secret_history (2006-03)

Modern Architecture

Recent developments concerning a couple of Knoxville’s modernist landmarks

by Jack Neely

The 12-story Crystal Building at Market Street and Clinch is now the local headquarters of BankEast, and it’s getting a makeover. For the last few weeks workers have been removing the building’s old rectangular steel-and-glass exterior framing, installing a sheer curtain with rounded edges. Working from the bottom, they are, at this writing, about four floors from the top. By the time you read this, it may be complete.

You may remember it as the Valley Fidelity Bank Building. You may even remember when promoters declared it would “change the skyline of downtown Knoxville.” In 1965, it was fairly astonishing.

It wasn’t because it was so tall; there was a taller, older building on the same block. But about 41 years ago, it was the only large glass-and-steel modernist building in Knoxville. It was, in fact, hailed as the most modern bank and office building in the South.

Oblong vertical mirrored windows, with aluminum frames that stick out enough to pass for ledges. A tall, sharp, rectangle, set apart from the street in its own space. Stand in Krutch Park and squint your eyes, and it looked like a smaller version of the Lever House, which had been revolutionary in New York in the ‘50s.

The old locally owned bank was proud of the place. For years, Valley Fidelity used pictures of the building, sometimes extravagantly in full-page newspaper ads, declaring the building itself reflected the bank’s “progressive attitude.” It went without saying that a progressive attitude wasn’t an everyday commodity in 1965 Knoxville.

The common flaw of modernism, of course, is that the most striking perspectives of a given modernist building, the ones the architects use to sell the place, are rarely the ones we actually see on a regular basis. They’re built to be seen by angels, from somewhere up in the air. The tall part of it stands on the first floor, which forms a sort of platform. Because the upper floors sit back from the facade, you might hardly even notice them in a stroll down Market.

Over the years, we stopped talking about it much. First Tennessee bought Valley Fidelity in 1991, and soon consolidated its downtown presence in another, newer, modernist building, Plaza Tower. The pioneering building back on Market became known, for the first time, as the Crystal Building.

It had the ring of a euphemism. For years, to be honest, despite the hubbub in the ‘60s, I never paid much attention to the building, even when I had an account there, years later; it was just one of those big glass buildings. It never occurred to me that it was the first. But thanks to some friends of mine who are architects, and my own curiosity about the appeal of modern architecture, which was once mysterious to me, I had come to admire it.

I’ve always wondered whether architectural modernism will ever develop a patina, a character, a sense of being a valuable and beloved relic from another era that even those who haven’t been through the full five years of architecture school might recognize and appreciate. I have wondered whether that one might.

But workers are redoing it, one floor at a time, and nobody’s picketing or writing angry letters to the paper. I haven’t heard any bitter words in the pub. Banks die, and even the bold, gleaming new symbols of progressivism do get dingy with the years. Maybe it did once change Knoxville’s skyline, but today, from a distance, the old Valley Fidelity Bank Building is hard to pick out.

Anyway, they’re changing the whole exterior of Knoxville’s first tall modernist building, making it a sheer surface, with curved airstream corners. Its wind-tunnel design does look sleeker. Now it’s a little more in the postmodernish 1980s style of Riverview Tower, a few blocks away, and about 100 buildings in Atlanta.

It doesn’t look bad. Most folks think it looks better. I’m told that design is much more energy efficient. But you wonder why they’ve never felt obliged to do anything similar with the Lever House. There may not be pickets, but if you hear a faint whisper on Market Street this week, it may be a modernist with a sense of history, heaving a sigh.

I wonder how many issues of last month’s Atlantic monthly are soaked with coffee spewed from the mouths of astonished Knoxvillians.

In it is a feature article about Nursultan Nazarbayev, the pseudo-democratic dictator of Kazakhstan, with emphasis on his own personal new city of Astana, which in 1999 became that emerging Eurasian nation’s new capital. Built almost from scratch, the city already hosts 600,000 citizens.

At the center of the city, serving as its proud symbol, is a prominent monument which Nazarbayev himself reportedly had a hand in designing. The monument is called the Baiterek, which the article implies means “tree of life.” There’s a large color photograph of it on the Atlantic article’s opening spread.

It looks almost exactly like the Sunsphere. It’s a globe made up of rows of glass panes of the same hue of gold as the Sunsphere, at the top of a tall stalk of steel.

The only obvious difference is that the Baiterek is enveloped with white fluting—as if, not content to be just another Sunsphere, it aspired to be a golden pod emerging from an abstract sheaf of wheat. Allegedly, the sphere itself represents not the sun, but the golden egg of the mythical roc bird.

It’s accessible by elevator, and offers views of the city all around. The Baiterek is about 80 feet taller than our Sunsphere. But the globe on top is very nearly the same size, 72 feet in diameter; the Sunsphere is just two feet wider.

At night, they say, the Baiterek is “lit up by pulsating mauve and turquoise lights.” Something we’ve never tried.

I don’t think the Atlantic ever ran a big color photo of the Sunsphere. Then again, the Baiterek has never been demolished on The Simpsons . Lest we gnash our teeth, Knoxville style, that our most famous architectural monument is unappreciated because it was before its time, and because it’s in Knoxville, the Atlantic doesn’t give the Baiterek much better press than the Sunsphere got: they refer to it as an example of “Architecture for Dictators 101.”  From the British press I learned that locals make fun of it, calling it “the lollipop” and “the world’s biggest penis extension.”

We’ve heard all that before. We should send them a card.