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Uniform Coolness and Other Safe Aspirations

by Manoj Kesavan

April 5,2006

It is everywhere.

In the downtown office towers, the suburban malls and supermarkets…the soft piped music is inescapable. These days it has so much become the norm in Charlotte that often it is hard for us to imagine other sounds, or silence. Interestingly, the term the Muzak corporation uses for a package that they offer is called “Audio Architecture.” Try to imagine: what is the architectural equivalent of muzak? Well, you need not ponder much. Just look around – you are living in it.

Charlotte architecture is frozen muzak. Almost all our buildings, whether the glittering towers in downtown or the sprawling residential subdivisions of South Charlotte, all share the same bland and hollow elegance of muzak. They are neither old nor new, classical nor modern. They are cleaned of all emotions, vibrancy, rough edges, personal touches. They offer constant mild stimulation without the messiness of an orgasm or the slump afterwards.

Real architecture, like music, is different. It demands more from you. It demands your attention, your active participation. In return it touches you, moves you, inspires and provokes you, and in the process leaves an indelible impression in your life.

Where is all this much-hyped development and growth of the city leading? With all the high-end housing coming up in downtown, with all parking being private or highly-priced, it is easy to imagine a sparkling clean city of stylish towers, all connected with “Overstreet Malls”, and with the same tune following us around where we work, shop or live – the ultimate sanitized air-brushed exclusive controllable fantasy.

And now that “Charlotte is in overdrive,” we are getting close to realizing that dream. It is almost time to take to the streets in celebration, wearing our business casuals and groomed smiles. Folks, we are getting darn close to yuppie nirvana.

Not all of the upcoming projects are muzak. Three of them should definitely be different: the Museum for the Bechtler Collection, the Downtown Mint and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, to be designed by Mario Botta, Machado & Silvetti and Pei Cobb & Freed respectively. What is common to all these firms? They are all acknowledged “masters” of their craft – an updated version of modernist architecture. All have a clear style and vocabulary that they have honed over the last 30+ years. Moreover, they all are “safe choices” – we almost know exactly what we are going to get.

But then there is something oxymoronic about the very phrase “modernist masters.” Modernism requires that the buildings be an embodiment of the zeitgeist; requires the designers be always on the forefront, moving with the times. Whereas mastery is a more traditional concept, where the artist is in full control of a fixed realm (Botta for example, who has a “signature style”). So you can’t really be both at the same time. Whoever keeps doing the same quickly becomes yesterday’s news – which is what these firms unfortunately are.

Of course, it is riskier to hire some “hot new guy.” However, if the intention is to be considered “cool” and culturally advanced (not to question how cool those intentions really are!), that is a risk one has to take. One can’t be on the “cutting edge” and be safe at the same time. Very rarely does any city get the opportunity to commission world-renowned architects to do three special projects, all within a few city blocks. It was our chance to go for the big one. But I am afraid we busted it by playing it safe.

My intention isn’t to disparage my colleagues who design the buildings here – or for that matter, the creators of muzak. It takes a lot of talent, skill and effort to do either. However, I feel it is very important for Charlotte to strive for something higher. We need real art, not neutered imitations of it.

We need to take more creative risks – that is the only way we can create things that dare go beyond the easy elegance and becomes real and beautiful. After all, isn’t any real act of creation a leap into the unknown, where the only thing you can hold on to is your faith in yourself, and your understanding of your medium?

Timidity can never become a virtue – even for a banking town. Cowardice is never cool.

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