The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Saturday, October 02, 2004

ARCHITECTURAL BLUES: Great public architecture is not something most people automatically associate with our happy little burg; public buildings in this neck of the woods tend towards squat Bauhausian glass and concrete boxes endowed by their Creator with a studied indifference to the parade of humanity passing through the doors everyday. This style works better with skyscrapers, I think, and most of these buildings look like they had aspirations of skyscraperhood once upon a time, but had to settle for what they could get once the kids came along while they still had their college loans to pay off. The only way the builders could afford a skyscraper here is if the taxpayers didn’t pay the local cops and civil servants, didn’t pay to fill in the potholes or repair the roads, and dug themselves out of the snow for the next 189 years. In short, skyscraping is more or less out of the question and most of our local public buildings must content themselves with barely groundscraping.

There are a couple of exceptions to this architectural rule. Our burg boasts of a post office designed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, no less, in the 1930’s in between bouts of fighting his Great Depression without the benefit of Prozac, and a fairly new city hall, which is about ten years old and nice looking, I think, and for the several million dollars it cost the taxpayers in budget overruns it damn well ought to look nice. The city hall rests entirely on earth trucked in for that purpose, the engineers discovering halfway through construction that the ground the building rested on would turn into a ocean of mud if a passerby so much as spit in the building’s direction. As the taxpayers wouldn’t pay good money to watch city hall sink slowly into the earth, construction halted while they fixed the problem. This money tossing contest did not endear the builders or the municipal administration to the voters, who actually wouldn’t mind watching city hall sink into the mud if they didn’t have to pay for a new one.

The other exception is the old library building, designed by Richard Morris Hunt in the 1870’s and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which impresses people who don’t know who Richard Morris Hunt was or even care. The old library is immediately recognizable as it is the only Norwegian chalet on Main Street; in fact, I’m pretty sure it is the only Norwegian chalet anywhere in town. As a rule, folks around here are not big on Norwegian chalets, for reasons I am not sure I fathom at the moment. In any case, the old library is now a concert hall and cultural center now, the library itself having outgrown the place by the mid 1970’s when it moved to its current location.

The current library building is not an architectural gem, not by any stretch of an imagination not permanently addled by prolonged drug abuse; it doesn’t even qualify as architectural costume jewelry. It is an ugly red brick box with a cheesy façade that once housed a department store that has long since gone out of business, the owners having retired to Florida or Arizona to avidly count and recount their mountainous stash of nickels and dimes, leaving not a rack of discounted kids’ clothes behind. It is to this egregious mold pit that I trudge each and every day of the week in order to earn my daily bread. I have often thought that there must be some cosmic irony at work here, some schadenfreudenous snickering by the three fat ladies of Fate as they point at me and snicker at how I find myself working my life away in a place I used to steal stuff out of when I was a kid.

But all is not lost, not at all. It ain’t over till it’s over or until the fat lady sings, whichever comes first. For the past few months the minions of a semi-world famous architect have wandered the highways and byways of our happy little burg, digital cameras in hand, looking over the local architecture, such as it is, and laying their plans. They are doing this because, if all goes according to plan and the plans do not gang agley, there will be a brand spanking new library building standing on the site of the building I am in now. At least this is the story the powers that be are telling everyone in town and who knows, it may actually be true.

Now I am not one to quibble about architecture. For me the purpose of any building is to keep the rain off my head while I’m trying to work and to keep me warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Beyond this I have no real requirements. If a building manages to do these things and not cause lung diseases in the process then I will rally round any design the minions come up with. A stylist I am not. But other people are, unfortunately, and the public’s hackles rose sharply when they saw the newest designs for the library.

The minions, in public meetings populated mainly by local architects annoyed that they didn’t get the job, said that they took inspiration from the long and proud industrial history of our town, which explains all the red brick in the pictures. It was all well and good for these people to take inspiration from our happy little burg’s industrial history; in fact, they should have taken inspiration from it; it’s just that the mills they are celebrating weren’t on Main Street and putting a building that looks like a cross between a county jail and a blacking factory out of Dickens was probably not the best idea these guys have had in a year of Sundays and the public said so in no uncertain terms.

So the somewhat chastened minions returned to the metaphorical drawing board; the drawing boards are computers these days, hence the metaphorical; and a few days ago publicly presented their newest design idea. The red brick jail is now gone, replaced by a building with a high pointed roof and small round windows and two large conical structures on one side. This design has gotten a bit more approval than the jail/factory concept, although one astute observer, possibly jaded by the whole process, told me that she thought it looked a lot like a barn with two attached silos, as if the building were the home of a prosperous Amish farmer and his ever growing family and not a public library. There's no pleasing some people, I guess. She did say that this design was a marked improvement over the first one, saying it in the same tone of voice a divorced woman uses when she says that her ex-husband's third wife shows a marked improvement over his second.

And so the design wars continue. All of this is fairly interesting, I’m sure, but what concerns me is where we, we being the library staff plus the books, computers, magazines, and all the other bric-a-brac that makes the modern public library work, are supposed to go and do what we do for a living in the year between the demolition of this egregious mold pit and the opening of our brand new, and, God willing, mold free new building. Several ideas have come up, including moving into the old high school building, where I spent my adolescent years in the primeval age when disco ruled the earth. The library would operate out of the old gym, the scene of many of my worst adolescent moments. Well, so long as I don’t have to do that rope climb again maybe it’ll be all right. I wasn’t able to do it when gas cost less than a dollar a gallon and I really doubt that I could do it now. We will see.



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