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Since Bilbao, cultural mega-projects have spurred development like never before. But the formula is also creating cities that are segregated and economically polarized. Is this the end of starchitecture? Nicholas Hune-Brown weighs in.

In early 2001, Richard Florida came to Milwaukee and – before the eyes of the anxious local businessmen who had invited the urban guru – proclaimed the city “cool.”

At the dawn of the new millennium, being told you were cool by Richard Florida wasn’t just a boost to a local city builder’s ego: it was a promise of salvation. In those years the academic celebrity barnstormed across the continent pushing a compelling vision of a way forward for struggling metropolises. In the new economy, Florida preached, a city’s success depended on its ability to seduce the “creative class” – those artists, coders and designers who needed to be pampered with hip coffee shops, copious art galleries, world-class architecture and usable bike lanes. And Milwaukee, Florida said, had the right “people climate” to succeed. It was the kind of place where you could “go sailing, hang out in a coffee house and live in a renovated loft of an old warehouse.” They just needed to sell it.

Local boosters took Florida’s words to heart. As geographer Jeff Zimmerman relates in his article in the urban planning journal Cities, Milwaukee’s elite began a program to reshape the city in Florida’s creative-class image. Advertising campaigns emphasized the city’s “coolness components” and “fun factors.” A “techzone” was created to publicize the former manufacturing city’s new identity. In order to sell the new Milwaukee, its slogan – “The Genuine American City,” paired with a vaguely industrial-looking logo – needed to be changed. And boosters knew exactly the right image to replace it: the bold silhouette of the recent addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava.

The Calatrava was an architectural wonder, its movable brise-soleil unfolding like an exotic bird perched on the shores of Lake Michigan. The audacious, $US122-million addition promised to revitalize a section of the city’s downtown. And it represented the very best of what Milwaukee could be – modern and sleek, a beacon to attract creative-class globetrotters.

Milwaukee wasn’t the only city hoping to reinvent itself through a mixture of high-class architecture and savvy marketing. After Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao opened in 1997 and seemingly transformed a scrubby Spanish port city into a tourist-friendly metropolis, cities around the world competed to build the kind of audacious architectural creations that would bring in tourists and renewal. According to a study from the University of Chicago, between 1994 and 2008, 725 new arts facilities were built in America at a price of more than $US15 billion. Even the 2008 recession couldn’t stop the boom: from 2007 to 2014, an analysis by the Art Newspaper found, $US8.9 billion was spent on museum expansions worldwide.

To tour the museums and art galleries of the last two decades is to take in a whimsical menagerie of iconic creations: curls of Frank Gehry-built metal rippling through Cleveland and Seattle; neo-futuristic Zaha Hadid monuments alighting in Azerbaijan and Guangzhou like so many glossy alien motherships; Daniel Libeskind shards poking out of heritage buildings from Dresden to Toronto. The explosion of building wasn’t limited to wealthy cities like New York and London. In Biloxi, Mississippi, Gehry was brought in to build a museum that could help transform that stretch of the “Redneck Riviera” into a cultural hub. In Roanoke, Virginia, the ambitious Taubman Museum was constructed with the hope of elevating the struggling former coal town in the eyes of the world. According to Joanna Woronkowicz, one of the authors of the University of Chicago study, the people behind these buildings all had something in common: they had read Richard Florida and absorbed his message. Building a large, eye-popping museum wasn’t an act of hubris; it was a civic duty.

“We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighbourhood. Ultimately, we failed.” – Robert Hammond, one of the designers of the New York City High Line

Today, 20 years after the opening of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the fevered claims of this age of monument building look increasingly embarrassing. In an era in which every city seems to boast a spectacular museum, building eye-catching icons has had diminishing returns. Tourists have not flocked to Roanoke, and Biloxi has failed to become the Bilbao of the Mississippi.

More than that, we’ve belatedly changed our opinion about what a successful “revitalization” looks like. Even in cases where an ambitious project has spurred neighbourhood growth, the people who actually live there have not always felt the benefits. The High Line, the elevated linear park that stretches through Chelsea in New York, is by many measures one of the most successful projects of the past decade. Last year, eight million tourists marched cheek by jowl through the beautifully designed park, snapping pics. The neighbourhood has been transformed, with gleaming condos towering over the former elevated railway. But for the residents of Chelsea – a third of whom are people of colour, and many of whom live in the two public housing buildings that buttress the park the High Line’s effects have been less positive. The flip side of revitalization is displacement. The people who use the park are both tourists and, according to a City University of New York study, overwhelmingly white. Rising rents have pushed out the bodegas and butchers and replaced them with stores catering to visitors. Despite the crowds, one of the High Line’s designers, Robert Hammond, recently described his creation as a failure. “We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighbourhood,” Hammond told the website Citylab earlier this year. “Ultimately, we failed.”

Even within successful cities, the clustering of white-collar creative types has destroyed middle-class neighbourhoods, with revitalized downtowns attracting wealthy lawyers and professors but pushing the people who care for their children and tend to their shrubbery further and further out into the suburbs.

In Milwaukee, the Calatrava addition was greeted with international approval. It was Time magazine’s “design of the year.” New towers sprang up in the area, and newspaper articles chronicling “Milwaukee’s renaissance” proliferated. But while the area immediately surrounding the waterfront gallery prospered and experienced rising property values, the rest of the city struggled. Fifty thousand jobs disappeared in the years immediately after the Calatrava opened and Richard Florida visited. Today, the city, which had already been polarized, has become the most segregated in America, with one in three black residents living in extreme poverty.

Of course, no single building or civic branding exercise can hope to counter the economic forces that have ravaged Rust Belt cities. But publicly funding developments aimed squarely at affluent creative types has only exacerbated the economic polarization experienced by so many cities. In retrospect, the idea that funding a new art gallery for the wealthy could, through economic osmosis, improve the lot of a city’s working class always had the whiff of trickle-down chicanery. The program to pander to the creative class has succeeded in the narrowest terms – making the already wealthy and comfortable feel that much more welcome, while providing little of value for anyone else.

Perhaps the most surprising critic of this era of development is Richard Florida. In his latest book, The New Urban Crisis, Florida seems to reverse much of his earlier thinking, though with little acknowledgement of his own role. The book is the product of “a period of rethinking and introspection, of personal and intellectual transformation,” he writes. Now a professor at the University of Toronto, Florida says he could never have anticipated how deeply polarized cities would become. “In little more than a decade,” he writes, “the revitalization of our cities and our urban areas that I had predicted was giving rise to rampant gentrification and unaffordability, driving deep wedges between affluent newcomers and struggling longtime residents.”

The result, Florida says, is a “winner-take-all urbanism” in which appealing cities like San Francisco and London boom while Milwaukee and Biloxi are left behind. Even within successful cities, the clustering of white-collar creative types has destroyed middle-class neighbourhoods, with revitalized downtowns attracting wealthy lawyers and professors but pushing the people who care for their children and tend to their shrubbery further and further out into the suburbs.

For Florida, the solutions to these problems are old-fashioned and unglamorous: better public transportation, more rental housing, a higher minimum wage. It’s a prescription that is unlikely to inspire quite as many public speaking invitations. It’s also typical of a broader shift in the way we talk about “revitalizing” a city, a conspicuous step away from the overheated if-you-build-it-they-will-come rhetoric used to justify two decades of monument making. It’s an acknowledgment that there are clear limits to the power of architecture and of civic branding. Today, when the High Line’s creator talks about his regrets, he doesn’t talk about tweaking his design. He talks about consulting with the community and pushing for more affordable housing. “Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’ ” says Hammond. “Because people have bigger problems than design.”

With the opening of Centro Botín in Spain, Renzo Piano has declared the art centre a building for the people – “the opposite of the Guggenheim.” The Botín, located at the water’s edge, is intended as a place for the citizens of Santander as much as it is for tourists.

This summer, the Centro Botín opened in Santander, Spain. Located just an hour from Bilbao, the contemporary art centre was designed by Renzo Piano, a “starchitect” who is no stranger to flashy, monumental design. The museum is an elegant, striking structure, but its creators have been eager to tamp down any Bilbao-related rhetoric about civic transformation. According to the foundation’s president, the museum was built for the people of the city, not to “create an icon.” It is nearly invisible from within the city itself – a “self-effacing” building according to one architecture critic.

The building feels like a public affirmation that the heady days in which we talked about architecture saving cities are over. When Piano was asked about his approach to the design, he didn’t mince words. “I suppose our strategy was the opposite of the Guggenheim,” he said. “How many Bilbao effects can you have after all?”

This story was taken from the September 2017 issue of Azure. What do you think? Send your feedback to editorial2 [at] azureonline [dot] com.

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