take my ball and go home
11 November 2013
I was reminded last week through a local newspaper article about a sense of absolutes (i.e. my way or the highway) when it comes to new development projects in architecture. For someone who believes in absolutes, I try to find balance when it comes to my position on most issues.
This particular article referenced a developer interested in building a sizable neighborhood development in Pittsburgh. However, a portion of a notable building designated as historic (a recent eleventh hour move to save the building) would be required to be demolished or partially demolished in order for this large neighborhood development to occur. My position with this particular story has been at arm’s length so I’m not an expert at the details besides what I’ve read in the newspaper. However after years of pressure caused Pittsburgh officials to cave in and permit demolition of the Mellon Arena (née Civic Arena), I am a bit cautious of supporting the removal of yet another Pittsburgh landmark.
For the sake of conversation, I invite us to consider the issue of developers, business and/or property owners using their improvements as a “dangling carrot” before approval agencies and decision makers. I find a real need to be careful and discerning with these situations. As a member of my local of historic and architectural review board, we are often faced with the challenge of making recommendations for applicants where they feel they are making an improvement (or at least wish to convince us of that) which is enough in and of itself. However, in many cases the proposed development or renovation does not meet with the design guidelines. In some cases what is presented is not a good improvement and could set a poor tone for future improvements. Often review boards are given an ultimatum from the applicant to either accept it in its entirety or they will forgo it completely. I find this tactic to be a bit manipulative putting those making the decision to accept it or reject it as the scapegoat when proposals are denied and progress foregone. Or in other words, there is an inherent dilemma, accept the proposed development as is, even though it does not meet the local standards or keep the poor conditions that presently exist.
Perhaps it is unfair to generalize these conditions. Moreover, I’m trying not to state an opinion of the situation in Pittsburgh. I am simply inviting a conversation and merely asking a question. Why must it be either or? Why can’t we find a middle ground where everybody wins?
Not every existing building should be retained, some will not be missed. However, those in authority to make the decision are the keepers of history. Once a building is gone it is gone. Sure, we can rebuild it to match the original building down to the minutest of details, but it is still not the original building. I am in favor of development and progress. I am in favor of economic growth and certainly as an architect, I want to see projects go forward. However, I find it very frustrating when business owners, developers and at times architects who are endeavoring to make improvements can’t find ways to meet in the middle or can’t appreciate the quality or contributions of a structure that speaks of a region’s history (even if it’s not the most appealing).
Just because it is old does not mean it should be kept. However, just because it is “in the way” does not mean it should be removed.
As architects we are generally skilled at finding solutions that address a plethora of constraints. Solutions are found within restrictions and existing conditions. We strive for the best solution that respects all of the criteria, not find the best solution as if there were no criteria.
Remember the greenest thing we can do is to reuse our existing properties. Some might argue we should never build another new building…ever. Now that’s an absolute.