The Delible Lightness of Building

In Architecture Matters by George Doddsleave a COMMENT

“’Course I’m respectable. I’m old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
—Noah Cross, Chinatown (1974)

History, both long past and recent, demonstrates the veracity of screenwriter Robert Towne’s famous aphorism, voiced by the equally famous John Huston. Leaving aside politicians and sex-industry workers for the moment, our concern is with “ugly buildings,” or, more to the point, unpopular buildings. The great challenge is conserving a structure, ugly or not, long enough to become “respectable” and worthy of conservation or repurposing.

The current generation of policy-makers, developers, and designers are the first to confront a problem that is unique to history: what to do with buildings in need of substantive repair and expansion that range in age from 30 to 90 years, designed in a manner that the general public never fully embraced. While all periods of architecture enjoy ebbs and flows of popularity, 20th-century modernism, which began its emigration to the United States during the inter-war years and took hold in the U.S. in key realms only after the war, was never accepted domestically in this country and had mixed success in the governmental and civic arenas.

One need only compare the McCarty Holsaple McCarty-designed Lawson McGhee Library (1971) on the corner of Walnut Street and Church Avenue to the Robert A.M. Stern-designed Nashville Public Library (2001) on axis with William Strickland’s State Capitol (1859) to get a clear sense of the American public’s continued disquietude with modernity, particularly when it comes to our public monuments. The casual observer would be forgiven for thinking the Nashville library far closer in age to the Strickland building than to our local library. It’s a curious thing when a building that is now over 40 years old presents a more strikingly “modern” expression than one finished during the current millennium. Not surprisingly, the Lawson McGhee may suffer the fate of all middle-aged “ugly buildings,” as it has long been in need of expansion and updating.

Architects, and culture in general, exhausted the 19th and entered the 20th century not having a clue about what or how one ought to design, for the public or privately. Little has changed in that regard during the current epoch. Here in Knoxville, we have our own conflicted architectural histories to confront. And they are legion. Among the recent cases of late is the Carolyn P. Brown Memorial University Center on the University of Tennessee’s main campus. Its imminent demise has garnered virtually no press to date, which speaks volumes.

Completed in the mid-1950s, the Brown Center was the first example of 20th-century modernism built on the Knoxville campus, designed by the local firm Barber McMurry Architects, which was designing some of the finest contemporary architecture in the region at the time. The center was cited, along with several nearby buildings, as deserving of preservation and protected with landmark status in a 2005 report issued by a UT Faculty Senate committee. In 2012, Knox Heritage included it among its annual list of the Fragile Fifteen.

While some unfortunate alterations and additions in the 1960s marred its grace, the original building still sports elegant proportions, modest minimal details, and some refined architectural moments inside and out. Moreover, it had appended to it a parking garage designed by one of Knoxville’s finest architects of the post-war period, Robert B. Church III, the demolition of which in March 2012 caused some consternation on campus.

The Brown Center will be razed and completely replaced by 2017. Several nearby buildings, also cited in the Faculty Senate report, were demolished along with the garage for the project. The new student center will be 50 percent larger than Brown, comprised of a gaggle of shops, a food court, a multitude of branding opportunities, and an expansive galleria, all of which will have far more in common with West Town Mall than Ayres Hall.

Since the new center is financed with student-generated funds, it is unclear if it will be a naming opportunity, as they say in the nonprofit development industry. The financing of its construction notwithstanding, it would seem prudent to identify a donor to endow its maintenance and its adjacent landscape and gardens, particularly as the delay of essential upkeep has become the touchstone of the university’s recent decision to begin an ambitious building campaign of very limited-duration structures (the university center excluded).

With shrinking budgets and growing needs, state legislatures, Tennessee’s included, are understandably uninterested in spending money more than once on the same building. How, then, does a major research-oriented institution that traces its roots back to George Washington’s presidency confront such an essential conundrum as this? In doing so, the university has come to the ruthless albeit common sense business model of planning to replace a cheaper grade of building—largely dormitories—every generation, rather than going hat in hand to Nashville for funds to renovate a building intended to last a century or more. Some will be wholly new construction. Several, however, require the university to demolish brick and concrete dormitories that have already endured for several generations to construct new dorms designed to last for only one.

This reality-based strategy of planning the physical future of the state’s flagship campus represents a subtle yet profound shift in values. From the beginning of what we call culture, institutions sponsored buildings programs intended to physically and visibly represent, on a large scale, the highest values of an organization. While values change from one institution to another, they share a constant: time. Institutions are, by definition, intended to endure the vicissitudes of time—to adjust, maintain, to last and outlast. So, too, are the buildings in which they are wrapped. Yet planned obsolescence, long central to the business plan of automobile manufacturers and land developers, is now institutionalized in the building fabric of one of our state’s most important institutions.

When major buildings on the state’s flagship campus are equated to commodified educational (or entertainment) delivery devices, it seems critical to note a dip in the barometric pressure, a reordering of things, a change of state. After all, who is represented by these public places if not us? They are not only ours by virtue of the tax dollars that finance them or support their maintenance, they indelibly represent us, our values, our place in time. After all, what are public buildings if not monuments, and what are monuments if not markers of community memory?

It seems worth asking, what are we trading in exchange for these more delible places and the erasures they demand, whether it is for a university center or a dormitory? When the efficacy of civilization trumps the difficult conservation of culture, something is lost in its wake. Rethinking Noah Cross’ salty quip, in the end, this is a cultural and political issue far more than an architectural problem. Where some may see only “ugly buildings,” others see monuments to memory that are not nearly as indelible as one may think.

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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