Making future history downtown

In Downtown Waco, we’re lucky to have a wealth of historic structures still in use. We celebrate structures such as the ALICO and the suspension bridge in our photos and even tattoos, and rightfully so. But consultant and man-about-downtown Chris McGowan asks a great question here …  are we building things today that will be celebrated in the same way in 100 years? Here are Chris’s thoughts …

“You can learn from the past but you can’t continue to be in the past, History is not a substitute for imagination” – Frank Ghery

Like most cities, in my community, Waco, TX, there are beloved iconic structures that define our place. But it’s been a long time. The built environment, probably more than any other thing is something we reflect on to remind us of where we came from and how things used to be… but what about where we’re going?

Someone said that architecture is important because it helps us remember. As much as it defines our past, design of the built environment should also shape our future.

There’s a dichotomy at play in the urban development world that doesn’t seem to be discussed very frequently. The balance between preservation and innovation. Preserving a structure that is historically or architecturally relevant is important, but many times we focus our energy on bringing back the past instead of building the next iconic structure or place. I recently asked a local historic preservationist and advocate, “When was the last time our community built a structure that will be celebrated into the future?” Long story short, he couldn’t answer.

I have sort of a strange, conflicted relationship with the idea of historic preservation for a couple of reasons. First, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s important. Second, just because it’s important doesn’t mean it must be old. In my circles, the perceived value of a building appears to increase significantly if it was built prior to sometime in around the mid 1940’s. Understanding that history is an ever-evolving continuum and working to contribute to the storyline is, in my mind, equally important to the value of preservation.

We treasure important things from the past but we refuse to build them today and I don’t understand that. I guess you could argue that the reason we rarely build important things anymore is that the values of utility and impermanence have invaded the zeitgeist. Today we live in a culture of instant and disposable everything. Since we don’t build many important things today, we are naturally inclined to hang on to those few remaining, relevant structures.

Starchitect Frank Ghery spoke to this when he famously said, “98% of what gets built today is shit.”  How do we reconcile this contemporary ethos and at the same time aspire to build great places? Easy, while architecture defines a place, it doesn’t create it. I’ve said it countless times and I’ll say it again. People make place.

In my mind, this is one of the most important values of the development business and historic preservation, particularly in urban areas. The way we designed and built places in the past, we oriented them toward people. Small blocks, multimodal pathways, public plazas…the common element was understanding how the space is used, integrating that understanding by designing an active space. Today the common element is exactly the opposite as we orient our design thesis toward getting people in and out of a space quicker and easier.

Sure, urban areas are scaled to lend themselves to historic renovation, but there are also abundant opportunities to build new great spaces in downtowns across the country. Instead we tend to take those spaces and put up something disposable. We treasure 100-year-old buildings and say, “They don’t make them like that anymore” but then allow structures to be designed with a practical life of 25 years.  

Is there a better way? Most definitely… build something important… Build something for people.

Comments ( 1 )
  • Doug Cofer says:

    Chris – interesting perspective and thoughts. Thanks for contributing them. i’d like your thoughts on the role cost to build plays in the lack of structures built today that will be iconic in the future. in other words, i perceive that structures today are designed and built with total cost to build squarely in the forefront. to me, this naturally leads to a lack of iconic new structures. do you agree/disagree?

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