A friend had been telling me for months that I needed to take a tour of the BOK Center, under construction and due to open this fall, three years after groundbreaking and five years after Tulsa County voters approved its funding, the biggest part of the Vision 2025 sales tax.
My friend told me how impressed tour groups had been at the views of downtown through the "iconic" glass wall and the quality of the materials and workmanship, and how awed they were at the vast space in the arena itself.
Finally, a couple of Fridays ago, I had time and occasion to be downtown, so he made the arrangements. Bob Eggleston, the project manager, was our guide. Mr. Eggleston is a busy man, and I appreciate the time he took out of his schedule to show me around.
While I still believe that the arena is a bad public investment, inhumane architecture, an urban design failure, and likely to be an ongoing drain on the City's treasury, I can nevertheless admire the engineering, construction, and management skill involved in completing such a complex building.
In the course of the tour, Eggleston pointed out a number of admirable features. The design allows sunlight into each part of the concourse, which should reduce the need for artificial lighting. The larger apertures between the concourse and the seating will speed emptying of the arena after an event.
The LED band that encircles the arena should be a useful feature. Leaving the luxury boxes and loge seating open to the arena, instead of putting them behind glass, will keep those people connected with the crowd experience of the event.
It was interesting to hear that the boxes sold very quickly (within a month), and that many construction workers requested reassignment to this job out of a desire to work on this major, historic project.
Still, the arena tour, rather than winning me over, brought back to mind all the reasons I voted against it, confirming the sense that the BOk Center is an expensive detour from what Tulsa needs to do to revive its urban core, improve its economy, and attract and retain creative young people.
During the pre-tour briefing at the Tulsa Vision Builders office, we looked at a scale model of the arena. I was struck by how much of the site is wasted, particularly along 1st and 3rd Streets. The wide gap between the sidewalk and the building will be a plaza. In artist's conceptions, plazas are lively places; in real life, they are almost always dead spaces, attractive only to those who have no other place to be. The "iconic" glass wall is another space-waster.
The four blocks between 1st & 3rd Streets, Denver & Frisco Aves, was a working part of downtown, with a mixture of businesses that served downtown workers -- a day care center, an auto repair shop and tire store, a gas station, a work boot store, and a diner -- plus a few more industrial uses.
Looking at the arena model, it was easy to see that the Children's Day Nursery at 3rd & Frisco and the Denver Grill at 1st & Denver could have been left in place, still serving clients and customers.
In fact, you could have situated the arena behind rows of retail spaces along 3rd and Denver, which could have given people a reason to visit the area even when the arena is empty.
Walking alongside a building the size of an arena or a wide empty plaza is an uncomfortable and uninteresting experience.
You can get a sense of that by taking a Google Maps virtual stroll past the "iconic" glass wall of the Pelli-designed Schuster Center in downtown Dayton. Start at 2nd & Main and head west for 300 feet or until you get bored.
A traditional downtown streetscape would have 30- to 40-foot-wide storefronts.
At a relaxed gait, you'd pass a different store every 15 seconds, presenting an interesting variety to engage the eye and plenty of places to duck in out of the weather. One side of the arena superblock could accommodate up to 20 storefronts; much more engaging than 700 feet of inaccessible sameness.
First-floor retail is a time-tested way to mitigate the impact of a very large building on the pedestrian experience. It mediates between immensity and human scale.
It was tragic to replace the Ritz and Majestic Theaters with a parking garage, but at least they had the sense to build retail spaces along the garage's frontage on 4th, Boulder, and Main. You can see the same pattern at work in older office buildings and hotels like the Atlas and Mayo.
In Shrewsbury, England, they used this approach to hide a pair of three-level, shopping malls (470,000 sq. ft, 100 units) in the heart of the historic half-timbered county town of Shropshire. As you walk down Pride Hill, Shrewsbury's main shopping street, you'd scarcely know these huge buildings were there.
The shopper on foot sees a harmonious and continuous but diverse row of shops, not a long blank wall. Some are mall shops with entrances on the street and in the mall, others are shops in older buildings that were left in place when the mall was built. The mall entrances are no wider than any of the other storefronts, distinguishable only by the number of people going through the doors.
The same approach could have been taken with the arena, integrating exterior retail with the building. But once the decision was made that the arena would be the "iconic" oeuvre of a world-renowned architect, it had to be isolated like a piece of sculpture behind velvet ropes, best appreciated at a distance, instead of being a living part of downtown's urban fabric that can be enjoyed up close.
Ready for Blastoff
But whether at a distance or up close, the architecture of the BOK Center leaves me cold. The concourse is pleasant in the way that a tidy, well-lit airport terminal is pleasant, but that's the limit of its emotional impact.
I'm told that others have been awed by the vast expanse of the arena interior, but the sight of all those seats didn't boggle my mind, except to wonder how we're going to fill them on a consistent basis so we can pay the light bill.
A building can inspire awe if it has either a sense of history or humanizing detail. Classic sports venues like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park and (RIP) old Boston Garden and Tiger Stadium have or had both qualities in abundance, as does Grand Central Station, which nearly took my breath away the first time I stepped inside. The BOK Center has neither quality, but perhaps it will acquire a warm patina of memories over time.
Outside, ho-hum. Sure, it's an impressive engineering achievement, putting up a curved glass wall that will withstand Oklahoma's wild winds, but it's still just the same glass and steel that's been done to death since the 1960s. It doesn't charm the eye or warm the heart in the way that brick and terra cotta can.
It would have been possible to build a handsome, even stately arena in a traditional style with retail frontage. It could have been art deco, it could have been a classic style underrepresented in Tulsa -- say, Beaux Arts or Richardsonian Romanesque--or it could have reflected the style of a long-lost downtown building, like the simple dignity of the Coliseum or the exotic whimsy of the old Akdar Temple (Cimarron Ballroom).
Fans of modern architecture will accuse me of imposing my personal tastes as an aesthetic standard, but it isn't a matter of chacun à son goût. The design of a space interacts with human nature in such a way that we feel either at ease or ill at ease.
Architecture and urban form aside, will the arena deliver the promised economic benefits? Will it bring in tourist dollars from around the region and attract creative young people to our city?
I was surprised to hear Eggleston say that nearly all of the ticket orders for the first two big concerts at the BOK Center-Celine Dion and Neil Diamond-came from Tulsa-area zip codes. This was told me as something of a point of pride-that Tulsa had the population and disposable income to fill the arena for major events.
I heard it differently--these concerts are only redistributing the disposable income of Tulsans away from other entertainment options and toward concert artists and promoters. The numbers belie the claim, made during all three campaigns for a tax-funded downtown arena, that it would bring new dollars into our economy, as people came to Tulsa for blockbuster concerts.
The event list so far seems more geared toward younger baby boomers and older Gen-Xers. "Cracklin' Rosie" is hardly an anthem for a rising creative class.
Our young creative types seem more drawn to small, local, unique venues and the indy acts that perform in such places.
It was an expensive misjudgment for then-Mayor Bill LaFortune to hire a star-chitect and commission an "iconic" arena design. None of that detracts from the fine job Tulsa Vision Builders has done in taking that design and bringing it to fruition.
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