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
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
Alan Plattus is a professor of architecture and urbanism at the
Yale University School of Architecture.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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