Monday, September 8, 2008

Cultural Problem

Following is my attempt at responding to a comment/question by Spencer (who also comments here) on Hugeasscity, regarding the new, public/private stairway that graces the back/front of the new Four Season, as well as my trying to sort out some of my own thoughts.

His comment reads:

"so, if this is a cultural problem, who is responsible if the developers and owners are not willing to give appropriately back to the public?"

Architecture, urban planning and city building are cultural problems precisely because they are expressions of our culture, just like movies or novels. Some, like Charles Mudede, think of this building, or buildings grouped together in a city, in the same vein as these other forms of expression; that is, as art. After reading Jane Jacobs, I'm comfortable saying this is reductionism at its finest because art is an interpretation and/or representation of life, that is controlled by the artist, while a building is a piece of a city, which is complex and functional and, as Jacobs says, is the actual life that art represents (or, more broadly, it is space that serves as the setting for all our interactions and commerce, as well as the output of interactions and commerce -- see Henri Lefebvre). She goes on to assert that trying to convert a city into art is "attempting to substitute art for life." That said, I think it's clear that cities and art are indeed closely related, as forms of cultural expression, but the former is more democratically complex (it affects more people than, say, this Friday's production of Shrek, The Musical).

I think most everyone would agree that the dominant contemporary American culture is consumption, and this portion of the city is the epicenter of an incredibly lucrative form of consumption: tourism. Like Dan wrote, the improvements to this part of town -- read as the Seattle Art Museum expansion -- have made it even more valuable and were undertaken to provide nice, clean, upscale venues for expensive tastes (i.e. revenue). I was reading part of gentleman's dissertation about public art in Philadelphia and, among many other things I've mentioned here, he was discussing the special packages available to tourists that included fancy accommodations, dinners, and tickets to a Cezanne exhibit: I'd bet that as soon as the hotel opens, there are packages available that include a room at the Four Seasons, dinners at The Brooklyn or Capital Grill, and unlimited access to SAM. Oh, and the Lusty Lady surely remains as a token of a less dignified, more working-class and production-oriented past.

I bring this up to point out that the developers and city really aren't that interested in giving anything palpable or experiential back to the public: we just live here. We always contribute to the economic well-being of the region. I'm not sure who that makes the responsible party but I suppose it's all of us, for letting increased levels of consumption be the gauge by which we measure success.

The argument about consumption and capitalism and emulation is nothing new but I think this is a perfect example of where it leads. I'm not calling for a township rebellion either -- though that might not be the worst thing to happen -- I'm just trying to figure things out.

1 comment:

Vik Duggal said...

Interesting commentary. Got me thinking of a few things.

First a quote. Not sure who said this, but it goes something like this: "involve them and they will understand."

Secondly, the mass public is so passive to the commercial land development process and one questions whether that is "our" fault or the fault of the industry. Who can blame the industry for taking advantage when "we" sit idle and do nothing. Yes there are the occasional groups that protest, but no amount of protest is stopping the development of high rise condos close the waterfront in downtown Kirkland, WA for example. Need I motion my fingers as if to say money?

At the end of the day it is "our" fault developers/owners don't give back. This is America - you have to want it; you have to literally work your face off for it if you don't have it.

Fighting for a cause, joining together, it's what we do, it's what our history is built upon - anything is possible.

It's all about timing and environment. This is why community matters so much!

The question I pose is where are developer/owners being forced to give back?