Thursday, August 30, 2012

Nostalgic for the future.

These days it’s hard not to ponder some of the decisions property owners were making to downtowns at the dawn of widespread suburbanization that took place in the 1950s.  The small southern Louisiana city of Thibodaux (population 14,500) has a solid regional university (Nicholls State) a mile to the west of a fairly well-preserved historic downtown, which is clearly attempting to revitalize in a post-decentralization landscape by filling the old buildings with restaurants and specialty boutiques.  Nothing new there; lots of downtowns are attempting this, in communities of all sizes.  And, if you visit plenty of American towns and smaller cities, the photo below isn’t earth-shattering either.
But it should be.  Why would a 19th century three-story building downtown lack windows?  Why would it host a façade made of what looks like corrugated tin?  Or what about that thick overhang above the first floor that alternates between two oblique lines?  Does the rest of the Thibodaux downtown look this way?  Not really. Here’s a view down the same street.
And a view of the next one parallel to this:

So basically this one building has these Sputnik-era gestures while the rest looks pretty normal.  And yet, this anomaly doesn’t even cause a head to turn, because it’s still commonplace in downtowns of small cities across the country.  What’s going on with this particular building?  A more careful examination of it in relation to its neighboring structures should offer more insight:

Our featured oddity is a traditional commercial building with a false façade—a contrivance most likely born out of the time when antennae, rays emanating from stars, helices, and spirals emblematized modernity.  The futurist era in architecture peaked during and after the First World War, typically manifested by huge, monumental institutions or incredible feats of engineering, much of it conceived on paper but never built.  Its uncomfortable association with Italian Fascism no doubt stifled its influence in the US after World War II, but futurism didn’t exact die; it ramified.  The decade after the second war heralded the dawn of widespread suburbanization, when the American dream of owning a brand-new 950 square foot single-family detached house had burgeoned from an aspiration for the affluent to something broadly attainable for the middle class.  Decentralization domesticated futurism—one might even say that suburbanization was futurism’s apex in accessibility.

It’s hard to avoid glittering generalities in an attempt to collapse this Weltanschauung into a few paragraphs on a blog.  Suffice it to say, the emergence of American middlebrow futurism coincided with post-war optimism and economic prosperity, as well as the nascent efforts to dominate space exploration and assert cultural dominance over the nation’s biggest competitor and ideological opposite, Soviet Russia.  As the two nations’ space programs attempted to colonize a realm outside the earth’s atmosphere, the American middle class was forging its own frontier, and these new suburbs—where land was cheap and parking for cars was bountiful—assumed an aesthetic that, whether conscious or not, reacted to the staid, brick-and-mortar, cluttered appearance to the traditional downtown.  Houses, by comparison, remained relatively conservative in their design, if much more broadly spaced apart.  But the commercial landscape changed radically.

The paradigm for this much more ubiquitous second generation of futurism is Googie architecture, a incarnation most commonly associated with southern California (Los Angeles is, after all, the perfection of post-war decentralization as a lifestyle choice).  But examples popped up across the nation, particularly as some of the earliest enclosed shopping malls.  I can’t think of a better example than the Northland Shopping Center in Jennings, Missouri, a suburb just outside of St. Louis.  Googie was at its ostentatious best with the fonts and graphics that comprised its signs, evoking a wonderland where “the future is now”, where Space Age starburst flourishes owe a great deal to The Jetsons (or vice versa, more likely, since the short-lived cult series emerged in 1962, when Googie was already on the wane).  And the architecture itself, emphasizing low-slung horizontality almost to flaunt how much more space they have out in the suburbs, foreshadows the Mid-Century Modern era that dovetailed partly with Googie and futurism, but thrust those ultra-contemporary gestures squarely into the domestic world.  All three movements reveal a certain level of influence on that goofy sheath that clings to the building in downtown Thibodaux.

The aforementioned Northland Mall is a particularly apt example of Googie’s doe-eyed embrace of technological change, because the mall no longer exists.  It is a deadmall, celebrated nostalgically through photos; its surrounding suburb, Jennings, is a victim of a second wave of middle class flight and now largely distressed.  Such is the fate that has befallen an overwhelming majority of Googie relics, whose dependence on whimsical, kitschy bourgeois tastes meant that no one was defending them when had become outdated by the cynical 1970s.  Since it was always a pop-art variant of futurism, its banality made it that much more disposable, and only a handful of archetypal Googie structures still survive.  Googie signs that aren’t in museums are often covered in rust.

Where does this leave the Cleaver-chic cladding of that old commercial building in Thibodaux?
It’s a lot easier to speculate on its origins within a cultural and chronological context.  I suspect the property manager circa 1958 saw that businesses were leaving the downtown for those shopping malls right on the edge, where free parking was abundant, rents were cheaper, and the floorplate could hold larger volumes of retail.  Downtowns were starting to seem passé, and it was a last-ditch effort for the owner of the building to establish a modern look that could compete with shopping centers.  The Thibodaux owner wasn’t the only one to attempt this; old commercial buildings in cities large and small exchanged their brick facades for something sweeping, impermeable, and ornamented with astrophysics.  Its not a new building; it’s a compromise.  It’s Googie-lite.  The twin spires on the Thibodaux building are dead giveaways.

As metropolitan areas evolve continue to absorb newcomers, the best surviving examples of the Googie-futurist ethos are in relatively static towns of similar size to Thibodaux.  The larger cities with more political capital jettisoned them years ago, as public taste increasingly favors the “historic” look of the original building.   From time to time, one might encounter a Googie-lite façade in a larger city; New Orleans to my knowledge still has one in the heart of downtown that I’m particularly fond of.  But communities of Thibodaux’s size and smaller still have them in abundance, particularly if their downtowns are struggling or just emerging.  Let’s face it: fifty years after installations, many Googie-masks aren’t looking so great these days.  But it costs a lot to uninstall them, and the masonry underneath may require significant restoration by this point in time.  Business leaders in smaller communities are less likely to worry about this, if the building is still attracting tenants, and particularly if the cladding only affects the upper levels, which to this day often remain vacant in even flourishing historical downtowns.  (Case in point: half of the multistory commercial buildings in New Orleans’ French Quarter are still completely abandoned on the upper levels, as is the “Sanlin” building featured in the Google Street View above.)

My suspicion is that someone in Thibodaux (either the City or the building’s owner) will doff this corrugated metal within the next twenty years, if a hurricane doesn’t blow it off.  In fact, by most metrics, it would be a sad indicator of economic stagnancy if it stays on that long; it would most likely mean that the downtown never could encourage enough investment to initiate a core level of what most people these days consider “improvements”.  So, in the interest of restoring a downtown to its historic essence, we most likely will see another of the ever-dwindling stock of Googie façades meet its demise.  Is it tragic, or just an example of how shifting consumer tastes force real estate investors to adapt their building stock in an often cyclical fashion?  De-Googie-fying older buildings obviously parallels the “daylighting” of many enclosed shopping malls over the last twenty years, converting them into lifestyle centers, town centers, big boxes with power strips, and so forth.  I have deliberately withheld judgment in the Thibodaux example because I have no vested interest—however, both parties that passionately argue their case (“rip it off” versus “retain it”) would ironically identify themselves as historic preservationists.

Much more would be at stake in Thibodaux than at the Northland Mall, since the mall’s lifecycle was only 50 years (1955-2005), barely long enough to meet the National Park Service’s already generous standards for a historic property.  The photos above in Thibodaux show a long-historic building fitted with a newly historic sheath.  Love them or hate them, these sheaths are a threatened species: it’s only a matter of time before the small towns follow the big cities’ leads.  When viewed through the lens of the metro-area counterparts, its not so much a question of how many more examples of the Northland Mall aesthetic have to succumb to the wrecking ball (or land fill) before we take action; its an issue of how many genuine Googie wonderlands are even left.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lopsided improvements.

About 36 hours ago I added a new blog post on Urban Indy, which is accessible through this link.  It focuses on some putative improvements to Emerson Avenue on the southeast side of Indianapolis.

For many in metro Indy, the south side has a reputation that ranges from neutral to negative.  By some psychological assessments, being poorly regarded is better than suffering from complete indifference—at least antipathy suggests a certain intensity of feeling.  But indifference seems to be the general response when you ask a northsider about something going on in the southside; it might as well be Burkina Faso.  And, as much as this southside native hates to admit, there’s some justification for this disregard: the two-thirds of the metro’s population growth and probably four-fifths of its income density rest squarely on the north side of Washington Street.  The north side of Indy hosts more cultural institutions, parks, ethnic festivals, universities, greenways, bike lanes, independent restaurants, upscale shopping—you name it.  To a certain extent, it is understandable that the southside dwells outside the radar.

But well more than a quarter million people identify themselves as living on the southside, and their frustration about their low profile is essentially a ying to the northsider’s apathetic yang.  Many Perry Township residents have long griped about the scarcity of parks.  IndyGo is underfunded beyond any rational argument, but it’s particularly abysmal in the south, where only three routes extend very far, and even they only kiss the edge of Greenwood, the first southside suburb.  While the other sides of town boast greenways, multi-use paths, and converted rail-trails, the part of Indianapolis south of its pre-1970 boundaries has none.  Even sidewalks are often hard to come by south of Troy Avenue.

I will provide a glimpse of the "improvements" to Emerson Avenue through the pic below, but I encourage viewers to visit the Urban Indy link, where a discussion is already fully underway.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Barricading a downtown...forever.

About two years ago on this blog, I glossed over the unusual skyline of Frankfort, Kentucky’s pretty, parochial capital city.   

As capitals go, it’s an oddity: one of the least populated out of all 50 (only Vermont, South Dakota, and Maine are smaller); it’s also located less than 60 miles from either of the two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington.  Though its role as the seat of the commonwealth’s government would require Frankfort to host a number of important public sector jobs, it has never attracted any other industries, which has kept its population firmly lodged at around 25,000 for the last forty years or so.  Prior civic leaders could have encouraged these commuters to move to the town permanently, but to its credit, Frankford has no need to be bigger: the population base to fill those government jobs is close enough either to the east or west at the two large “L” cities.  Lexington is only 25 miles away.  As Kentucky state employees have described to me, “Frankfort doubles or even triples in population during the work week, empties out promptly at 5 pm every weekday, and tumbleweeds blow across the downtown on the weekends.” It is the perfect embodiment of the US Office of Management and Budget’s neologism of a micropolitan area, referring to an urban cluster with a population between 10,000 and 49,000 that shares many of the characteristics of a larger metropolitan area, particularly in its enviable ability to attract commuters from a particularly broad radius.

Considering its role as the engine of the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s government, it should come as no surprise that Frankfort’s downtown shows evidence of a considerable amount of investment.  The remarkably intact commercial center has scarcely any old buildings that are vacant or in disrepair; a careful inspection suggests that very few have even faced the wrecking ball.

The old center of Frankfort comprises little more than 10 blocks, but the overwhelming majority of these blocks seem well-preserved.  Lacking any major private industry, Frankfort doesn’t have so much to worry about during a severe recession.  While the number of government employees may expand and recede in relation to the Commonwealth’s budget (or the dominant political party) the chances of it leaving the city altogether are virtually nil—thus, the city’s reason for being has kept it relatively stable and prosperous, unlike many similarly sized cities in the Rust Belt, whose fortunes collapsed in the last 50 years with the departure of a principal manufacturing employer.  And Frankfort offers a stark contrast to the rural landscape just 50 miles to the east (just beyond Lexington), in which the lumpy Appalachians hug economically devastated, ramshackle old mining villages or the impoverished clusters of trailer parks in the unincorporated wilderness that surrounds them.  Frankfort looks fantastic by comparison, and the emblem of Frankfort’s continued prosperity presides on a hillside several blocks southward, on the opposite side of the Kentucky River from Main Street:

The cupola of the Statehouse asserts itself confidently from a lookout point along a western drive down into the valley that hosts the oldest part of the city.

With an excellent stock of 19th century buildings in a compact little downtown bisected by the lazy Kentucky River and surrounded on all sides by bluffs or cliffs of limestone, Frankfort could muster up as much cachet as Santa Fe, another modestly populated capital.  But Santa Fe punches above its weight class, attracting hordes of tourists not just from in state but from across the nation and globe.  Despite its beauty, Frankfort is almost completely unknown among even the neighboring states, and the average Kentuckian’s most likely first (and only) encounter with the city is on an elementary school field trip to the Center for Kentucky History—if they even get that.  Even the surrounding Franklin County has only grown in single digit percentages in the intervals between the last three decennial censuses.  In short, Frankfort has the aesthetic potential to be a bucolic artist colony or a premier weekend getaway, but it resigns itself to an epicenter of drab bureaucracy.  Downtown isn’t completely dead—it has a few attractive bistros, some bars, a chocolate shop, and more law/accounting offices than you can shake a stick at.  Obviously the thousands of government workers need some places to eat and run the most routine of errands.  But aside from those conventional 40 hours in a week, the heart of Frankfort is dead on the weekends.  The pictures below provide evidence:

Not a lot of people out for the closing hours of a weekday.
Most of the old buildings look cared for, but curtains are often drawn to hide service-oriented jobs that don’t depend on window displays the way retail does.
St. Clair Street, the most impeccably maintained block in the entire downtown, boasts a smartly improved and manicured streetscape, as well as an active old motion picture palace.  But elsewhere on the block, the whitewashing can only conceal the high vacancy levels up to a point.

And even a city that never saw its major industries close—it never had any—still shows evidence of a commercial center that is struggling to remain viable.

Somehow, in the life cycle of this town, a rupture has emerged.  A modest, well-maintained, economically stable community nestled in a verdant Appalachian valley has achieved to the unthinkable: near perfect banality.  This small city, though idiosyncratic in so many ways, is likely to strike most visitors as completely average—as unremarkable as a dinner at Bob Evans Restaurant. Frankfort’s shortcomings show no indication of a failure to invest, or even a failure to think big: the problem has nothing to do with the historic commercial center depicted in the photos above. It’s just fine.  The problem, implied in my previous Frankfort blog but expounded upon this time, becomes far more evident in some of the views of the city from a farther distance.
Approaching Frankfort from the north, a lone skyscraper obtrudes from the Kentucky River Valley more confidently than the limestone bluffs that flank it.  It is the Capital Plaza Office Tower—at 28 stories, it is the tallest public building in Kentucky and was the tallest structure outside of Louisville from 1963 until a building in Lexington surpassed it in 1987.

Even from a distance, a structure this tall seems anomalous in a city this modest, and it is no less jarring when up close.  At the time of its construction, the utopic “towers in the park” paradigm espoused by influential architect Le Corbusier had taken hold of urban America; many city governments supported the construction of towering structures surrounded by a landscaped plaza, most notoriously as the large-scale public housing aftermath of urban renewal.  But here in Frankfort, the Capital Plaza Office Tower houses employees of the commonwealth’s government, ultimately dwarfing the classically inspired Statehouse with this austere verticality.  And, though the Tower manages to eschew the criticism of “concentrating the poor” that has dogged most high-rise housing projects, it certainly is no better than Chicago’s now demolished Robert Taylor Homes at connecting with the surrounding landscape.  Both have been lifeless.  Walking the Tower’s grounds confirms any further suspicions, and I took these photos during the noon lunch hour on a working weekday.
If you think it’s busy in these photos, you ought to see it in the early afternoon on a Saturday.

From an organizational behavior standpoint, the Capital Plaza Office Tower is probably efficient: it concentrates a variety of loosely related government agencies and fosters easy interaction among them.  Commuters coming from homes in Louisville and Lexington can wend their way past the historic center of Frankfort into the underground parking of this tower and then hop right from the car to the elevator, in order to reach the floor they need.  At lunch they can partake in the building’s cafeteria—since it hosts so many people, dining options should be considerable.  It offers a fair amount of service-oriented shopping as well.  No need to leave the building.  The average commonwealth employee can thus navigate through a full week in Frankfort—or two, or three—without ever directly experiencing it.  From the perspective of civic leaders, that might be a good thing.  But it certainly doesn’t help to foster connectivity between government workers and the proprietors of downtown businesses.  Skyscrapers may help concentrate people, but if the urban design doesn’t allow for an occasional “discharge” of economic activity in the world outside their four elongated walls, they might as well be standing in the middle of the Gobi Desert.

A much more recently constructed government building next door suggests that the architects and developers have learned a bit from those earlier mistakes…at least slightly.
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet may hulk over everything else except the neighboring tower, but at least the structure feels a bit more inviting.  Glass walls convey openness and hospitality, and building nearly hugs the lot line—no moribund parks and plazas surrounding it.  The few pockets of open space seem to encourage a certain level of association with the rest of Frankford, even if it amounts to watching traffic pass by while sitting at a shaded table during lunch.
Nonetheless, the building dwarfs and presides over everything else, leaving little room for integration between the old and new.  It might not be as uninviting as the Capital Plaza Office Tower, but it sure seems out of scale for a community of this size.  The safe “corporatecture” and the absence of any real mixture of uses makes the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet building appear (at least to me) like a prototype for a convention center.  But no, Frankfort already has one of those, just across Mero Street from the other structures.

It’s as discouraging as just about every other windowless convention center from this time period, and it seems to be keeping with the notion I blogged about earlier ,that convention centers seem speciously designed under the fallacious assumption that just bringing lots of people into a shared space is good enough to energize a downtown.  Wrong again.

Thus, poor Frankfort has three massive publicly funded structures within a stone’s throw from one another, placed on the other side of the tracks from downtown, thereby ensuring the relationship between the two as almost adversarial.  (Even the Statehouse is quite removed from everything else.)  Though my earlier Frankfort blog post acknowledgedthat architect consultants have recommended demolishing the Capital Tower, but it doesn’t appear that the idea has gained much traction.  Aside from the taxpayer cost of demolishing a building that remains in good condition, the relocation possibilities raise a number of questions.  Where would these workers go?  Do the second floors of all those pretty downtown buildings have enough vacant space to hold everybody in the Tower?  Is it even a good idea to decentralize from an efficiency standpoint?

Thanks to the violent dichotomy between old central Frankfort’s handsome array of commercial buildings and the massive institutional structures nearby, Frankfort’s skyline is nothing if not weird.
(The Kentucky State Capitol building would be just to the right of the photo, but the panorama function on my cheap camera doesn’t work so well.)  Unfortunately, none of the planners, architects and civic leaders have been able to elevate the city’s weirdness to something bigger than the individual parts; they have failed to mythologize it.  Perhaps these successive urban design misjudgments will forever relegate Frankfort to its humdrum status as a provincial capital that meets but never exceeds its potential.  But such an assertion makes implicit use of words like “always” and “never”; I’m not so fond of those.  Frankfort may someday ally with an ambitious leader who sees a creative and translatable opportunity amid the city’s disjointed parts.  However, with a track record for building itself out of the doldrums as poor as this one, it may be wise to keep architects, engineers, and designers in general as far as possible from an economic development team.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Resume internet session.

I encountered some unexpected snags this past week that required me to get my computer repaired.  I now have the computer back with me and will resume a blog article that had been interrupted; this article should be posted within the next couple days.  Thanks for your patience.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Branching out.

I have recently been invited to post for the blog Urban Indy.  As evidenced by the name, it focuses completely on urban and development considerations in my hometown of Indianapolis.  The writing will be a bit more informational and less analytical than my posts here, and they are far more likely to assume pre-existing knowledge of the community.  (Here at "Dirt", I try to explain and orient my readers as much as possible, since I assume they often aren't familiar with the places that I describe.)

Regardless of the audience for both blogs, I will cross-link whenever I post there, and I suspect that the majority of my Indianapolis-related posts will end up there in some manifestation, even if the intended audience is also here.  My first post at Urban Indy just went up; it explores the background and proposed changes based on the relocation of the city's Bloch Cancer Survivor Plaza.  In this case, the site is moving, not only because the current installation is rapidly falling into disrepair, but because the new site aims to be generally more accessible to the public.  The current site, though in a densely populated area, is rarely used, because, at least in part, the urban environment and street design makes basic pedestrian access a real challenge.  Even if it were well-maintained, the intrinsic quality at the park of high-speed vehicles passing by (which endowed it with the visibility that the Bloch family wanted) makes it unappealing for most visitors looking for a place to sit and relax.  Ideally, this shift in location will spur a greater deal of though about the possibilities for development at both locations.  As of yet, the decision to relocate in itself seems reasonably well-thought out, and I do believe it will be a slight, if not, significant improvement.

As always, I look forward to responses, and I am excited about the prospect of serving two different blogosphere communities.