It looks as if America will not get its first Bilbao Effect. Last week, the Park City, Utah, government decreed that the Kimball Art Center’s new home—a revised design by Bjarke Ingels and his BIG firm—would not meet their historic preservation guidelines. The next steps remain unclear.
What makes this all the more troubling is that the revised design was so watered down as to being close to boring, especially in comparison to the first—and in my eyes rather beautiful—proposal. In BIG’s original vision, which won an ARCHITECT P/A Award in 2013, the vernacular would have turned into art. It was an abstraction of a log cabin spinning out of control. The Kimball’s base would have been a square aligned with Park City’s grid and clad with heavy timbers; it would have twisted as it rose up, moving from the realm and geometry of the human-made into the thrust of the surrounding mountains. A window high up on one of the upper gallery floors would have provided views over the—truth be told, not very attractive—city and the nature all around. Along the way, BIG created a variety of galleries and public spaces of more interest than you would expect in a 30,000-square-foot building.
Alas, it was all too much for the good citizens and their bureaucrats, who felt it would have, both physically and symbolically, overwhelmed their humble collection of former mining-dependent structures that have been turned into tourist trade taverns and million-dollar chalets. This points to the essential difference between the proposed Kimball and the Bilbao Guggenheim: Park City didn’t need anything to attract more tourists, though an attractive art museum would help ease the boom-and-bust cycle of an economy largely dependent on winter sports. Bilbao was a rich, but industrial and lived-out, city that people didn’t know about, and the Guggenheim both attracted people and acted as a symbol of rebirth. The Kimball building would have been part of the transformation of this former mining town into part of the network of culture- and sports-dependent outposts that dot America’s exurbs and nature preserves.
This, in turn, points to an important fact: the Bilbao Effect is as much a myth as that of “starchitecture.” It would be very difficult to point to a single cultural construction since the Guggenheim’s opening that has had a similar effect. You can find struggling cities that have built art centers to try to help revive their economies and images, but none have had the scale and visual or economic impact of the Bilbao building. You can find spectacular cultural buildings galore, but none of them have had the central, yet run-down, site in an urban area ripe for regeneration that the supposed model did.
Instead, cultural buildings have continued to function, when they work well, as anchors and icons. They serve as the monuments to cultural achievements and the lab spaces for new productions that help us understand ourselves and our world. They bring people in a community together and attract visitors. They fix investment in culture in a manner that is tangible and more or less permanent. And, they make the arts—including architecture—real, visible, and tangible.
The new Kimball would have done that. Even the revised proposal, a concrete box whose one “big move” was a tilted corner, might have had a similar effect. The original design also would have shown that you can combine a love and understanding of site and local building traditions with a desire to twist the new out of the old, and thus reveal unknown possibilities. Yes, it would have overshadowed its neighbors, in a few cases literally, and in many more cases by putting the designs of surrounding buildings to shame. Now Park City will have to continue to rely during the warmer months on the ephemeral nature, both in time and subject matter, of its Sundance Film Festival to provide it with identity and focus. It’s a shame.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.