YOU build it, will they come? That’s the basic question motivating plans to develop grand culture centres in otherwise derelict urban neighbourhoods. The idea is savvy: hire architects to build something beautiful (or at least something big), and then let the related businesses follow. This approach to urban rejuvenation—dubbed the “Bilbao effect” after Frank Gehry’s transformation of the Spanish city—has yielded some success stories, such as DC’s Penn Quarter (thank you Abe Pollin) and Minneapolis’s Mill District (the Guthrie Theatre is something else). Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts District has essentially applied economic shock paddles to an entire area. But what about Dallas?
More than 30 years and $1 billion in the making, the Dallas Arts District is a 19-block area of museums and performance halls. It glitters with impressive buildings, including the handiwork of four Pritzker prize winners (I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas). But Blair Kamin, the architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, is not impressed. Alas, despite the “architectural firepower”, it is an “exceedingly dull place”:
There are no bookstores, few restaurants outside those in the museums and not a lot of street life, at least when there are no performances going on. Even some of the architects who’ve designed buildings here privately refer to the district as an architectural petting zoo—long on imported brand-name bling and short on homegrown-urban vitality.
Part of the problem is that Dallas lacks urban density, particularly in this area, so inevitably fewer people are milling about. Another hitch is that the buildings themselves are essentially competing beautiful fortresses—designed as grand monuments, not inviting public spaces. Some locals complain that they are clearly built for folks who drive in for a bit of culture and then drive away. Mr Kamin suggests that plans for a new park, which will bridge a sunken freeway and connect the district with a buzzier neighbourhood to the north, should create more pedestrian traffic when it opens in late 2012. Otherwise, he warns, Dallas may have just created “the dullest arts district money can buy.”
But surely it is possible to spend even more money to create an even duller arts district. Let’s take a moment to consider Saadiyat Island, the sprawling arts development taking shape in Abu Dhabi. Like the arts district in Dallas, Abu Dhabi has imported a series of bling-bling names for some serious starchitecture. Frank Gehry has designed the new $800m outpost of the Guggenheim (pictured top; 12-times the size of the New York flagship and in need of a new art collection by 2015); Jean Nouvel, the Pritzker-winner who designed the Guthrie Theatre, is creating the Abu Dhabi branch of the Louvre; Norman Foster is designing a museum of national history; and the matter of density may be solved by new luxury resorts and villas. As for bookstores and cafe culture, surely the mesmerising mess of the Gehry building will make it impossible to read and unnecessary to caffeinate.
The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi has been in the news a lot lately, owing to a possible boycott of more than 130 artists over the working conditions of those charged with erecting these modern temples. But setting aside this public-relations disaster, which could significantly hamper the Guggenheim’s work in filling this museum, the Saadiyat complex poses a larger question: will people come? Is it enough to build these gigantic monuments to modernity (in an otherwise not-so-modern and remote place) and assume that the razzle-dazzle will lure the tourists? Dallas’s experiment illustrates the flaws in developments that consider the needs of architecture at the expense of people. A culture district without the glue of wandering pedestrians (or an atmosphere of working artists; or let’s face it, streets) may struggle to earn its keep.
Via The Economist