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On the Verge of Importance

by Ken Lambla

August 6,2007

We all know that Charlotte is on the verge of something big; the question that follows is whether we are on the verge of something important? After 24 years of teaching at UNC Charlotte and being involved in architectural and urban practices, I am convinced that we are just about ready to make a shift in substance. We are constantly fed data about population growth, urbanization, infrastructure, economic development and how many different kinds of people will become our neighbors. But what I believe is the most important shift is how complex Charlotte has become and what that complexity brings in terms of sophistication, choice, and intellectual and creative leadership. Charlotte now offers – no, it demands – more of itself and the cultural landscape it has created.

So, what could be so important?

For many years my colleagues and I at UNC Charlotte have defined architecture as a form of community development. This position implies that architects are not just involved in the building of objects but that buildings are critical elements to communities, public space, and infrastructure, and they comprise up to 45% of all energy consumed, house cultural enterprises, and compose our material legacy. Soon, with the creation of a new “College of Arts & Architecture,” we will expand our advocacy that the arts & architecture are central to the community’s creative leadership, cultural diversity, sustainable landscapes, intellectual range, and new media and communication strategies. We have an ambitious agenda.

Whether we all accept this challenge at this moment of intense regional growth will be defined by our willingness to take risk and embrace diverse cultural directions. “Importance” is not projected through the convenient dichotomies of conservative-progressive, new-old, popular-elite, or cheap-expensive. The arts & architecture are the common language of a community and enliven the senses of all citizens.

I would assert (and teach) that what is important in the practice of architecture is relatively simple and expressed in two questions: Does a building communicate the owner, user, community’s aspirations and expectations for the future? And does it perform well in environmental, social and cultural contexts? All buildings, including the “developer-driven” ones determined by economic models, are tested by their communicative and instrumental qualities. Thus, in this era of a “knowledge-based economy” what is important is whether a given project – building, urban design, process – has added knowledge to our community and profession. By way of example, if our current fascination with “green building” is to become more than a marketing slogan it will need to both communicate and educate our intent to conserve fossil fuels but also make an instrumental difference for the owners. We expect our doctors to add new knowledge to the care they give us and we should expect the same of our cultural efforts.

Practices in the arts have an equally compelling influence and contribution on how important a community is to both residents and other communities. Cities across America are scrambling to develop their cultural resources; these are places like Baton Rouge (Louisiana), Davenport (Iowa), Omaha (Nebraska), and Kansas City (Kansas) in addition to major urban areas. These cities understand the role of a complex artistic environment in the community’s dialogue, international understanding, and future leadership. The arts are no longer practiced in isolated studios and warehouses; collaborations are a common attribute of artists, arts education is a foundation for cultural and visual literacy, and artists commonly unveil a community’s soul through exhibitions and performances. When I arrived in Charlotte, outside of the traditional Mint Museum, Spirit Square was the only show in town; but the people who came to Spirit Square went on to create NoDa, McColl Center for Visual Art, The Light Factory, NC Dance Theater and many other current venues. The landscape is much more complex and we now understand what might be important as opposed to what we might just do.

Whether we will accept the complexity and the many opportunities we currently have to exhibit more difficult work, perform more experimental productions, test our limits, add to our knowledge, build responsibly and creatively, and communicate outside of our comfortable selves will be the litmus test. It should be fun!

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