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New Buildings, Old Futures 

Charlotte architecture needs a bold new stance

One of the joys about leaving Charlotte to spend time in "old" Europe is seeing bright, contemporary architecture. That's probably not at the top of most tourists' lists; historic monuments, castles and palaces are more popular attractions. The gracious sweep of Georgian terraces in Jane Austen's Bath, the great Renaissance buildings in Florence, Gothic cathedrals in cities across the continent from Canterbury to Cologne, or the ivy-covered stone courtyards of Oxford and Cambridge colleges draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

And so they should. These are great works of architecture, buildings whose timeless aesthetics have been married to superb craftsmanship and beautiful materials. The splendor of these structures has reached across centuries to touch our hearts and imaginations.

But contemporary buildings are adding new layers to the stories of European cities and communities in ways so different from the way Charlotte builds its future. My family home of Plymouth, for example, is a provincial city of a quarter-million people, famous chiefly as a raucous naval port rather than a haven of culture. But here, brilliant new theater buildings -- arranged in bold abstract shapes and covered in woven bronze wire as a rain screen to deflect the corrosive salt atmosphere -- have won major awards and stimulated a mini-renaissance of the arts in the minds of the public.

In the gritty northern city of Newcastle (where I lived for many years as a young architect, and home to the best beer in the world) the urban gorge of the River Tyne has been dominated for centuries by the "new" castle built in the 1100s, and more recently by amazing bridges carrying railways and roads across the steep topography. (You can see this cityscape immortalized in miniature in the blue star in the center of the beer bottle label.)

Recent years have added a new high-tech pedestrian bridge that opens for boat traffic in a graceful marvel of refined engineering -- literally poetry in motion -- and the steep banks on the south side of the river, in the twin city of Gateshead, are now home to a wonderful new art gallery and concert hall, the latter poised like a billowing metal cumulus cloud on its high bluff, reflecting the sky and the cityscape in its shiny cladding.

Things are so different in Charlotte. Our new buildings are so timid, hiding their newness as if it's a dirty little secret. The preferred aesthetic choices here make buildings look old by plastering the faades with fake historical details and motifs. You've only to look at the new buildings rising on the campuses of CPCC and UNC Charlotte, or almost any new commercial development of note, and you'll recognize this faintly desperate desire to hide the newness of structures under a veneer of historicist pastiche.

Four major potential developments located in and around downtown illustrated recently in The Charlotte Observer demonstrate this cultural conundrum very well: the rehash of the old convention center site; the midtown mall redevelopment; the urban makeover of Elizabeth Avenue between CPCC and Presbyterian Hospital; and most dismally of all, the new baseball stadium for the Charlotte Knights.

We are a rich, powerful city in the richest, most powerful country on Earth. The reach of our hometown banks is global. We have a lot to be proud of -- energy, ambition, and enterprise. Why then are our new buildings so feeble, so out of date, so behind the times? Why do I have to tell my students to look elsewhere for examples of good contemporary architecture?

The conundrum is compounded by the fact that in terms of urban design -- the arrangement of buildings around public spaces -- these projects are quite good, especially on the old midtown mall site and the ambitious redevelopment of Elizabeth Avenue. But the architectural design of the buildings in almost every instance is depressingly retrograde, devoid of ingenuity and rehashing yesterday's aesthetics in a flimsy, cartoon caricature of history. It's parody without humor, a grim re-creation of historic memories we so eagerly erased with the wrecking ball.

In the light of the wonderful new sports venues we've seen recently at the Olympics, the design of the new baseball stadium is particularly disappointing. In Greece, technology and materials have been stretched to new limits in elegant metaphors for the sinews, bones and muscles of the finely honed athletes competing within. Our preference, by contrast, is to recreate a meager image of the 1920s, a ready-made faded sepia photograph of tomorrow, a venue where misremembered mythology can do battle with fuzzy romanticism. And reality strikes out.

We're awash in a wave of empty nostalgia, a denial of the present and a betrayal of the future. Why is American taste at home so timid while the nation's warriors aggressively stride the globe with high-tech weapons of mass destruction? Why must we funnel our modernity into machines of war instead of buildings?

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