Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, made many key points last month during his visit to the Gate City to challenge our thinking of architecture and urban design.
Architecture matters to Greensboro’s citizens in many ways, both in defining our day-to-day lives, as well as the perceptions others have our city:
But if your building is third rate, then your company’s image will be third-rate. And if your city’s buildings are third-rate, then the image of your city will be third-rate. And if the image of your city is third rate, then how on Earth are you going to attract the most desirable people—“the creative class,” as Richard Florida calls them?
You won’t. You’ll be a provincial backwater. You won’t be fully equipped to move into the 21st Century. It’ll be as though as you were living without cell phones and Blackberries and computers. They’re all essential right? Well, good design is too.
Our downtown is just beginning to awaken to a new period of urban growth with projects such as East Market Street redevelopment, Southside, Bellemeade Village, and the First Horizon Stadium. How should we shape this reinvestment and construction in our center city into the next decade? Kamin encourages Greensboro to use an urban model, perhaps like this walkable neighborhood of Lincoln Park in Chicago (right):
You can simultaneously add density to your downtown and strip it of urbanity. By urbanity, I mean the qualities associated with the late, great urbanist Jane Jacobs: Human scale, eyes on the street, a mix of uses, short blocks.
I think you can do better. Surely there are other, more appropriate models for mixing density and urbanity: Human-scaled mid-rises or neo-traditional neighborhoods like your Southside, where the cars are deftly tucked behind the street and shops enliven the ground-level facades. It was good to read in this morning’s News & Record that both mayoral candidates consider Southside a model for combating sprawl.
Along North Elm Street, we may have the opportunity for a civic symbol in the form of a skyscraper. Greensboro should think boldly. By using “the postcard test” …our city may find itself with an expressive skyscraper that redefines the city skyline with iconic style.
I love the old Jefferson Pilot Building, with its twin towers, its terra cotta façade and its bust of Thomas Jefferson overlooking Elm Street.
I don’t think it was at all a coincidence that somebody put this building on a postcard. This skyscraper was a civic symbol as well as a piece of real estate. It spoke of craftsmanship and attention to detail and a prosperous Greensboro that had fully embraced the 20th Century.
But would anybody put [contemporary] Greensboro skyscrapers on a postcard? They are utterly undistinguished, wasted opportunities to enliven the civic realm. They flunk what I call “the postcard test”: If a skyscraper is beloved enough, it will enter the realm of popular culture and you’ll see it on T-shirts, key chains and dinner plates.
But the broader point all these buildings raise for Greensboro is this: The next tall building on your skyline may be residential, not office; that building may be tall and thin, not short and squat; and this building could be boldly expressive, a skyline icon, not just another box like the one now being built across from Center City Park.
Finally, he issued a challenge to our business leaders, politicians and citizens to take Greensboro to the next level through good design. As he points out, we get the urban environment we deserve…and in Greensboro, every building counts.
My challenge to you–to the business leaders of Greensboro, to the political leaders and to the citizens–is to recognize that architecture matters and to act on that understand in fresh and creative ways.
You’ve made a good start in reviving your downtown, but now it’s time to raise your game to the next level. You can:
- Expand the downtown revival beyond Elm Street to create lively districts; right now, you have one lively street and everything else is pretty much a desert;
- Extend the vitality of downtown into the skyline, which desperately needs a powerful vertical presence, a new campanile, to symbolize downtown’s rebirth;
- Encourage the creation of contemporary architecture that will signal that the downtown is not standing still and that it has moved decisively into the 21st Century
- Ensure that density is accompanied by urbanity in new downtown residential developments—indeed, in all projects
- Keep on preserving the past—the whole past, not mere slivers of it
- And green the downtown, its buildings and public spaces, in a way that gives new meaning to the name Greensboro.
There’s an old saying: You get what you deserve. Well, we get the built environment we deserve, especially in a small city. Chicago, a big city, can take the occasional bad building; it fades into the woodwork. But here, every building counts; it has a disproportionate impact on the urban fabric. There is not a lot of room for error. So my advice to you is this: Seize every chance you get. Be bold. And absolutely, positively, do not accept mediocrity.
You can read his full address here.
UPDATE 2/28/08: Greensboro has scored (the only North Carolina city to do so) on a list of America’s 50 Greenest Cities compiled by Popular Science. A step in the right direction in “putting new meaning to the name Greensboro.”