Provoking the consumer of the urban environment
On view now in New York City is a show orchestrated by architect/urbanist Rem Koolhaas and the New Museum called “Cronocaos” (read the review in the New York Times). Located appropriately in an old equipment supply store next to the museum, the show explores what Koolhaas sees as the disturbing tendency of modern cities to use preservation as a tool to erase certain layers of the past, and to “sanitize” the urban environment for upscale tourism and consumption.
Controversial by design, the show questions the darker side of the preservation movement, where developers, governments, and preservation agencies unite over projects that displace the poor, and benefit tourists and upper-income consumers. It’s apt the show’s located on the Bowery, until recently a byword for poverty and soup-kitchens (and good punk rock venues); it’s now brimming with upscale boutiques, hotels, and condos.
A different case for preservation?
Since the shotgun houses of the poor were long ago cleared from Birmingham’s central city, there are few residents to “displace” here; much of our own preservation movement has converted old commercial structures into residential, bringing new populations into what had hitherto been exclusively commercial areas. Perhaps more relevant is Koolhaas’ lament of the “sanitizing” nature of a lot of historic preservation, where messy but fascinating layers of time are erased to create a faux-historic environment at odds with any historic reality. Further complicating this is the fact that we’re willing to create new buildings in vague “period” styles, often diminishing the power of nearby, truly historic buildings (this was the argument against the imminent “historicizing” of the Alagasco building downtown, whose current 1960s self is shown above).
$50 a week on 24th Street North
Right down the street from our office–24th Street North–is a small two-story building which in the not-too-distant-past was a boarding house offering “furnished rooms” from $50/week. The painted sign advertising this can still be seen on the brick. While the boarders have long departed, it’s preserving this sort of quirky authenticity that Koolhaas is arguing for (a dreadful oversimplification I know). Anyone who is interested in the complexities of urban space and historic preservation: if you are lucky enough to be in New York before June 5, see this show!
[thanks to the New York Times for the exhibition pic]
Pop go the gas bubbles
This morning at Design Review Committee saw approval for the renovation of the downtown Alagasco building, one of iconic local architect Fritz Woehle‘s few commercial projects (above). The building is also one of Birmingham’s unique examples of Pop Architecture [you can read a good essay on the Pop movement here]. An older building was reconfigured by Woehle–I assume in the late 1960’s–with a smooth stucco skin punctuated by playful, circular windows. These suggest gas bubbles, and present a singular, unique image for the gas company. [Update: I’m now told the building was originally conceived by Woehle for a bank, which makes the circles pure geometric play rather than symbolic of gas bubbles. Although perhaps the allusion drew the gas company to purchase the building?] Urbanistically it has its faults (a massive drive through at the corner of 20th Street North and Powell Avenue; dark-tinted windows do not engage with the street; there is no real pedestrian scale)—but the Committee paused before approving the renovation.
A measured critique
The main concerns came from committee member Cheryl Morgan (pictured above seated at the left during the presentation), who objected to the vaguely classicizing style of the proposed synthetic stucco detailing (pilasters with capitals, cornices, etc.). While the architect (Alan Tichansky of Williams Blackstock) argued that the new design was more stylistically in keeping with the smaller, attached building which is part of the campus, Morgan felt the smaller historic building would be more respected if the new design were simpler, not so overtly “historicist”, and had closer attention paid to proportions and details. In the end, the committee voted to approve as long as the architect just tweaked the capital details.
In the same vein
While we were not able to obtain renderings for this post, the proposed architecture is vaguely similar to that found right up the street at Adamson Ford (above): big stucco-type cornices, and elements that recall original Birmingham commercial architecture from the 1910’s without replicating the proportional relationships seen in those buildings. A palette of taupes and browns will be the paint scheme.
Many probably have mixed feelings about the Alagasco building; regardless it’s about to be altered beyond recognition, and will go from unusual to conventional. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Discuss.
[thanks to Adamson Ford for the pic of their downtown dealership]