News & Views » David Walters

Vita Brevis, Ars Longa

Bechtler Museum deserves an architectural competition


Art lives long compared with our limited lifespan. The Greek physician Hippocrates summed this up in his famous Aphorisms. Art, and beauty, are with us for centuries after its creators have passed away.

The power of art to inspire hope in the human condition is profound. I was reminded of that potential recently, during a performance by the Charlotte Symphony of Antonin Dvorak's masterful Ninth Symphony, "From the New World," written in 1893.

The orchestra, under the direction of guest conductor Catherine Ruckwardt, played the piece superbly, but their rendition of the second movement, the Largo, was so exquisite it brought tears to my eyes. It was a true Stendhal moment, where an aesthetic experience cut right through the day to day details of everyday life to reveal pure, untrammeled beauty.

In that moment I felt proud of my adopted city. Charlotte became a place where I, and others, could experience art at the most sublime level. I've enjoyed similar moments of profound aesthetic delight in the Uffizi, in Florence, standing in front of a wondrous "Madonna and Child" by the Florentine painter Botticelli, and in London's National Gallery, gazing awestruck at a roomful of Caravaggios.

I've felt that same way in Fort Worth, Texas, in the spaces of two wonderful buildings, the Kimbell Art Museum by the famous American architect Louis Kahn, and its new neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art, designed by Japanese architect Tadeo Ando. In the hands of these two design maestros, functional spaces come alive with beauty and grace. Both buildings provide wonderful venues for experiencing painting and sculpture, but they also become works of art themselves, touching our souls with their presence. Great architecture can do that.

While visiting Fort Worth, I wondered how a former cow town on the skids managed to transform itself into an art mecca, with great paintings, sculpture and architecture. Why doesn't Charlotte, a rich city on the rise, have even one great museum to rival its cowboy competitor? It's a very pertinent question right now, when the Arts and Science Council is promoting not one but two new uptown art museums -- the first a revived Mint Museum, coming back home from its suburban exile in the floodplains of Randolph Road, and a second to house the fabulous modern art of the Bechtler collection.

Swiss-born Andreas Bechtler has promised to donate his collection, valued at around $20 million, to the city. It's a glorious opportunity to raise Charlotte's prestige and boost the economy. But most importantly, it's a golden chance to create a truly great piece of architecture in a city that has few buildings that rise above the parochial.

A rendering by local architects Wagner Murray showing a proposed Bechtler Museum building on the old Carolina Theatre site has been making the rounds of officials and fundraisers. My reaction is one of immense disappointment at an opportunity about to be thrown away. If there ever was a time to hold an international architectural competition -- to invite designs from all over the world, and to provide Charlotte architects with a chance to compete against the world's great designers and the profession's undiscovered geniuses alike -- this is it!

Rather than slipping down the road to a local architect's office, the Arts and Science Council should raise its sights and become as creative as the people it funds. With the momentum of Charlotte businesses behind them, the ASC could construct a competition that would attract interest from architects across the globe -- a building for a unique collection on a unique site. It's a mouthwatering challenge.

In many other countries, and in some US cities, public commissions like this are often awarded by competitions. Sometimes these contests are won by established superstars, like Americans Frank Gehry and Richard Meier, or Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. But just as often, unknown architects are victorious, as was the case in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England, where Dominic Williams catapulted himself to fame with the winning design for converting a massive grain warehouse on the banks of the River Tyne into the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. In such ways are professional careers made, and unknown talent can be regarded by the judges as equal to, and sometimes better than international celebrity architects.

A design competition would be an excellent opportunity to pit Charlotte architects, established and unsung, against the world's best. What an opportunity to bring publicity to the city, assist fundraising efforts -- and open the eyes and minds of Charlotteans to worlds of beauty beyond the bottom line. We could create a building people will admire for generations, a work of architecture that will give visitors and citizens alike their own unequivocal moments of aesthetic bliss.

There's no time like the present in this season of balancing civic budgets and priorities. Don't put off creating beauty; life's too short. But art lasts forever.

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