Build It and They Will Stay (Except LeBron)
So he’s going to Miami. To paraphrase my late mother: “Who cares, as long as it is good for the architects.” (Or for her, "good for the Jews.") I am not sure that LeBron James’ choice of basketball team is good or bad for the discipline, but it is revealing. Let’s face it: Would you rather live in Cleveland or Miami? As someone trying to steer a venerable cultural institution in Cincinnati, a nearby Midwestern city, that is the kind of painful question to which we here in Ohio have heard the wrong answer all too often. And architecture should be part of the response.
Here in Cincinnati we think that we have it over Cleveland, both with our economy, which is less dependent on heavy manufacturing, and with our landscape. The glaciers that scraped the plains into the willing recipients of the Jeffersonian grid’s democratic space ended here, leaving us with a geology of dales running down to the meandering Ohio River and the sylvan expanses of Kentucky to the south. We have green hills and defined communities. Cleveland has only Lake Erie.
On the other hand, Cleveland has historically made more money, and was better able to transform what it gleaned from oil, steel, and banging things together into a legacy. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s endowment is 10 times that of Cincinnati’s, and the Cleveland Clinic is known all around the world. In the end, none of that was enough to keep James there.
According to the likes of the pop urban philosopher Richard Florida, Cleveland just is not a creative class type of city. A more sober assessment would point out that the days when you could transform natural resources and excellent opportunities for ground- and water-based transportation into a good place to live have disappeared. The winners are now where it is a good place to be, not work, where money is made off money, and where infrastructure is virtual and airborne. That’s certainly what the United Arab Emirates think, and they are racing to turn their oil wealth into the world’s largest airport, sports facilities, hospitals, and museums, as well as a desert shore version of Florida’s mass of mauve villas with boat slips.
That’s were architecture comes in. It makes a place a good place to be. For all the complaints about flashy buildings that are just part of some reputed star system and seem as fashion-driven as the clothes on the Paris runways, the iconic structures that Abu Dhabi is now building, and which Cincinnati and Cleveland once erected, are a way of fixing into fact the wealth gleaned from the landscape. With architecture, we create a human landscape that replaces the natural one, for better and for worse. We mine the coal, we extract the oil, we harvest the wheat, and ultimately store wealth in museums, concert halls, sports stadia and universities. These buildings must not just work, they must act as attractors, icons, and symbols that serve to bind a community to one particular place. If you build it, they will not come, they will stay there.
A great deal of money has been wasted in recent decades on new museums and new sports stadia with mixed results. It certainly did not work in Cleveland, where the lure of not just a better climate, but a more cosmopolitan culture and more money lured a local (well, semi-local, he is from Akron) kid away. It is worth pointing out that Miami is building a new concert hall, a new art museum, and several smaller cultural institutions to build on the more tourism-based art occasions such as Art Basel Miami and the renovated art deco monuments of South Miami Beach.
The fact that Ohio lost James does not mean that we must not keep trying, at least if we believe in places like Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Akron, Toledo, or Kansas City. Waste and missed opportunities are deplorable, but they cannot mask the reality that we must invest in our communities, not just by building better schools and fixing the potholes, which are certainly important, but just as much by creating the symbolic anchors that will keep us and our grandchildren here. It is up to us as citizens to fight for that, it is up to architects to use what opportunities they have to create buildings that work in such a fundamentally symbolic manner.