Thursday, January 27, 2005

Urban renewal

The University of Michigan regents approved demolition of the Frieze Building yesterday in order to make way for the new North Quad residence hall/academic building. This is a terrible error the results of which we will be lamenting for decades to come. The following is a letter to the editor of the Michigan Daily I wrote today:

To the Daily:

The university is making a short-sighted error in deciding to raze the Frieze Building (and possibly the Carnegie Library). The need for more university housing is clear and the decision to locate it on State St. is a wise move for urban development.

However, the attachment exhibited by preservationists and former Ann Arbor High students in defending the Frieze is indicative of a broader effect of buildings upon the community. People simply respond to the physical connection to the past and the invocation of tradition that the Frieze offers -- that is what the revivals of the classical style are about. The university will be unable to replace the Frieze's grandeur with any new design, no matter how functionally effective, and will lose the ability to make that connection to the people who live and work there.

Why are the oldest buildings on campus the most popular? Because the stability and continuity of tradition that revivalist architectural styles like the Law Quad's Gothic Revival or Angell Hall's classical columns make people feel that they are continuing an endeavor nearly 2 centuries old in Ann Arbor and more than 2 millennia in the western tradition. Why are the LS&A building and North Campus buildings so often reviled? Why was the hideous undergraduate library given a coat of brick veneer a decade ago? Because most expressions of modernism quickly end up looking dated, while historical expressions frequently get better with age.

Save the facade of the Frieze and incorporate it into the new building. The metaphor of combining tradition with an ongoing effort of improvement and the physical design issuing from the pencils of competent architects will be worth the extra effort and cost.

Dale Winling

As I wrote on annarborisoverrated, the preservation of the facade can be reconciled with urban development. In fact, if the recent designs on campus are any indication, the existing building is more urban-friendly than any new design will be.

"Two regents, Katherine White, D-Ann Arbor, and Andrea Fischer Newman, R-Ann Arbor, had voiced concerns that the architects should examine the feasibility of saving a portion of the Frieze building, but they did not raise the matter on Wednesday. After the vote, Newman said, she is now assured that there's no way to build modern facilities while saving part of the old building.

"U-M staff members say the costs would be too great, and the existing building's load-bearing corridor walls and ceiling heights would hamper the new design too much." (AA News)

This is misleading. The new portion of the building would not be built on top of the old building (like setting a heavy stack of books on a sandwich, if you will). The sandwich would be carefully cut from the crust and peeled away. Then, the books would be placed where the sandwich was with the crust seemingly wrapped around it -- the new building would have its own new (or greatly augmented) foundation.

The Ann Arbor News reports the program for the building is "precedent-setting in how it combines students' living and learning environments." I'm skeptical of living/learning environments on a large scale, but it's no wonder the price tag has been put at $137-142 million:

"High technology will play a big role in connecting students to people from across the world. A student may be able to have breakfast in a cafe where foreign-language news is shown on TV, then go to a foreign language class where students in other countries participate through video-conferencing.

"A more experimental idea is to install a 'video wall' in an alcove of the building. U-M could help other universities across the world install similar devices. Then a student in Ann Arbor could see and speak with a student in another country."

If there's a bigger waste of money, I haven't yet found it. The AIM, email, and cell phone phenomenon has clearly illustrated that people are no more literate or better spoken when technology is thrust upon them to facilitate communication -- really, they are less so. This will be a huge waste of resources and a squandered opportunity.


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