Saturday, January 9, 2010

"Starchitecture" and "Superblock" madness

Why "Starchitecture" is to be feared:

The Russian government has a plan to "restore the prestige" of its cultural capitol, St. Petersburg, by moving natural gas company Gazprom (which controls 18% of worldwide production) from Moscow to St. Petersburg, amongst other "urban renewal" type projects. This right after the famous UNESCO-protected historic city turned 300 years old.

And I just have to question what they're thinking. They want to revitalize their nation's cultural capitol, so they do so how?--by getting a major corporation to move from Moscow? Let's follow the logic. Moscow is Europe's largest city, the only place in Russia where Gazprom would be allowed to build a 1,000 foot tall skyscraper (in fact there are other 1,000 ft tall scrapers going up in Moscow right now) and nobody would complain. People would praise the hideous suave obelisk design of this tower. Moscow is a city built on business and expansion and all of that. St. Petersburg is not, but nobody is denying that it's a "great" world city. So because it is a "great" world city, it's the perfect setting for..starchitecture! It needs some. So here you go:

Hideous, no? The design, by RMJM of London, was selected over much better designs in my opinion (particularly Libeskind's and Rem Koolhaas'), but the point remains that any kind of imposing structure on the UNESCO-protected St. Petersburg skyline (a collection of tall steeples rising over the city) is an assault to everything that this great city stands for, just as urban renewal tearing apart Oklahoma City's built environment destroyed the built remnants of the lives of city pioneers. It also destroyed our city's sense of self worth. There is greatness in preservation, and restoring something from the past, symbols of people and ideas that preceded you. There is not greatness in what replaces it, once you've destroyed something that mattered and obliterated it with cruel, imposing new structures that do not belong where they are put.

It's for this reason that all Russian architects boycotted the Gazprom design contest. The director of The Hermitage in St. Petersburg has advocated against it. The community, made of people who made a choice to live in a culturally-oriented city rather than a business-oriented city, is disgusted with the Gazprom City proposal. They want St. Petersburg City, not Gazprom City. But nonetheless there is nothing they can seem to do to disturb the drum beat of progress that promises to "restore the prestige," whatever that means.

Are there lessons to be learned here? Is there a clear-cut sense of "greatness" and is it possible that a 1,000 ft tall skyscraper is far from greatness after all? And just to be clear, if you're going to apply this to anything "big" being built/planned for OKC, it's not Devon Tower that I'm going after so much as it is the convention center or the idea of creating ANY more new superblocks in downtown. Devon Tower is utilizing an existing superblock that was already obliterated by urban renewal in the 60s.

The convention center project in OKC is our own little way of saying to the world that OKC has not learned its lesson from urban renewal, and you can add us to the list of cities in the year 2010 that either were great or COULD be great (our category) but still think urban renewal is cool. We think it's a great idea to combine superblocks, completely stint intimate city movement, basically fence off entire sections of our city away from typical development. It's almost hard to describe, it's like mixing two combustible liquids in an experiment, one thing that we're mixing is superblock facilities with specific uses and the other thing that we're mixing is development, private projects, buildings, things that people use, anything that makes up a city. Cities do not move around superblocks, they roll up and die in front of them. Superblocks block the free flow because they disrupt the grid system of streets that healthy cities depend on.

In St. Petersburg they tore down a section of their city for Gazprom. In Philadelphia they have torn down a section of their city for their convention center. In OKC we are turning down the opportunity for Core 2 Shore to be successful because of where we are going to put this convention center. There are better sites. There are ways to avoid becoming yet another city that doesn't get it AND add to our city's business amenities at the same time. We don't have to add our own unique example to the list of modern day urban renewal hall of shame. I get it that they want to market the convention center as being in front of the park. But isn't there more value in being able to market OKC for other things as being a genuinely "great" city? Why sell out? Is there even a cost benefit to it?

Out with the old, in with the new!
(By the way it's pretty revolting that a google img search for "St. Petersburg skyline" comes up with a city in Florida)


OKC Herbivore said...

Petersburg is one of my favorite places on earth, and what is so unique there is the low slung, weird-Venice feel (i was there in winter, so no boats), and the absolutely stellar architecture, especially when it is a little shabby, like most of St. Pete.

Your thoughts on the conv. ctr superblock are right on, and while i was glad for this round of MAPS, this did remind me that so much of downtown and the central core are being wasted and ignored, and development is still in the hands of blunt instruments, who razed the portions of the city that could have developed in more organic ways.

thus, we skip gentrification and go right to things being bland and overpriced, and on inhuman scales.

Walker, Downtown Ranger said...

I've never been to St Petersburg but it and Moscow are on my list, that's for certain. I've been really interested lately in some of the old beautiful cities of Eastern Europe that are so much more beautiful than we give them credit for.

And you're right about MAPS 3. It's great news that it passed, but our urban advocacy has just begun. We have to have informal citizen oversight from true urbanists to keep this from going wrong in any way.