commentary (2005-31)

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Urbanism Isn’t Skin Deep

It takes some actual urbanity to make it genuine

by Matt Edens

I sold Bearden somewhat short in my last piece on the piecemeal realization of its “village” plan. There are, as was pointed out to me, pedestrians in the area, particularly on Bearden’s northeastern edge where UT’s graduate student and some other subsidized housing is located.

The elderly, the poor, the foreign students who don’t have cars, they walk because they have little choice in the matter. But the fact that people do trudge through the traffic to buy groceries and such doesn’t automatically make Bearden pedestrian-friendly. It does, however, make the greenway improvements more than mere window dressing (and, lest I be accused of picking on only the more upscale parts of town, much of Magnolia, Broadway and Chapman Highway are little better as far as walkability goes).

Nor is Bearden the only place where the crisp new brick is the main thing that gets remarked upon about redevelopment. Just the other day, at the groundbreaking for the new Hampton Inn at the corner of Main and Henley, comments seemed to center on the nice red brick the building will be clad in, so as to better blend into its surroundings. But when it comes to the long-gestating building’s redesign, it was form and function that were worth the wait, not the fancy new façade. With regard to urban design, what matters most is how a building addresses and defines the street space (or “street room” as it’s often referred to), not the color and composition of the building’s skin. As long as a building obeys a few simple rules, such as a minimum front setback, placing parking to the rear and avoiding blank walls, it could be clad in tinfoil a la Frank Gehry and theoretically still fit into downtown’s urban fabric (Gehry, by the way, has a bit of a problem with that blank wall bit).

In fact, while this may be flirting with blasphemy among some of my more bellicose preservationist friends, some of my favorite buildings downtown are both pretty fair examples of urbanism and Modernism (a design movement that, at over 50 years old, is as much historic as it is modern). I’ve always been rather fond of the much-maligned old state Supreme Court building, whose façade is a subtle symphony of old-fashion classical symmetry with clean-lined modernism (just as the Post Office around the corner is an Art Deco riff on the classical columned courthouse).

Over on Market, both the Crystal Building, new home to Bank East, and the Home Federal Building do a fine job of integrating Mies van der Rohe-inspired modernism with downtown’s traditional street grid. They also have a certain retro chic about them, looking like something out of an old Doris Day/Rock Hudson romantic comedy. I’m sorry to hear that Home Federal plans on remodeling, since I can easily picture the building someday filled with swinging lofts whose modernist lines are the perfect backdrop for a couple of Barcelona chairs and a glass cocktail table.

But unfortunately for form and function, the skin of a building is what we see. So it tends to get all the attention. Even attempts to remake the suburban environment into something more urban fall into the trap. Seaside, Fla. is more famous for its picturesque clapboard cottages than it is for its far more revolutionary return to the traditional, grid-platted development pattern.

Knoxville is no different when it comes to architectural kitsch. It was good to hear that there was an S.R.O. crowd at a prospective buyers meeting last week for Northshore Town Center, the “New–Urbanist” development currently under construction way out in West Knoxville. Nice to see that there is so much interest in making at least a part of West Knoxville a little more like downtown. Or perhaps I should say a lot more. Because while the development’s pedestrian-oriented live/work/play concept is pretty revolutionary for these parts, there is something a little silly about some of the artist’s renderings on the project website. 

Not only will there be vintage Victorian streetscapes (maybe that’s where the Kimball’s folks are secretly planning to put the Hope clock?) and faux factories to give the loft apartments more of a lived-in look, one building even sports a smokestack.

Perhaps the city should truck some of that Coster Shop rubble out there, too, for authenticity’s sake?

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