Our Impending Architectural Crisis: It Doesn't Have to be Gruesome, as Likely as That Seems

Friday night, there were lines of cars along Gay Street, many with out-of-state plates, but not nearly as many people were in the cars as there were on the sidewalk, walking and looking around as if they were seeing Disney World for the first time. Even for those who remember when First Friday was so small we came out to support it out of guilt, downtown in almost-spring can still astonish. A food-truck enclave, a live-radio show at WDVX, and Paulk & Co. a new venue/workshop on Williams Street, the last street downtown that nobody's ever heard of: inside what looks like an old garage, produce sellers, a live sushi demonstration, and vivid art. In the Public House, a collard-kimchi hot dog and a strong, sparky drink called the Depot Street Fire. The Emporium was packed. Everything was packed. It was hard to find two chairs for a conversation.

Saturday morning, the lively market in the old train station, tamale and coffee vendors outside. The erection of a steel sculpture on the hilltop up above drew a small crowd. And on Sunday afternoon, Market Square was a Seurat fantasy of musicians and dogs and families and boulevardiers. In spite of all that downtown still lacks, something's working extremely well, to a degree that the looniest downtown fanatics of 20 years ago did not anticipate. Even those with a memory of the days when the big department stores were still open can't swear with any great confidence that they remember when downtown was prettier, more appealing, more active.

But some things are about to change. So far, and to a degree that I think may be extraordinary in American cities, almost everything that's made downtown newly exciting has happened in old buildings. All but one of the new restaurants, all but one of the new bars, the overwhelming majority of the residential units and the new or rehabbed live-entertainment venues, have happened in old buildings built before 1940.

Occasionally a new building gets announced. But most of the new buildings heralded on the front page of the newspaper don't actually get built. The Justice Center, Sentinel Tower, the planetarium, the winter garden, the new Home Federal building, the Jackson-and-Gay residential development, the 1990s Conley office-tower project, the new main public library, the original micro-metropolis version of Marble Alley, many others.

Newspapers are obliged to report on each new proposal. But we should gently remind readers who are new to this old Knoxville game, perhaps with an asterisk: "This probably won't ever happen."

Downtown just doesn't grow much new architecture. The viaduct-redefining transit center is one impressive exception, despite its functional problems; I was disappointed the appealing cafe at its center closed a few months ago, perhaps permanently. Despite all the new excitement downtown in the last 20 years, you could count all the new buildings built during that period on the fingers of one hand.

There's room for it, several acres of rubble-strewn dirt here or there, and too many big, dumb parking lots. Downtown's architects have become known almost exclusively for their imaginative re-use of old buildings. And in those contexts, no two alike, they've earned real distinction. There's amazing, clever, inspiring work in adaptive preservationist architecture.

Even if it was built for some strictly practical purpose, an old building excites the imagination of smart people who want to prove to the world they can transform it in some astonishing way. But offer the world a flat piece of Knoxville, a half-acre that could become anything, and it either remains flat ground or it becomes something ordinary, conventional, and, most importantly, cheap.

In Knoxville, old buildings hold the capacity to surprise and delight to a degree that seems—so far, at least—beyond the ability of new buildings. You overhear patio conversations, and often people are just talking about the old architecture. "This used to be a bakery." "Have you seen that balcony underneath the sidewalk?" "Hey—there are faces up there!" "You won't believe this. Look in back. It's like something in Harry Potter."

It's not over yet. Several projects, including the White Lily building and "the old J.C. Penney Building" and "the old KUB building"—we obviously need some better names—are going to keep amazing us for another year or two.

Then it's going to stop. Despite a lifetime of cynical jokes about downtown's empty old buildings, there are hardly any left. Some have been thoughtlessly torn down, even in the face of profitable alternatives. Some have burned down, through arson or accident, always with owner carelessness playing a supporting role. The rest, and we're just lucky we somehow saved several dozen, constitute what's changing the world's image of Knoxville. Will our preservationist architects get bored and move away, perhaps to a city that still has a lot of underused historic buildings? I'm not sure what's going to keep them here.

Out-of-state developers have shown some interest in building new buildings. But don't count on them to build anything remarkable in Knoxville, Tennessee. Why would they? They look up Knoxville on Wikipedia, think, we'll build something simple and cheap near that big university, make some bucks, and get it done in time to start that next project in Orlando.

They don't need a long-term reputation here. Just the money, thanks. One of the last big new buildings built downtown was designed by an out-of-state architect who didn't bother to show up for the grand opening.

Is there a way to reserve the city's favors, like infrastructure improvements or tax-increment financing packages, for only the extraordinary projects?

It's counterintuitive, maybe. But unless we find a way to make new buildings exciting as the old ones, we may have to be content with a city where the old buildings are the only stars of Knoxville's show. They're the exciting, intuitive, daring projects. And the new buildings are the boring filler between the old ones, cheap and temporarily profitable. Our old buildings seem new. Our new buildings remind us of the '70s.

I will be relieved to be proven wrong.