Downtown Cincinnati sits between two architectural developments that seem completely at odds: the Cincinnati Art Museum's expansion, which the Rotterdam-based firm Neutelings Riedijk Architects will develop and design (the announcement was made last week), and the foundering, flip-flopping area known as The Banks.
For some months, the disparity between The Banks and the art museum's architectural development had befuddled me. How can we be both architecturally intelligent and forward thinking while at the same time stab ourselves in the foot over and over again?
Today, with certain business leaders writing letters against The Banks development, I want to make a clear point that the Urban Design Review Committee (UDRC) has not yet been invited to see the plans.
Business leaders but not urban planners and architects? There's a problem with this picture.
The UDRC had decided to meet only as a group, which means that the politicians in charge of The Banks project can't hide from the Sunshine Laws. So -- poof! -- goodbye to urban planning.
The important thing about architecture is that it surrounds you. Riding a bus through a strange city or town, looking at the buildings, will tell you a lot about where you are (though it won't stop you from pining for a lost love, as The Arctic Monkeys have said).
But to me, it's the interior space that makes great architecture. The exterior can make you "ooh" and "ah," but when you walk inside a great space something inside you changes. You look up to see what's around you. You become aware of your setting: the people, the colors, the textures, the craftsmanship, the art on the walls and even the shopping. Everything is better in a great building.
And yet there must be belief in this fact for it to occur. In his most recent book, The Architecture of Happiness, the London-based philosopher Alain de Botton makes this point: "Belief in the significance of architecture is premised on the notion that we are, for better and for worse, different people in different places, and on the conviction that it is architecture's task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be."
There it is: Who we might ideally be.
Cincinnati is Cincinnati. We all live here and stay here for different reasons. It's a better place than most of us will admit.
We grouse and complain and ignore how much fun we have. And because of that lack of confidence, we have stopped idealizing our city. "Who we might ideally be" is a faith as foreign to us as Greek mythology.
Suddenly it became clear to me: It's the leaders. Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, has been in Cincinnati for less than a year, and he's already managed to change the city's landscape. The Banks, run by Cincinnatians, has been in the works for a dozen years or so with nothing to show.
Perhaps The Banks needs someone unrelated to the city to step in and make something great happen there. As is, it's run by political officials -- people interested in making money and appeasing the masses. The architects in the city, the UDRC, should have far more input into Cincinnati's urban design.
As Botton says, "Beautiful architecture has none of the unambiguous advantages of a vaccine or a bowl of rice. Its construction will hence never be raised to a dominant political priority, for even if the whole of the man-made world could, through relentless effort and sacrifice, be modeled to rival Saint Mark's Square, even if we could spend the rest of our lives in the Villa Rotunda or the Glass House, we would still often be in a bad mood."
It's time to take politics out of architecture.
contact laura james: ljames(at)citybeat.com