GPI’s proposal not good enough for Asheville

When I was a young student in architecture school, we used to sit into the wee hours, listening to one of the most enthralling teachers I have ever had: Louis Kahn, now recognized as one of the greatest designers of modern times. I have never forgotten one gem of an idea he bestowed upon us: When asked about how to begin thinking about a design, Kahn’s response was, “Ask yourself what this place wants to be.”

If we apply this notion to the Pack Square design question, I am sure the proposal of the Texas-based Sammons Corporation (owners of the Grove Park Inn) would not pass muster. Pack Square does not want to be what the Sammons-GPI people are proposing. Pack Square has its own magic right now, which would be lost were the proposed 10-story (or 12-? or 14-?) slab building to be built. From accurate models and drawings, it is apparent that the proposed GPI project would be an awkward intrusion into the heart of downtown. It is touted as a product of urban design, but it is really a product of urban opportunism.

Grove Park’s proposal is a vestige of the old, heavy-handed, urban-renewal approach, which led to the destruction of so much of downtown America. Urban renewal regrettably resulted in the tearing down of the old fabric on the north side of the square. The Akzona Building (now the Biltmore Building) was built, and a vacant site left on the edge of the City/County forecourt. This is where Grove Park Inn wants to build.

We should have learned from the Akzona Building that large, bland, modernist structures are deadeners of public spaces, even when designed by name architects like I.M. Pei. Asheville was fortunately spared the kind of destructive rebuilding that other cities experienced — but not through any act of civic wisdom. Asheville was encumbered by a massive public debt in the 1920s boom, and was still paying it off in the 1960s. It simply couldn’t afford its local share of urban-renewal costs. That was a blessing in disguise, since it meant that much of the old fabric remained — much of it vacant and timeworn, but essentially sound.

Pioneer investors, such as Southern Living’s Roger McGuire, saw the potential under the postwar facades and risked their money in a wise gamble that has paid off handsomely for Asheville and its economy. Today, Asheville’s downtown is vibrant, fun and very special as a result. It attracts people at many hours of the day, and it has variety and manageable scale — thanks to the builders of the late-19th and early 20th century. Its appeal lies in the weave of small patterns, humanly scaled streets and attractive public spaces, of which Pack Square is the principal one.

Three years ago, Asheville and Buncombe County residents were asked to rate a variety of urban places and buildings in the ImageScape 2000 community-image survey. Respondents rated the Akzona Building a meager +0.41 on a scale of -10 to +10; most thought it was not a building suited to downtown. By contrast, the City/County complex rated a +5.80, the second-highest rating of any place in the survey. Little wonder many people are opposed to the GPI proposal, which would be higher and more intrusive than the Akzona Building.

The basic problem with the GPI proposal has to do with placement, size and scale in relation to Pack Square and the City/County view. The proposed structure is simply too large for the site proposed. True, lower commercial buildings once occupied part of the site — but, at three or four stories, these were more acceptable in scale. But even these lower buildings intruded on the square, as can be seen from old photographs.

Renowned Austrian urbanist Camillo Sitte, who closely studied the squares and parks of Europe, concluded that the width of a square should be about two or three times that of the tallest building facing it. That would mean that, given the width of Pack Square, a structure on the site where the GPI proposes to build should be no more than four stories high. But even at that height, the building would obstruct views of the City/County complex.

There are other problems with the proposal. The shape of the building is awkward and unpleasant; it would be a tombstone of a building. It is one of the most difficult of shapes to make into an attractive structure, regardless of whom the architect turns out to be.

Fred Bonci, the landscape architect hired by the Pack Square Conservancy, has suggested that people like spatial enclosure around their civic spaces, and that the proposed GPI structure would provide enclosure. This is a strained argument. While it is true that enclosure is a worthwhile objective, the proposed building would simply be an intrusion into the space of the square.

Enclosure requires a concern for what the French call tout ensemble, the whole arrangement. One massive structure does not give the sense of enclosure that a person experiences in, say, the main square in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Moreover, the proposed building is awkwardly positioned in relation to adjacent ones, such as the Akzona Building and the City/County complex. It simply doesn’t work as an urban design. It fails the test of tout ensemble.

Eventually, the north edge of College Street will have new buildings — hopefully well-designed ones, which will provide the sense of enclosure that major, urban, public plazas ought to have.

The idea of providing more density and more housing in the city center is commendable. But this is not the way to do it. The Sammons Corporation/GPI says on its Web site that it tries to be a good citizen in its home city of Dallas. It should also be a good citizen in Asheville and relocate this project to a site where it is more appropriate. The current proposal just isn’t good enough for a special place like Asheville.

[Asheville resident David A. Johnson is a retired professional planner, professor emeritus of planning at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and author of Planning the Great Metropolis (Chapman and Hall, 1996). He has served with planning agencies in Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York City.]

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