Provo has recently added a contemporary building to the fabric of antiquity that is a trademark of the city.
After spending a few minutes at the site and in the building, I was reminded of trying to give a critique on artificial whipped cream. It is synthetic. It looks, tastes, smells and feels similar to the real thing, but it leaves an artificial aftertaste in your mouth. Artificial whipped cream stands tall, it is cool and light, but upon closer examination, it is full of substitutes and various concoctions. These substitutes won't let it fade, slump, discolor, melt, sour or all the other "nice" things that happen to the real product - but you don't really care anyway because it is never on your plate long enough to worry.Like artificial whipping cream, the building will likely receive broad public acceptance. It is efficient, it is efficient, it is efficient . . . what else can one say? Perhaps it should have a few drive-up windows through which to pay, meet, lobby, complain, etc., etc., etc.
I went outside feeling like my appetite for something good had not been sated and then discovered the best thing about the new complex. On the southwest corner, I found an old friend. It is a magnificent umbrella of a tree with large overlapping branches hovering above the ground in a cantilevered fashion that seems to defy gravity.
This elm is so dramatic, and so unique in the Utah tree world, that it deserved more than what it is now relegated to. It felt much better a few years ago sitting in the middle of an ample lawn, with freedom for the drama of its magnificent branching. It was the prominent feature in a small urban landscape. It is still there with its wonderful "want to sit under" shape, but it no longer has the luxury of space. It is significant enough, and was so crucially located, that it should have been a focal point, a bridge or a handshake between the new and the old public buildings in this environment. Instead, it is pushed aside and now relegated to a back corner, like a much-sought-after pecan buried under a mound of artificial whipped cream.
What of the other buildings in the neighborhood? They are still there and they still have their integrity. The old County Building in all of its classic grandeur is standing tall and fortunately was left with enough room around it to breathe. But instead of addressing the County Building, the new neighbor chooses to turn its back, ignoring its patriarchal kin. The County Building, the Tabernacle and the buildings along Center Street still hold the fabric of Provo together despite the aloof intrusion of the new State Office Building.
Provo needs new buildings to keep it functioning and growing properly, and these new buildings should not be eclectic clones of a bygone era. Nonetheless, they should have substance. Architecture that knows its place holds hands with its neighbors and holds them in high regard.
Writing about the State Office Building in Provo is difficult. It is new, clean and likely efficient. It seems to have reasonable space around it. It is not glaring in color, texture or form. All of the above would normally make for a satisfactory solution in a historically sensitive environment. But, I find the complex blase. What is exciting about artificial whipped cream? It does the job but it isn't the real thing, and you always know it isn't the real thing. It lacks substance.
In our artificial, look-alike world, we buy these substitutes. The new state building may look, smell, feel and taste like the real thing, but it seems concocted - like artificial whipped cream on warm, homemade pie. It is anti-climactic. It has taken away from, not added to, the proven fragrance and taste of Provo.
* Joseph Linton is an architect in Highland, Utah County. He welcomes other viewpoints.