Is it dishonest to build a new building that looks old? Is it cowardly?
The questions were raised and answered in the affirmative in a note I received from Tulsa preservationist Marty Newman in response to my recent column about the proposed design for the new downtown baseball stadium.
In that column, I wrote that the modern design approach proposed for the ballpark -- glass and metal and not discernibly a ballpark -- reflected "a lack of self-confidence. A confident city could have a baseball stadium that looks like a stadium. An embarrassed and self-conscious city has to have an iconic thingamajig."
Instead, I urged the architects to look back to classic building styles for inspiration to "create a ballpark that looks like it has been around for 100 years and will be around for at least a 100 more." I suggested resurrecting the style of one of downtown's lost treasures -- the Coliseum, the Dreamland Theater, or the Cimarron Ballroom, to name three.
Newman emphatically takes exception with this approach:
"I believe that new buildings should look new. Their scale, materials, design, etc., should respect the environment in which they are inserted but they should benefit from a contemporary design palette.
"An urban environment is an opportunity to visibly enjoy the physical embodiment of chronology. Re-creating historic styles interrupts this visual display of time and is, inherently, dishonest."
He singles out the downtown Tulsa Transit station, built in 1998 in a streamline Art Deco fashion, as "a wasted design opportunity and the physical embodiment of a city so lacking in the confidence of its own ability that it was only comfortable repeating the success of the past. If Tulsans of the '20s, '30s and '40s had exhibited the same cowardice we would have no art deco here!"
Later in his note, Newman writes, "I want our new buildings to insert themselves lovingly into the preexisting urban fabric but I very much do not want a brand new building to look like it has been in place for 100 years. We are not the Disney Company and Downtown Tulsa is not a theme park."
Newman's credentials to opine about preservation are beyond question. He is a board member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and played a major role in bringing that organization's annual conference to Tulsa this year. He rescued the Fire Alarm Building, one of our city's finest examples of New Deal-era Art Deco.
The condemnation of mimicry is not uncommon in preservationist circles. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation, which are used for, among other purposes, determining whether a historic building rehab project is eligible for Federal tax benefits, states:
"Each property shall be recognized as a physical record of its time, place, and use. Changes that create a false sense of historical development, such as adding conjectural features or architectural elements from other buildings, shall not be undertaken."
A similar statement applies to building something new, a storage shed for example, on the grounds of a historic property.
The Need for Revivalism in a Vacuum
The theme is repeated in the regulations many cities apply to new construction in historic preservation districts. On the one hand, a new building should reflect the character of the surrounding historic buildings: similar setback from the street, similar scale, similar proportion, similar orientation, similar materials, similar proportion of windows and door openings in the façade.
On the other hand, as the city of Raleigh, N. C., simply puts it in its guidelines for new construction in historic districts, new buildings should be "compatible with but discernable from historic buildings in the district."
Preservationists like Newman worry that imitations of historic structures dilute the value of authentic examples of period architecture and misrepresent history, which in their view would undermine the very notion of preserving history.
I see Newman's point, but I'm not inclined to worry about it too much. I'm more worried about halting and reversing the spread of ugliness in a place that once had a fair claim to the title of "America's Most Beautiful City." We wasted an opportunity to do that with the BOK Center, and I don't want this new ballpark to be yet another blown chance.
There's nothing cowardly about wanting to recapture some of the beauty we've lost. As we've discussed in a couple of recent columns, there are patterns of building that attract people because they resonate instinctively with human nature. Architect Christopher Alexander called it The Timeless Way of Building.
Architectural styles of the past usually embodied those humane patterns. Modern architecture rarely does. Why is this? I suspect it is the same spirit of modernism that produces "classical music" that is painful to the ears and churns out "art" that makes a virtue of disorienting the viewer. There is a conscious rejection of the past and an exaltation of the artistic self over tradition and humanity.
Musicians, artists and architects who take their cues from the great works of the past are derided as derivative and unoriginal when they ought to be applauded for drawing deeply from the treasury of Western Civilization.
Newman pointed out in his note that "Art Deco was merely the contemporary design of its day." But Art Deco, for all of its innovative use of terra cotta and glass block, didn't radically alter the shape of a building or the way a building connects with the street and relates to its neighbors. Art Deco buildings are humane in a way that self-consciously modern buildings fail to be.
Art Deco architects borrowed freely from architectural styles of the past. Up until the last half-century or so, new architectural styles were as often as not revivals of older styles: Greek Revival, Romanesque Revival, Gothic Revival, Tudor Revival, Mission Revival -- the list goes on endlessly.
These revival styles are distinct from the originals. No one would mistake a Dilbeck house for an authentic 16th century Tudor English home. The presence of modern conveniences and modern materials are a dead giveaway. But the essential elements of the earlier style that inspire affection remain.
Rules Worth Following
If downtown Tulsa were still largely intact, with only a few of its pre-war buildings lost to the wrecking ball, I could see the need to encourage some originality and innovation.
But we have lost so many beautiful buildings. We should not apologize for wanting to recapture some of that beauty and proportion in a building as large in size and importance as a new baseball stadium.
Indeed, if we had the resources to recreate, for example, the Ritz Theater, we shouldn't hesitate.
What matters to me more than anything about this ballpark is that it should be a good urban building. What it looks like from the outside to the pedestrian and the driver matters more to the health of downtown than what it's like on the inside for the fan. We are using it (or should be using it) to fill a gap in our downtown. We are trying to reweave an urban fabric tattered by 50 years of bad decisions, both public and private.
Is it possible to build a modern building that obeys the rules of good urban design? Theoretically, yes. You could use modern materials and style and still make it "legible" - easy to tell what it is and how you get in - and build it to the street and make the building front permeable - no blank walls, no mirrored surfaces. But modern architects, especially the famous ones, resist such constraints on their creativity.
That's one reason to insist on a classic style. If you find an architect who isn't offended to his artistic core by the client's desire to borrow from Plains Commercial or Richardsonian Romanesque or Art Deco, he might be self-effacing enough to be willing to make the ballpark look like a ballpark instead of turning it into his personal artistic statement.
Share this article: