Sunday, September 28, 2014

Adjudicating Architectural Significance

Eugene City Hall awaits its fate (my photo)
Earlier this year, Otto Poticha, FAIA, challenged his colleagues in the local architectural community to advocate on behalf of saving the now soon-to-be-razed Eugene City Hall building. Many rallied to his side; ultimately, though, their efforts failed to sway a majority of city council members to vote this past week in favor of forestalling demolition any longer.

In the wake of the council's decision, Otto sent me a new letter for publication here on my blog. His reasons for his latest dispatch include voicing his frustration with what he perceives as a failure by his peers to share his appreciation for architecturally significant projects (regardless of whether there is unanimity of fondness for a project in question). He also wished to express his disappointment with the council’s edict as well as its motion to consider the token and politically expedient gesture of somehow preserving only the existing council chamber.

As I’ve written previously, I do believe the design of the existing city hall is fatally flawed, particularly its indifference to the sidewalks that bound it. It’s not pedestrian-friendly. The building hasn’t ever engaged passersby because its architecture purposefully lacks the scale, vocabulary, and elements necessary to do so. It is the product of a much different time and world than we find ourselves in now. As for possibly repurposing the building for another use, I cannot imagine doing so without fundamentally erasing the very essence of the original design that its supporters so vociferously defend.

I wasn’t pleased to also conclude that we should allow an existing building of architectural significance to be demolished simply because it fails to meet fashionable standards for beauty or measure up to state-of-the-art performance yardsticks. Fashion is relative and transitory, and we can ameliorate many functional shortcomings. As a society, we’re too quick to forget our past transgressions, repeating history by destroying it. Casting aside the old for the allure of the shiny and new is unnecessarily wasteful and unsustainable; that being said, I believe correcting the failings of the existing city hall building is simply too great a challenge to overcome.

Here’s Otto’s latest letter:

September 26, 2014


The City Hall matter appears to be at rest; we will see.

It is important to say that in a community with very little interest or knowledge about architecture other than the published awards we give or get for each other, we, the architectural community, are the only caretaker of what we create or have created. The lack of interest in the city hall as a significant building is very embarrassing to me as a member and Fellow in our profession, and as an active member of both our architectural community and social-civic community. 

I am very sad and worried that the profession looked at the building as something that they liked or hated rather than our art form. There is no piece of art or architecture that we all love or hate and I think that is good. This piece, over the years, has been certified by us, our peers, and others as significant and should not be destroyed. As a city hall or not, it is our art form, in my opinion a better piece of our art than some of what we are currently replacing it with: an architecture that hides behind quantitative matters such as energy efficiency and sustainability, with little attention paid to qualitative matters such as concept or design—a tight box with good makeup.

How can we attempt to educate our community about architecture when we cannot understand our own role or what is significant?

During this recent debate, I learned that we, the architectural community, must be marketing the idea that all of our built environment should be removed and replaced since it is out of style, not energy efficient, seismically correct, sustainable, green, friendly, or connected to the street. That opens, for us, an enormous market for our trade (not craft) and the destruction of our built architectural history and we need to understand that WE are responsible for that.

I cannot fault the architecturally inexperienced layperson, city manager, council member, mayor, or facilities manager for not relating to mid-century modernism but I can’t excuse the architectural community; how embarrassing.

The community looked to the AIA for their input but it came as a neutral statement: “maybe good or maybe bad."

If you are interested, the council will consider retaining only the council chamber in or for the new symbolic city hall. I personally find that offensive, as a political compromise or token and I hope you intend to campaign against it. The existing chamber is the focus of the existing complex and the basis of the existing building’s concept. Saved, it is simply a remnant to be placed in the new lobby or front yard of the new building as a dinosaur that was just excavated and roped off as an exhibit piece. 

Otto Poticha, FAIA

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