Modern Architecture and Politics (Part 2)

In Architecture Matters by George Dodds1 Comment

“You can draw any kind of picture you want on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra, or Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.”

—Robert Moses

OPINION_1008_Architecture2Robert Moses (1888-1981) had more than one meat ax in his arsenal and knew when and how to use them. To my knowledge, neither the city of Knoxville nor Knox County has an official in a position of authority remotely resembling that of Mr. Moses, and probably never has, which is a good thing. This is not to say that Mr. Moses did not achieve great things during his career. It’s just that not all great things are good things, and urban surgery is best conducted with a scalpel rather than a meat ax. There are, indeed, many useful lessons to learn from the life and career of the man Robert Caro famously tagged in the title of his 1974 biography, The Power Broker.

Never elected to public office, Moses held several appointed positions between 1924 and 1968 in New York City, regional, and state governments—at one point, 12 simultaneously. The Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach State Park, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, West Side Highway, the Long Island parkway system, and the 1964 World’s Fair were all products of his vision, leadership, and unbridled chutzpah. During his 44 years of public service and political influence over New York City and its environs, his projects amounted to the equivalent of $75 billion of construction (adjusted for inflation). The New York Times noted in his obituary: “Before Mr. Moses, New York State had a modest amount of parkland; when he left his position as chief of the state park system, the state had 2,567,256 acres. He built 658 playgrounds in New York City, 416 miles of parkways and 13 bridges.”

Moses’ seeming obsession with the borough of Queens was his undoing in the guise of the 1964 World’s Fair. Planning the fair in Queens, to fall only two years after the 1962 fair in Seattle, meant that the New York venue could not be sanctioned by the governing body of international expositions. Missing several major countries that chose to sit out the ’64 fair in lieu of the Montreal Expo planned for 1967, a 100 percent cost overrun, combined with a shortfall of 20 million paying visitors, the fair was a financial disaster. Investors lost heavily.

OPINION_1008_Architecture3The fair’s failure, coupled with Moses’ insistence on the demolition of the remarkable Pennsylvania Station (which ignited the start of the historic preservation movement in the United States), along with his long-established tone deafness to well-reasoned criticism or alternative viewpoints, signaled the beginning of the end of his “reign of error” in city and regional planning.

Left in his wake were four decades of vision and leadership that established precedents for the destruction of not only great historic structures, but also long-established inner-city neighborhoods in favor of new high-speed, limited-access motorways. He promoted the devaluation of the dense urban core over a newly dispersed post-war city in the form of isolated suburbs scattered along stretches of newly constructed highways, requiring the building of new infrastructure, the production of more energy, and the consumption of more of everything. Robert Moses may not have invented suburban sprawl, but he demonstrated to the world how to build it efficiently and quickly.

While Knox County and Knoxville city governments operate with the sort of 21st-century transparency that makes the existence of a Moses-like character virtually impossible, that does not mean there are no local parallels. The closest thing we have is at the flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System here in Knoxville. Unlike other SEC universities, the Office of the Chancellor (and not the president) is in control of not only the highly visible athletics programs, but also the buildings and grounds of the flagship campus (excluding Cherokee Farm and the UT System). Moses earned his undergraduate degree from Yale and a doctorate in political science from Columbia. On the UT Knoxville campus, (mostly) men, (some) with doctorates, appointed (not elected) to envision and manage its 560 acres are in charge of what currently amounts to $1 billion in construction. Coincidentally, the site of the 1964 World’s Fair was about the same size as the Knoxville campus with a final price tag of $1 billion.

Yet, the construction on campus is far from flashy. Much is “catch-up” work owing to either deferred maintenance or falling far behind peer institutions over the past two decades in such things as essential laboratory space and other research-related facilities for the STEM disciplines. Moreover, campus buildings have the kind of oversight that would have rankled Moses. Before a project is approved for construction, a design review committee looks at projects and makes comments. The state Legislature, for its part, maintains a very close watch on taxpayer funds (or state-controlled funds), to the point of creating paranoia among some key decision-makers responsible for UTK’s built environment. The recently completed Natalie L. Haslam Music Center is a good example of how scrambled one’s thinking can get when appearance is privileged over reality to an absurd degree.

Green metal panels the color of patinated copper are one of the most notable decorative features of the building’s facades. Like many of my colleagues, I presumed they were not real copper owing to “value engineering.” Yet, a former university staffer close to the project reports that the copper was replaced with painted metal, not to save money, but for fear that real copper would seem too luxurious for a classroom building. As difficult as it is to believe, the imitation copper panels cost nominally less than real copper panels, yet with a far shorter lifespan. This trade-off did little to deter the decision to replace them, however, as it was a purely political choice, having little to do with design or economics.

Far more important than decisions about specific materials or even specific buildings, perhaps one of the most nettlesome questions for the university administration, the residents of Fort Sanders, and organizations such as Knox Heritage, concerns the boundaries of the university. There seems to be some disagreement as to where the university ought to end, physically. Those in Fort Sanders and the Knox Heritage folks seem to think that Cumberland Avenue would make a rather good edge, as it has in the past, more or less. From Knox Heritage’s point of view, it’s easy to imagine that the Office of the Chancellor seems to have its eyes set on something further north, closer to I-40. And while there seemed to have been in place a decade-old agreement that the university would refrain from its heretofore Manifest Destiny of northward expansion, there remains some disagreement about that agreement.

Knox Heritage’s concern for Fort Sanders is largely motivated, not surprisingly, by a desire to maintain historic structures and the integrity of a historic residential neighborhood—both of which are in increasingly short supply of late in Knoxville. That said, there is an even more compelling reason, from the university’s point of view, to begin thinking of Cumberland Avenue less like a stream that it often fords and more like a great river, at the edge of which it ought to build the public face of the largest employer in the city.

Over the next few decades the university has the opportunity to rethink its littoral edge on the southern boundary of campus, not with four-lane roadways, railway lines, sewage treatment plants, and concrete filling stations, but something else entirely: a constructed border that recognizes that a great campus is meeting a great river. To the north, the university can create a wholly different face to the community along Cumberland Avenue, much as Penn State University has done along East College Avenue. East College separates University Park from the town of State College. The school and the students are to the north; to the south, there is the town that supports the university where most of the faculty reside. Knowing that it could not build across the street, the university understood that it must plan more densely on campus, construct parking garages below ground when possible, and work to eradicate on-grade parking in lieu of either paved or green open spaces in well-formed quadrangles or quasi-

Penn State does not have a great campus, but it is a very fine one, at a state-affiliated university—a top 25 university. Moreover, it demonstrates a path toward a great campus where students will choose to walk between classes rather than board a bus, because they enjoy the stroll. They choose to walk because they like the varied spaces of the campus, and the impromptu meetings that happen along the way—the sorts of things that are almost impossible as one sits on a bus staring into a smartphone.

The perception of the current decision-makers in the Office of the Chancellor, and many in UTK’s Office of Facilities Services, which reports to the chancellor, is that the university is landlocked by Cumberland Avenue, Neyland Drive, and the east/west boundaries of the campus; they kvetch that there is no room in which to build on campus. They seem to long for a meat ax. Fortunately, there is still time for the university to find a scalpel in its tool kit and see the same thing that many who teach urban design see when we look around the Knoxville campus: potential building sites and plenty of dross space that, through a well-considered building campaign, can be transformed into identifiable places.

If the campus is to lose its 1970s office-park status and become the kind of fine quasi-urban land-grant campus it aspires to be, the university must stop spreading out like a gas filling its container, and contract to better define its open spaces—thinking of buildings less as stand-alone objects and more as walls to exterior rooms.

Not all of the great things Robert Moses achieved were good things: some were very bad for the city of New York, for the region, and for the country. Owing to his hubris, his inability to listen to the reasoned council of others, or to consider the unintended consequences of his monumental actions, Moses impaled himself on his own petard. Those among us with the authority to shape the future structure of our university and city can learn much from how the power broker succeeded, how he failed, and how his absolute power was rendered so resolutely powerless.

Robert Moses’ Queens need not be our Fort Sanders.

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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