There is nothing more joyous and interesting than cultural and architectural diversity in a nation—the spreading of rich delicacies on a full table for all to enjoy. But the sad fact is that, in the U.S. in particular, there is a need for dramatic new landmarks to sharpen the palette.
Large public corporations now are feeding the U.S. a steady diet of empty calories— big box stores by the thousands, small boxes by the millions and McMansions by the subdivision. These numbing designs are spreading across the U.S. like crabgrass across a lawn, choking out regional culture, diversity and imagination.
They have homogenized the American cityscape to the point where you will see the exact same store in Anywhere, USA, and recognize it instantly as belonging to this or that chain. The same goes for the banal branding of gas stations and ubiquitous food marts. It makes one wonder what the future will look like—probably even more of the same.
|Rendering courtesy of Akron Art Museum|
Against this backdrop of look-alike Home Depots, Lowe's, WalMarts, McDonalds, and BP gas stations, to name a few, some cities and municipalities are rebelling. They are trying to make a distinct statement through unique architecture. Akron, Ohio, for example, is shedding its stodgy Midwestern industrial image but staying true to its past with a new-old art museum expansion by Austrian starchitect Coop Himmelb(l)au. Like it or not, the $38-million project has the city buzzing. It is safe to say that there is no other museum like it—an instant landmark that helps gives the city a new identity and a magnet for art lovers.
Other localities also are making their contribution to "distributed culture." They include Seattle's Central Library (designed by Rem Koolhaas) and Experience Music Project (Frank Gehry), Milwaukee's art museum expansion (Santiago Calatrava), Denver's art museum (Daniel Libeskind), and The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's expansion (Steven Holl, Fumihiko Maki, Gehry and more). The list goes on, but it is not as extensive as it should be.
And then there are cities, like New York, that think that a design-by-committee approach will produce a landmark. The multiple redesigns of the Freedom Tower have produced more of a political statement than an architectural one. In the end, the look is likely to be big, bad and expensive.
Functionality has its place in architecture, business and society. But no civilization should be dominated by it. The Greeks and the Romans understood this, and we may be learning it the hard way.