Three major architectural projects are currently being constructed on the north side of Uptown, and big-name international firms -- or "starchitects" as they are nicknamed by some -- have been commissioned for all three. What does that say for the development of Charlotte's creative class and the community's commitment to local arts?
Manoj Kesavan, a local architect by way of India then Kansas, is the co-founder of Point 8, a group of artists, architects or anyone interested in discussing the development of arts in Charlotte. He has been leading monthly meetings for the last two years about topics such as this one.
CL: It's pretty amazing what you've been able to sustain in a social capital wasteland like Charlotte. How did Point 8 start, and how large has it gotten?
Kesavan: It started as a lunchtime discussion group among a few of the architects at my firm. Six of us would sit down at a conference table and pick an architectural topic to talk about. Our office was by the McColl Center and some art galleries that are now closed. Some of the artists began sitting in on our discussion, and soon we had more outsiders than people in our firm. After some of the original lunchtime members left the firm and scattered all over Charlotte, it became an independent group called Point 8.
Is the group all talk, or is there some action, too?
The first project we have decided to take up is to convert the old Urban Ministries shelter into an art facility for the homeless. A group of architects and artists have offered to do the design work inside and around the immediate surroundings. But it's been slow-going so far because everyone has other jobs.
Charlotte's current architectural zeitgeist seems to be the high-rise. What do you think about the condo boom?
It's typically Charlotte. Characterless. It's as if the best of the work we do here is a bland elegance. I don't think the blame should be placed on the architects. They are plenty capable. The blandness is kind of an overall sensibility, it's almost a habit. Buildings could be deeply experiential, something that totally challenges or inspires you. Hardly anything being built around here meets that level. A lot of the problem in Charlotte is this fear of taking any kind of creative risk. We'd rather stick to what we've seen all the time.
What are the new projects in Charlotte, and what do they say about the architectural direction Charlotte is heading in?
Three of them should definitely be different: the Museum for the Bechtler Collection, the Downtown Mint and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, to be designed by Mario Botta, Machado & Silvetti and Pei Cobb Freed [& Partners], respectively. Common to all these firms is that they are acknowledged "masters" of their craft -- an updated version of modernist architecture. All have a clear style and vocabulary that they have honed over the last 30-plus years. Moreover, they all are safe choices -- we almost know exactly what we are going to get.
Do you and other architects view the hiring of starchitects as a slight to the local practitioners or a sign that Charlotte is developing an architectural conscience?
It's good for the city to have some examples of world-class architecture. Apparently they think a lot of local firms haven't been able to deliver, and you can't argue with that. However, in the long run, will it raise the level of architecture here?
Are there any American cities that you can compare this going-foreign trend to?
Cincinnati, for example, has a huge signature architecture program. Every big name architect has a building there, but it has become kind of like an architectural zoo. It hasn't helped the city become a powerhouse or develop its own language.
Architecture is like literature, it springs up at the most unexpected places. Like Latin America is a hotbed right now. Before that -- Faulkner and Hemingway -- they weren't sophisticated New Yorkers, they were from the Deep South.
The architectural happening place is rarely a cultural capital. Like Chicago 100 years ago. And even now in Europe, places like Helsinki and Barcelona have more interesting projects than London or Paris. So why not Charlotte?