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How Well Will The Connecticut Convention Center Mega-Project Fit Into Hartford's Life And Landscape? And How Will It Fit In The Future?

May 29, 2005
By Alan J. Plattus

As the wrecking balls are poised to finish off the last of New Haven's big projects of the 1960s, I would like to be more optimistic about current big projects designed to boost our reviving, but still tenuous, downtowns.

The state of Connecticut is investing heavily in what are, for small cities in a small state, fairly ambitious, high-profile mega-projects. The latest of these is the nearly complete Connecticut Convention Center. The jury is out on the long-term economic impact of such urban behemoths as convention centers, sports stadiums and the like. But I would like to consider their impact on the physical fabric of the city, especially in places like Hartford, where that fabric is already pretty tattered, if not rent.

Approaching Hartford on Interstate 91, the traveler gets the grandest view of the full breadth (if not full height) of the convention center, stretching like a great buttressed and arcaded terrace along the highway. It reminds me of Robert Adam's famous 18th-century engraving of a legendary ancient mega-project, the Roman Emperor Diocletian's Palace at Split. This is not an idle reference, for it should remind us that in spite of our inevitable tendency to trumpet, or bemoan, the unprecedented scale and speed of our civilization and its monuments, earlier urban cultures also struggled with what were incommensurably enormous projects.

There is, however, at least one big difference. Many of those earlier monuments are still around in some form, thanks to a mix of preservation, adaptive reuse, creative reconstruction (Diocletian's Palace, like many other big Roman monuments, was eventually broken up into more normal urban blocks and occupied by ordinary people) or simply persistent sustainability. Today, we seem to shape our biggest projects so precisely to fit specific uses, sizes and moments that when uses change, sizes grow or shrink and moments pass, we have great difficulty finding a middle ground between nostalgic preservation and total demolition.

Certainly, the planners and architects of the new convention center have had such issues on their minds. The interior spaces of the facility are designed to function flexibly for events of a variety of types and sizes, and the whole center, which at 540,000 square feet is modest by international standards (although plenty big for a city of 120,000), could be doubled in size to accommodate future expansion. That expansion could only take place to the west, where the project is designed to relate to the rest of the city by way of a generous "front yard," with an intriguing landscape design.

That brings us to what is almost always for projects of this type and size the $64,000 - or $271 million - question: How, and how well, does the project connect to the rest of the city? Beyond architectural preferences for details like the zippy carpets, the grand stairway to heaven (or at least to views of the river) and the almost chapel-like ballroom, the really tough issues for this and other convention centers have to do with porosity, spatial and functional relationships with neighbors, and the life of the place during and between events. The sheer bulk of this facility and its heroic appetite for service and parking make those critical relationships a challenge.

The spectacular atrium, for example - designed to make visitors catch their breath - is ultimately related to great urban arcades, like the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele in Milan of the 1870s or the late 1880s Cleveland Arcade, which are open public spaces that connect to other public spaces.

We have internalized and even privatized those spaces in both suburban and urban malls. One can only hope that the atrium lobby of the convention center will, along with the adjacent plaza connecting to the new Marriott Hotel, encourage people to make the considerable hike from downtown Hartford on one side up to the elevated and still fragmentary riverfront promenade on the other. Otherwise, visitors to the convention center will be afforded only tantalizing but unrequited views of the Hartford skyline and the river beyond the highway.

The real function of good public spaces will be unfulfilled: not just to draw new visitors, but to mix them with new and old residents while encouraging a physically and economically engaged - not just voyeuristic - experience of the host city.

The key variable will be not just the convention center, but everything that will eventually surround it. The new science center, another big project to the north, will be important in this regard. The critical adjacency, however, is with the proposed mixed-use development to the west - since neither the service and parking infrastructure to the south nor the new Marriott Hotel to the north will represent the city, to which this project would like to connect.

Given the relative impenetrability of all that is around it - including the convention center itself, I'm afraid - that area bears a heavy burden of restoring some semblance of local scale and character, of continuing an interrupted street grid and, most important, of bringing back the life that street-oriented mixed-use buildings and full-time residents bring to a downtown.

While architects, planners and public officials continue to chase the elusive home-run project, cities like Hartford are learning to play small ball again. I look forward, along with many people in Hartford, to the energy and events the convention center may generate, but the most hopeful sign for downtown Hartford is, I think, the revival of the residential market and the burgeoning demand for mixed-use building conversions and even new construction.

I wonder if any architects - in their fascination with what the Dutch avant-garde architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas has celebrated as the radical disjunction of architectural scales from Small to Medium to Large to Extra-Large - have considered the possibility that the most successful urban projects might change not only use but scale over time. Just as the extra-large factories of the Industrial Age are being recycled as housing, and as even enclosed malls are being chopped up into small-scale retail blocks, we might want to discuss the possibility that the mega-projects of today should be designed as recyclable once the show has moved on.

Anyone for an apartment in the convention center? The views are great.

Alan Plattus is a professor of architecture and urbanism at the Yale University School of Architecture.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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