Thursday, June 09, 2005

Developing a vision for downtown: beyond nostalgia

Last week the Chapel Hill Town Council committee on our downtown economic development initiative, which I'm on, met with our consultant John Stainback to recommend the developer we want to negotiate with. Although the selection will not be official until the full council takes a vote on it, the five council members on the committee who attended the meeting all voted for Ram Development Co., so it's a safe bet that that it'll get the nod.

This project is the realization of many years of collective thinking about the shape and form of downtown Chapel Hill. The scale of what we are planning is huge, and so the stakes are high. We have to get it right. We now have a developer (most likely), but many details remain to be worked out.

I'm on record as being something of a broken record: the architecture needs to be distinctive, and the public spaces need to work. I don't think we're there yet. I look forward to additional discussions with the Ram team about the architecture, the public space, the public art.

Both bidders brought us what I called "an architecture of nostalgia." Where I'm coming from is a persistent criticism of one aspect of New Urbanism: not the promotion of urban (more to the point, pre-suburban) styles of development per se, but the insistence that the new look like the old. The lack of originality, the lack of authenticity. The failure of imagination. The building of a row of structures all at once but making them look like they were built at different times. The fake bricking-in of Palladian windows that never existed--and other false creations of the impression of age. (Over at the American Tobacco Project, which authentically is the old made new, they've imported new "old" billboards!) What I mean is well stated in a recent article in Metropolis magazine:

Honestly the New Urbanists--the Duanys, the Plater-Zyberks, the Calthorpes--make good places. I can't fault their planning skills, but there is something about their need to use the past as a sort of architectural tranquilizer that gives me the willies. I see it as a form of cultural brainwashing, a strategy that doesn't solve the problems we've created so much as teaches us to forget them.

The architects on the Ram team include a representative from the famed DPZ firm, designers of Seaside and authors of Suburban Nation. The principles of compact urban design serve important goals for community-making and the environment. But there is no reason why the architecture itself has to look like the past. DPZ has shown that it can break out of this mold: see Prospect, Colorado. We need to challenge the Ram team create great places and spaces for Chapel Hill that respond creatively to our present and look daringly to our future.

No comments: