Architecture appears to be stuck in a rut
Matt Matteson Be Our Guest Published: Thursday, April 21, 2011 at 4:30 a.m. last Modified: Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 3:30 p.m.
If you blink you might miss it, but there is a fountain in Laurel Park. although humble by most standards, it sits in front of Cocula Mexican restaurant. so out of sheer curiosity, I set out on a mission to find fountains in Henderson County. I saw none, but I did look at a lot of buildings.
I'm not an architect, but I know what I like. and by the look of things, I think we're in a design rut. with few exceptions, our office buildings look like shoe boxes, our schools look like strip malls, and our public buildings are better suited for a military base. It's puzzling that a few years ago we were all in a huff about the height of buildings, but little was said about appearance.
In the design process, function is priority one. we should know, having built or rebuilt a dozen schools in the past 10 years. But few of these projects showed much architectural integrity. one often-heard complaint is that we always choose firms with school design experience. one might wonder just how those "outside" architects got their first school job. Maybe our local firms can do better.
Generations ago, government buildings were grand and stately. how times have changed. The new human services building turns no heads. Plans for the law enforcement center, now being built on Grove Street, show some improvement in design. Our most handsome community college buildings were built in the 1970s but are now in the woods hidden from view. Surprisingly, the new county animal shelter has great curb appeal.
We do better with restoration. The Courthouse and City Hall were nicely done, and Hendersonville Middle School's white columns offer a nice touch. The Justice Academy and the Singleton Center were once high schools, the new Chamber building was an auto parts store, and Umi Japanese restaurant occupies a renovated gas station. Epic Theatres raised the architectural bar when it rebuilt the old Walmart.
But has anything been built recently that is worthy of restoration 50 years from now? Will we want to preserve any of our big-box stores? Our shopping malls? Our chain drug stores? The main post office on fifth Avenue gets more traffic than any other public building, but will there ever be a "Committee to Save the Post Office"?
When the controversial mill Center for the Arts project got sidetracked five years ago, architecture took a hit for perhaps thinking too big. They said those bold designs just didn't fit in with the rest.
Well, just what does "fit in"? Wachovia Bank fits in nicely downtown. The Ace Hardware store on U.S. 25 fits in, too, but in my opinion, so does Beacon Commons with its contemporary style. I contend that any well-designed structure can fit in, but dull and ordinary fits in nowhere.
Asheville has architectural standards for Biltmore Village where "Black Forest Macs" and "Bohemian Hardees" are showcase structures. we let chain stores and fast-food restaurants build whatever they want, usually a cookie-cutter building design with tiresome roof lines and minimal landscaping. if there is a true "mountain style" of architecture, our best effort to capture that has been with our professional offices, particularly those that use native stone in their exteriors.
For its size, Henderson County has a fair number of architects, and they can do some awesome work. Architects can design elegance, but the client must make it a priority. and elegance is not always expensive. I am told that by adjusting building scale and being creative with materials, texture and color, much can be done within budget. These days, green buildings are the rage. we can build green and build great.
Try this at work: Walk outside and turn around and look. are you inspired by what you see? if architecture is unimportant, then why do tourists flock to Europe? It's got to be more than the food because you can get great brats and beer in Milwaukee.
If Henderson County's economy is dependent upon tourism, it would seem logical to have a plan to sustain and advance good architecture.
No, we can't rebuild our buildings overnight, but we can improve them. consider a mansard roof, a portico, a few trees, bright awnings, a stone terrace, and voila — a new look! and I'm thinking that somewhere someone has a spot for that great fountain, that elegant backdrop for those high school prom photos.
We should never settle for lackluster or "safe" architecture. Let's find new architectural passion and not cater to the naysayers. if half the people don't like a building's looks, but the other half say it's awesome, then that's good. if they're not talking about it, then it's probably just another ordinary building. and Henderson County is no ordinary county.