Thursday, May 24, 2012

Whither crumbling Modernist plazas?

Minneapolis has its own version of Charlotte's Marshall Park, a vintage mid-century plaza of aging concrete that few love or visit. In Minneapolis it's Peavey Plaza. "Minneapolis Tussles Over a Faded Plaza," is the New York Times' article.

It's another example of the dilemma over how much unloved, unpopular mid-century Modernism should be preserved. Ardent historic preservationists point out that 50 years ago people were tearing down Victorian houses because they were so "ugly," only to wait a decade until people began to love them. Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Historic Landmarks Commission has posted a study of the city's post-World War II  buildings to recommend which were worth National Register designation. Note, Marshall Park is not on the list.

However, the Times article recounts, in 1999 the American Society of Landscape Architects recognized Peavey Plaza as one of the nation’s most significant examples of landscape architecture, along with Central Park in Manhattan and the Biltmore estate in North Carolina. (That, alone, may offer more insight into what's wrong with landscape architecture in America today than any other single piece of evidence.)

Built in the early 1970s (Peavey Plaza dates to 1975) after urban renewal razed a historically black neighborhood, Marshall Park is frequented most often by Canada geese. It had a moment of national glory as a stand-in for Farragut North in the Showtime series "Homeland," filmed in Charlotte.

I don't think every park adds value, especially in a city downtown with so many blank spaces from parking lots, empty lots, corporate plazas and such.

At the same time, I don't think beauty alone, or popular opinion alone, should determine whether a building or other place should be preserved, or torn down and replaced. Even though I find almost all  Modernist architecture bleak, depressing and anti-human, I still believe examples should be saved. If for no other reason, they may serve to remind us of the awful ideas some so-called designers can come up with.

4 comments:

Dustin, New York City said...

Two questions for clarification. What, alone, "may offer more insight into what's wrong with landscape architecture in America today than any other single piece of evidence?" The inclusion of Peavey Plaza on ASLA's list? The inclusion of Central Park or the Biltmore Estate?

Also, I'm unfamiliar with "Homeland" on Showtime. Farragut North? As in Farragut Square in Washington, D.C.? I worked half a block from Farragut Square for several years -- Farragut North was my Metro station when I rode the subway to work before I switched to walking and biking -- and I can't see how any amount of screen magic can make Marshall Park look anything like Farragut Square. Not that Farragut Square is that great; it's just that Marshall Park is that awful.

While I have only briefly visited Peavey Plaza, my experience is that Marshall Park doesn't compare. First of all, Peavey Plaza is a degree better -- several degrees, in fact -- in design. (I'm not one who finds all Modernist or Brutalist architecture abhorrent.) It sits right on the Nicollet Mall, which means that it's right in the middle of a vibrant area of shops, restaurants, and offices, with residential areas not too distant. Because of that, it has something you noted Marshall Park sorely lacks: people. Not tons. But Peavey Plaza gets used, and it provides a respite from a bustling city around it. Marshall Park isn't even worth going to -- not even for the view of the skyline, which is more impressive from other vantage points anyway.

Perhaps Peavey Plaza's design, or even its use as a plaza or similar open space, is not the best use of land fronting something such as the Nicollet Mall. But there's no comparison to Marshall Park. If I were told I could save only one, I wouldn't hesitate to pick Peavey Plaza. Simply put, if there were a contest for the worst urban park in the Western world, Marshall Park would have a real shot of winning.

Panthers12 said...

"Minneapolis has its own version of Charlotte's Marshall Park, a vintage mid-century plaza of aging concrete that few love or visit."

Huh? I've had the opportunity to visit downtown MPLS for work and there was (and continues to be) performances and plenty of people at Peavey Plaza on a daily basis. It's not a 24-7 plaza area, but to state that it's not loved or visited is a misguided comment.

Rodney said...

Mary, I would point out that in 1999, the American Society of Landscape Architects took nominations from throughout the nation to honor historic works of landscape architecture as part of their centennial year celebration. The 3 mentioned were just 3 of many spanning a century of work. Why they "offer more insight into what is wrong with landscape architecture in America today" escapes me. Landscape architecture is actually quite alive and well, whether as seen in the oft referenced High Line (yes, it is a work of landscape architecture by James Corner), the redesign of the Washington Monument grounds (driven by security issues), or Citygarden in St. Louis. If your perception is that something is wrong, please be specific so we can address that. I respect and value your viewpoint, and would like to provide you with sufficient information to perhaps change your mind.

Mary Newsom said...

Rodney,
Well, I think I was a bit over the line on snark with that remark. I've just seen way too many park designs in recent years that are bleak, minimalist and boring, which seem to assume that all you have to do is call something a "park" and plant a few trees and some ivy, and of course people will use it and love it. Which any good landscape architect or urban designer will know is not the case. I think I am just fed up with minimalist design (I mean, if decoration is such a sin why do architects wear those fancy eyeglasses?) and annoyed by too much concrete. You realize I am working in the old section (the Odell part) of the UNC Charlotte campus now, which may be playing a role in that annoyance.

And to clarify, for Panthers12 and others who might have misunderstood my phrasing, the part about "that few love or visit" applies to Charlotte's Marshall Park. Peavey seems to have more visitors than Marshall Park. It would be hard to have fewer ...

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