An Art Untrue: Difficult Lessons From the New Walnut Street Garage

In Architecture Matters by George Doddsleave a COMMENT

An old friend once quipped, “The half-life of missing the point is forever.” He could have been speaking of the new Walnut Street parking garage in downtown Knoxville.

Just as Knoxville is emerging from its backwater status, it finds itself once again on the cutting edge of the past. It’s difficult to get around what seems a generally held view by several of the new garage’s critics: This is the wrong building type in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yet, the garage’s very existence serves an important albeit unintended civic function: smelling salts for those committed to the continued reinvention and reinhabitation of our downtown. It demonstrates unambiguously the kind of thing that ought never to happen again in our urban core. For years to come, it will serve an invaluable civic role when we debate new building projects for downtown or elsewhere. It is encouraging to think that the Clockwork Orange-like intersection of vacant streets it comprises at Walnut and Summer Place need not be a Dante-esque signpost to all who enter here; we need not “abandon all hope.”

One way to better understand some of the flaws behind its creation is to parse, not the building’s failures as they seem readily apparent, but rather the nature of downtown Knoxville’s successes. The parking garage notwithstanding, what is it that Knoxville has been doing right? For when one can’t find a way to repeat an earlier success, it’s often because one never knew what one was doing right in the first place.

Several years ago, Metro Pulse’s Jack Neely became quite animated when downtown Knoxville finally achieved a dwelling density equal to that of its suburbs. And while any viable urban core typically sports a density exponentially higher than that of its periphery, Neely was right to celebrate that tipping point when the core began to outpace the density of its edges. Every city’s rebirth begins with fits and starts of reinhabitation and is crowned with its first sizable grocery store, signaling that residents need no longer drive to outlying supermarkets. That said, when we look closely at the successes that Knoxville has enjoyed in its downtown of late, it’s difficult not to see the suburban model behind its urban success, and this should signal some concern.

No one would argue that the level of activity downtown today was unimaginable a dozen years ago. Cheek-to-jowl gatherings in Market Square have replaced the occasional tumbleweeds that blew across what some local wags once called Knoxville’s Piazza della morte: buildings, major and minor, rehabilitated as apartments and condominiums; restored, lovely theaters along Gay Street belching out paying customers onto crowded nighttime streets; heretofore unknown homegrown restaurants with lines out the door; a gaggle of new retail venues, including Urban Outfitters; an actual wine and spirits shop; and the omnipresence of police vehicles signaling there is enough activity to actually promote petty crimes and misdemeanors—all signs of a typical healthy city center.

Yet, like the theaters on Gay, the downtown itself remains more a stage set for urban events than an authentic “urb.” It is used not that differently from West Town Mall or the Orchestra Hall/Coliseum Zone. Virtually all of its users are short-term, driving in, from, and back home to various points along the periphery.

Certainly, Knoxville is not the first city with a center that is more stagecraft than statecraft. The Italian Renaissance walled town of Sabbioneta, situated midway between Verona and Mantua, was built out of whole cloth by Duke Gonzaga as a homage to ancient Rome (and to his family). Its city streets were designed to promote memories of ancient Greek and Roman tragedies, but the ideal town never became a going concern.

Knoxville is no Sabbioneta, which is a good thing, as the intended utopia suffered the fate of all such cities—the ideal could not resist the vicissitudes of a world that is real. Hence, this is not to suggest that Knoxville can continue to develop and transform into a vibrant urban setting free of the very real pressures of profit. But the new Walnut Street parking garage— prefabricated and post-rationalized—seems not only a product of developer profit margins but also a fabrication of need. Hence, we continue to carry coals to Newcastle as we add to our existing glut of parking in the urban core.

One need not be a historic preservationist to argue that stand-alone single-use parking garages are not just a bad idea for downtown Knoxville, they are bad idea for any downtown at any time. Of course, these sorts of things are far easier to criticize than they are to manage. Fortunately, there are many places one can look to for lessons learned—examples of the unintended consequences of attempting to improve a modest-sized city’s quality of life: Portland, Boulder, and Charleston, to name a few.

Portland is, today, the antithesis of nearby Seattle. While both cities have become popular settings for an ever-increasing number of basic cable television programs, they could not be more different. Iconic buildings such as the Office of Metropolitan Architecture’s Seattle Public Library are essentially outlawed in Portland, where relatively strict buildings codes are so narrowly enforced that buildings such as OMA’s formally aggressive and not-traditionally-urban library is forever out of bounds.

In Boulder, the residents’ desire to preserve the surrounding beautiful open spaces has inadvertently created extreme challenges to the affordability of inner-city dwelling; the beltway of preservation has created a bottleneck of development on a fixed landmass. As Mark Twain quipped, the reason land is such a good investment is because “they’re not making it anymore.”

And as was recently reported in a New York Times article, Charleston struggles with its past as it continues to profit from its image of Victorian civility. Clemson University’s failed attempts over the course of a decade to build an extension of its School of Architecture in the city’s downtown demonstrates just how Charleston’s tourist-based business interests will continue to defeat any attempt to build architecture that challenges the status quo. Ironically, it may take the construction of a museum to house the history of the city’s role in New World slavery to effectively challenge Charleston’s de facto ban on architecture that actively engages current cultural trends.

Near the end of his life, Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn, wrote in his Fruits of Solitude (1693), “Undertake no Experiment, in Speculation, that appears not true in Art; nor then, at thine own Cost, if costly or hazardous in making.” By permitting the new Walnut Street parking garage to be built in a manner better suited for an exurban mall than a city center, unintentionally retarding the recent gains of urban reinvigoration, we learn the difficult lesson of how fragile is success, particularly when one does not fully understand why one has succeeded. That said, the rebuilding of downtown will continue with failures and successes, but surely not by building the wrong kind of building in the wrong place at the wrong time, as there is much hazard in making an art untrue.

George Dodds

George Dodds’ Architecture Matters explores issues concerning the human-made environment, primarily focused on Knoxville and its environs. He has been teaching and publishing commentaries on the practice and history of architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture for over 30 years. He has practiced in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., has lectured internationally, and has served on the editorial boards of several journals. Since 2000, he has been on the faculty of architecture at the University of Tennessee.

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