Art Set in Concrete: the Desolate Urban Landscapes of High Culture

A stroll through many American urban landscapes confirms that music is as much a political phenomenon as a sonic one. A walker realizes this without ever hearing a note. While not as large as the giant stadiums that dominate many a city’s riverfront or harbor side, symphony halls and opera houses often occupy acres of honor near the temples of city government or the towers financial power—or both.  In San Francisco, the hulking, de-ornamented Beaux-Arts façade of War Memorial Opera House stands opposite the Roman splendor of the Civic Center’s Michelangeline dome, like a Parisian dandy and an Italian pope eyeing one another from the far ends of an empty dance floor. The intervening street (Van Ness Avenue) and plaza may provide space for human activity, but their lowliness only augments the entwined majesty of high culture and governmental power.

Elsewhere, from Seattle’s Benaroya Hall to the billion Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, giant projects get plunked in downtowns, long-ago places with real urban culture rather than the wastelands now exploited for cultural redevelopment. Perched above the former sleaze district in Seattle, Benaroya consumes an entire block in the shadow of the reservoir-tipped Washington Mutual Tower, still rising proudly in spite of the collapse of Wamu under sub-prime pressure. Notwithstanding public relations pronouncements about the thriving shops, cafes, and galleries in the “neighborhood,” the ten-year-old hall has not revivified after-hours urban life in the district. With its waterfalls and shady spots, the half-acre Garden of Remembrance on the downhill side of the block is a nice patch of urban space for daytime kids and wandering concert-goers, but it does not constitute an urban park. It, too, suffers from the sterility of prestige. After the concert ends the entire quarter is quickly emptied of life. Only the invisible service workers remain behind.

Moated by highways and secured with bunkered parking, these glamorous projects are really no more than the upscale malls for the consumption of high culture, allowing suburbanites to shuttle into culture events in the safety and comfort of their cars, then head back home with their shopping bags full of snatches of symphony, a brush with the boss, and a general feeling of having arrived at a certain station in life, even if commuting to work and to a night out are mostly about departures.  Bars and restaurants ensconced within the walls of these castles of high culture are essentially upscale food courts that provide the ersatz experience of city life.

Have a look at Dallas’s biggest-most expensive-in-the-world arts project floating in a gray sea of concrete and weep over the brutal exercise of power and wealth that is high culture when wielded by the big hands of Texas oil men . (Here’s the Dallas project.) But shed your bitterest tears for this apocalyptic vision of “urban” life and design, two malls—one cultural the other “traditional’—divided by an eight-lane freeway; parking lots and roads, deadly to cross by foot, close its borders, everywhere strips of sprawling mayhem.

Where the Arabs and Asians race to build the highest skyscraper, the Texans favor the horizontal for their open-range cultural ambitions. They flout the billion-dollar price tag and their usual-suspect, dream-team of architects—Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Rem Koolhaas—with the subtlety of a Longhorn bull mounting a comely heifer.

Who can be fooled by the Center’s PR descriptions of the area as finding a “home” in “the heart of the downtown Dallas Arts District.” In the current age, everything can be named, as in the individual parts of the Norman Foster-designed Winspear opera house. Their publicity machine tells us that the “Simmons Glass Façade” will provide a sweeping view of downtown Dallas and portions of Uptown,” as if one were in Manhattan not in a post-urban no-man’s land.

Yet the clichés of political correctitude have even encroached on atavistic Texas: of course the opera house “is designed to be the environmentally conscious, state-of-the-art standard against which future opera houses will be measured”—a prospect that will certainly let the big-haired ladies and their Stetson-topped men snooze more easily through Lohengrin after having driven in for the evening in their patriotic gas hogs, and flown in architects, materials, singers from all over the globe.

Similarly disingenuous is the claim that the green areas provided by Foster’s “Grand Portico will provide shade over three acres of the Performance Park creating new outdoor spaces for visitors and nearby residents to gather and relax.” Nearby residents? Forgive me, but I doubt any of the nearby bail bondsmen and prostitutes will be venturing across the ghastly perimeter of expressways to take in the useful things Mozart had to say about sex in or around Norman Foster’s red building. The lawns and tree-lined avenues of the pseudo-park-like campus of the Arts Center only augment the artificiality of the whole project. Dallas rolls out bright green turf as easily as a red carpet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to hear a performance of Così fan tutte next year in the Dallas Opera’s inaugural season in their new house.  But I can think of few worse things than making my way through the encircling blight to this Jerusalem of the Arts shining on the benighted concrete prairie.

Retrofitting for this new age of the Performing Arts Center can be even more expensive than cannibalizing the disused expanses of Dallas, as the one billion dollar renovation project now under way at Lincoln Center in New York makes clear. Lincoln Center was the pioneer project that all subsequent efforts somehow must measure themselves against. In turn, New Yorkers must keep pace with their competitors, and are doing so by tempering the austere modernism of the original Lincoln Center conception towards something more dynamic, to use the buzzwords of modern urban planning.

The groundbreaking ceremony at Lincoln Center took place fifty years ago last month. A low-income neighborhood had been razed to make way for the arts complex. After Leonard Bernstein had conducted the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” — apparently not the common men displaced by the wrecking ball—President Eisenhower flung open his well-worn Cold War score, and duly predicted that Lincoln Center would become a “mighty influence for peace and understanding throughout the world.”  Music, too, was an important weapon against the Evil Empire. But on the more local level, New York can at least claim to be one of the few remaining urban centers in the United States in which there are actually large numbers of people living near major cultural venues.

In principle, the initiative to convert some sixteen acres of parking lots, garage on-ramps, and kindred forms of automative chaos between Los Angeles’s art deco City Hall and the so-called Music Center (an would-be ensemble of four venues including the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Walt Disney Concert Hall) is a good thing. Give me a park over parking any time.

But bells of alarm and protest have been rung. Many have criticized the project for bringing a park to a place with relatively few residents, when South Central Los Angeles is in dire need of such spaces.

Also troubling to many is that fact that the project is funded and managed, with public oversight, by a private developer, the ominously-named Related Companies.  Much of the $50 million price tag for the park was demanded of the company as the price for permission to build the $3 billion dollar, Frank Gehry-designed Grand Avenue Project. Other monies were granted for the park from dubious state funds meant to subsidize low-income urban housing. The public-private partnership offers the city a free park, one packaged with the rubric “this is what we can afford.”  In a California of dissolving budgets and credit, the park’s backers boast that “the money is in the bank,” much of it soon to be spent on unsnarling the ramps and readjusting the terrain for underpasses. Rather than commit real public money to a real public project, Los Angeles is promised a park without having to pay for its construction themselves. The County Supervisors approved the design in April of this year.

A Grand Avenue Park Public Outreach Meeting of April 22, 2008, held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion which looks out over what will become the park, unveiled this design. This was what was “possible” said County Supervisor Gloria Molina, a major backer of the project. Also on show were “dreams” of future expansions and improvements which would include removing two more governmental buildings and adding a further ten acres to the space.

William Witte, President of Related Companies, assured those in attendance that a “healthy dose of self-interest” would ensure that his sought company the best possible result for the park.  They would get absolutely no money out of its management, but a nice park would make their Grand Avenue project more attractive.

Parks are signs of a city’s wealth and standing, and Witte casually mentioned in his introductory remarks that he had been to Millennium Park  in Chicago, now world famous as the site of Obama’s victory celebration. Witte quickly revved up the eternal engine of California real estate: the weather. During his February trip to the Windy City Millennium Park was covered by a foot of snow, Witte grinned.  “We don’t have that,” he boasted. In LA the welcoming weather will insure year-round use under the smiling sun. But in the same breath, Witte admitted that Chicago had “much more downtown density” in terms of population. The developer thus left open the question of exactly where all of the park’s users would come from.

At the same meeting, a citizen grey haired man in a cowboy hat describing himself as “one of the few people who actually lives downtown” stepped up to the microphone to raise some thorny questions about traffic and other disruptions.

The “nearby visitor” almost comically posited by the Dallas hucksters is conjured with like fervor by proponents of the park in LA. One wonders. In spite of all the open-space-speak about a programmable park that will welcome concerts, protests, or nurture the solitary pleasures of a book and a cup of coffee, this is all seems less about people then about the symbols.

Enslaved to the automobile, downtown Los Angeles is one of the most park-poor cities in the world.  An open space with any integrity whatever is better than the jumble of nonsense that now spreads between these points. But I have my doubts about calling this a real park regardless of its design and in spite of all the democratic rhetoric being lofted up on its behalf.

Sandwiched between the architectural icons of monied music and state power, Civic Park will, I suspect, be mostly about the show rather than the people, about scenery rather than real life. Since Hollywood celebrates itself each year with the Oscar spectacle at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which will now have a front row seat on LA’s Central Park, this is perhaps as it should be.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu


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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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