Last week was everything it promised to be and more. Christianmas was great and the kickoff for the Urban Design Challenge was better. A standing room only crowd got to hear Alex Kreiger deliver a brief history of urbanism in America before outlining the indicators of healthy urban places. I wrote about my primary impression of his talk for Chattarati. As I mentioned in that piece, his talk was incredibly dense (not Hamilton County School Board Member dense, but packed with meaning). I will use this space (my own little corner of the virtual universe) to talk about another issue he brought up.

As Alex was talking about investing in culture as the fifth of his eight indicators of city center health, he flashed a slide of Der Graben in Vienna. Vienna is famous for its historic architecture and efforts in preservation (what, with the Bundesdenkmalamt and all). The next slide, however, was a counterpoint to a city of hoary 200 year old buildings- steel and glass contortions by the likes of Hans Hollein* and Coop Himmelb(l)au (pronounced co-op, not as in chicken (I bullshit you not, those guys are badass enough drop some parentheses within their firm name)) (while we’re doing the parenthetical thing, you will also notice that both of those firms painfully reinforce the stereotype of architecture firms with awful and impenetrable websites (However, if you manage to make it through to the “recent work” (aktuelle Projekte) section of either website, your eyes will be melted by sheer and unadulterated genius (said the man with precious little genius and awful, impenetrable website))).

Vienna. Rocks.

The point Alex was making is that celebrating and preserving our shared history is important. Being stewards of our inherited built environment is important. But it is also important for us to celebrate the present and aspire to the future. We should take chances, innovate and experiment with new technologies. Many are quick to dis (and rightly so) the modernist expression in most American urban renewal projects. But lest we forget, once upon a time gothic cathedrals were “modern”, as were all of the classical orders, as were Vitruvius’ works and for that matter, anything that came after the cave.

Which of these is more likely to be built in our downtown?
Which of these would spark more discussion?

I have high hopes that the design teams participating in the Challenge will heed Alex’s plea to make the city a work of art. Yes, I realize that not all art has to be cutting edge (and not all architects put parentheses in their firm name). However, one of the jobs of an architect is to read the needs of his/her client and address them. In this case the client is the community. The need of the client is a reenergized civic discourse (not necessarily shovel-ready projects). I have full faith that the vanguard of the design community will rise to the Challenge.

Apology: I want to make a public apology to my great friend (and talented architect) Matt Winget. We mispronounced his name during the award presentation. As we all know, it is pronounced ‘Win-Jet’ not “Wing-It’ (although in some respects that may be a more apt description;)

*Seeing the image of the Haas-Haus immediately brought me back to second year architecture studio. Our professor made the mistake of bringing a geode to class and drawing the connection to the Hollein building. For the next 6 months (like lemmings) everyone in the class (including yours truly) took a shot at the geode metaphor (with disastrous results). Please, if you ever see me invoking the geode technique, slap me down.

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