Before he went full time prophesying a peak oil apocalypse, author and critic Jim Kunstler made some pretty shrewd observations about the pitiful state of America’s built environment. One such observation applies pretty well to the current debate about the City County Building green space and putting a jail on or under part of it. Kunstler’s issue is with the term “green space,” which he finds a meaningless abstraction, equally applicable to either a farm or a town square.
“If we want to talk about preserving rural land or agricultural land then let’s use the appropriate terminology: farms, forests, wetlands. If we’re talking about the human habitat, let’s adopt the vocabulary of urban design: a park, a square, a plaza...an Italian garden, a baseball field, a bike trail,” writes Kunstler in Orion Magazine. While guilty of the same obfuscation he opposes, applying the squishy term “wetland” to what were previously known as swamps, marshes and bogs, his point still holds: “If you ask for an abstraction (green space) it will be delivered as an abstraction (grassy berm).”
The City County Building’s lawn is certainly green, and it takes up an appreciable amount of space, but what purpose does it serve, exactly? I had to chuckle at the language in the Public Building Authority’s proposed restrictions for the property: “Temporary installation of tents, tables, chairs, etc. may be allowed on the Main Avenue lawn and on the Hill Avenue green space.” In almost 20 years in Knoxville, I don’t recall ever seeing tents pitched or tables placed on that patch of grass. In fact, I have a hard time remembering it being put to any use at all. Its sole purpose, far as I can tell, is to serve as what Kuntsler derides as “nature band-aids,” a play on the old Frank Lloyd Wright quote: “A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”
Wright’s words bring me to the other unfortunate proposal on the part of the PBA. If a building is built on the lawn, “the structure must be designed and constructed in a manner that is visually compatible with the design of the CCB.” Now, I’ve stood up for some of downtown’s best examples of modernism, but I’m about to argue against the City County Building’s modernist merits. The structure, particularly the odd appendage that houses the main assembly room, is a pretty solid example of Brutalist style. And I do mean solid, since the style takes its name from the French term beton brut, meaning raw concrete. The fact that the buildings look brooding and bunker-like is merely a coincidence.
The hand-wringing over the CC building’s lawn misses one major point. The building, and its lawn, is a poor piece of urban design. Would there, I wonder, have been as much uproar about the closing of the parking garage if the place were a bit more approachable by foot? It’s a fortress, complete with drawbridge. And I’ve always found it interesting that the public assembly rooms rest at the end of the drawbridge, at arm’s length from the actual offices of government. Have you ever seen an unfortunate member of the public trying to find it for the first time? Even inside the anteroom, the auditorium entrance is tucked almost out of sight.
Rather than bury the jail expansion in the hillside, under some sort of green roof (the ultimate nature band-aid), if anything needs to be hidden, it’s the City County Building. Build the new structure up and out, and include new assembly rooms while you’re at it. Shouldn’t a city have a public meeting space it can take pride in—or at least find? Lose the lawn, but allow the new building to frame and define the current plaza, making it a place Knoxvillians can use. Or, better yet, one they’d want to.