BY LAURA BERNER HUDSON
The news that the BB&T Building will receive a much-needed makeover has produced unsurprising shouts of praise from most Ashevilleans. Built in 1965, the reflective late-modern tower is tough to love with its dingy, fading facade, taut planes and lack of real connection to the plaza level.
But for many of us who grew up here, it’s served as our only bona fide modern skyscraper — a tangible, irrefutable sign that Asheville is a city, not just a town. The glass-and-metal exterior hangs from the steel structure in contrast to the heavy, load-bearing masonry buildings surrounding it; the reflectivity of the glass echoes the Vance Monument at sunset. And while it’s not deserving of landmark status, the former Northwestern Bank Building has made a significant contribution to Asheville’s architectural record, and its modernist design is a testament to the city’s continually evolving texture and diversity.
There’s no disputing that buildings have useful life spans and eventually require alteration and reconstruction to remain functional and relevant. Enhanced energy requirements alone demand that the aging tower be reskinned.
One approach to revitalizing the dated façade would be to expand on the principles of the minimalist International Style, which valued advanced technology, progress and freedom from historical references. Reconstructing the exterior with a high-performance glass skin would provide an exciting opportunity to fulfill the promise of modernism in ways that the original building didn’t.
Instead, the new design calls for wrapping the tower in a pastiche of quasi-historical, borrowed styles in an attempt to mimic a bygone era. The problem with this approach is that the building’s linear, boxy form remains: Where each change of material suggests that the elevation is stepping back, the reality is still a flat exterior rendered as a slightly three-dimensional trompe l’oeil, giving only the illusion of depth. No matter how beautiful the detailing, the result is a modernist building in art deco drag.
We love historic structures because they trigger a sense of nostalgia, and nostalgia is an easy sell. But adding faux historical details to a building of a completely different era merely panders to our desire to have it both ways, and the resulting ersatz architecture is, at best, satisfactory or banal. Asheville’s actual art deco buildings shine like gems within the matrix of other styles that enfold them; surrounding them with clichéd reproductions serves only to dilute the quality of the real thing.
This isn’t just about taste: It’s about Asheville’s need for good design policy. The current design guidelines recommend that a building’s essential original design characteristics should be respected, and that themed designs that don’t respect the original character should be avoided unless the façade is “lacking in historical significance or architectural detail.” Why isn’t modernism recognized as having historical value?
Surely we can recognize that different eras have shaped the city and given it a unique identity. And though many condemn modernism as soulless and ugly, in reality it was a social movement — a response to cultural upheaval that united art and technology while celebrating rationality, democracy, equity and optimism.
In practice, Asheville’s design guidelines acknowledge and respect only a narrow slice of the city’s built environment, with a clear bias against architecture that doesn’t reinforce a specific historical theme that is heavy on ornamentation. Thus begins a process of homogenization, where everything is made to resemble a mythical past, creating a discomfiting synthetic environment in which a tidy unreality takes precedence over more complicated authenticity.
The National Park Service, the federal agency charged with managing historic preservation, describes Asheville as city with as many architectural styles as there are buildings, arguing that this diversity reflects the community’s own diversity and distinctive culture. But the downtown design review guidelines seem to reject that eclecticism.
Shouldn’t we question a policy that promotes unreality, sameness and repetition? Wouldn’t we be better served by one that encouraged the integration of new layers to the city’s architectural fabric, representing the ideas, language, technology and materials of today? It’s essential that any new building respect the surrounding character, but nostalgic misrepresentations merely confuse the relationships among adjacent structures over time.
Consider the Diana Center at Barnard College, whose mix of clear, opaque and fritted glass panels gives a simple box architectural complexity. The all-glass design by Weiss/Manfredi Architects translates brick masonry into a luminous, energy-efficient exterior that’s in conversation with the historic buildings surrounding it, respecting context while honoring the creativity of our own time.
Some might think all this is no big deal. What does it matter if a tired old structure — a poor imitation of the Seagram Building — undergoes cosmetic surgery to travel back in time? Art and architecture are inherently subjective, after all. But architecture is more than decorative — it is real and important, tying us to the political, economic and social issues of the day. A city is a living, evolving organism in which new layers are continuously being woven into the urban fabric, and the environment we build for ourselves shapes our experience, our community and our identity.
When serious, authentic architecture is rejected in favor of simulacra, we exchange reality for a mythical past where everything is made to resemble what might have been. In turn, we blur the boundary between copies and genuine history. It is the elaboration of continuously changing ideas that makes a city truly authentic, and if we don’t embrace this vitality and diversity, we risk becoming a generic, theme park version of what we never were instead of an authentic manifestation of who we truly are.
Asheville native Laura Berner Hudson recently moved back home after 15 years on the West Coast. An architect, she currently serves on Asheville’s Planning and Zoning Commission.