract aspirations are inherently bourgeois and antithetical to the values of community, simplicity and contemplation of the liberal bohemian faction.

After touring by myself the Overture Center without my friends’ knowledge (who shun it with passion) I was impressed by how well it turned out. Cesar Pelli’s scheme works well in transitioning the change in built scale from the administrative office district one side to the three story-high storefronts on the other side. A crisp modern idioms is in full display, sharply contrasting anything around it, but inserting an intriguing dialogue between its elegant formality and the hodge-podge casualness of the rest of the street. The site is distinct along State Street, as it occurs right to where the street itself terminates to the Wisconsin state capitol. The capitol is surrounded by much larger scale buildings containing offices, museum, and condos used by white-collar workers who likely would demand structures that lend prestige. One can get wonderful views of the city from the top steps of the Overture Center’s lobbies. What I think is helpful about the Center’s location is that it adds more programmatic complexity to a street that is mostly one long walk full of eateries, trinket stores, and small apparel shops. Now there is actual art to look at, a concert performed by a highly trained ensemble (as opposed to those oh-so-talented street performers), and a play to watch.

Unlike those factions who oppose almost any plan for future urban development, I embrace the view that the city is an unceasingly dynamic entity. Structures come and go, communities mutate through the ages in response to changes in the built environment. Certain patterns remain through time, such as the city’s street grid, its natural features as well as its sacred places that embody timeless importance to each generation of inhabitants. One thing that a city isn’t is an unchanging one, with its rises and declines often occurring many times over through long spans of time. For factions who have specific image of what their city should be, it should help to ask and consider what other groups’ ideas for they want their cities to become.

Cities are diverse places, a confluence a competing ideas and visions. For one minority group to hold the rest of the city captive to its narrow goals counters the messy give-and-take and ephemeral phenomena that make cities such exciting places. Maybe it’s just me but I look forward to seeing new buildings every time I return to the same city, since it satisfies my desire in witnessing progress in time and space.

Update: Here's a thoughtful post on urban dynamism from Dallas' very own Virginial Postrel.

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