An early leader in historic preservation, Utah has been nationally recognized for its work on recording, reuse, rehabilitation, restoration and even reconstruction of its built history. Since the 1960s, the efforts of the Utah Heritage Foundation and the Division of State History have met with remarkable success, and there is heightened concern for our past architectural achievements.
Success, however, is commonly followed by the imitative and superficial. New construction, mimicking the expression of an earlier period as a skin treatment, devalues and mocks the original work. Epoxied, 19th-century facades do not contribute to a vital city. The architecture of vital cities is an organic growth. It tells of our past lives, our current abilities and, especially, the quality of our present ideas.We have, or will have, pseudo-Grecian light-rail stations; an echo of 1930s Art Deco office buildings; newly aged apartments; a cloned, demi-classic courts building; a hotel that will appear prematurely gray and wrinkled; and 40 acres of new/old structures purporting to be of the era of the Union Pacific Depot. These add nothing to our culture, our understanding or our heritage. Shall we be an Olympic village designed by General Potemkin?
At least two generations have been subjected to the simulated (if slightly shrunken) history exhibited by Disney theme parks. Now, when representative groups are asked their architectural and urban design preferences, they vote for a never-never reality. They vote for a stage set, a sanitized gay-'90s gas-lamp model. Meanwhile, Utah builders exploit the Disney effect by "traditionalizing" their houses.
We locally pride ourselves on having some advanced thought in medicine, science, technology, business and performing arts. An intellectually stimulating, vibrant city/state would also have leadership in contemporary visual arts and an urbane, dynamic civic environment to reward our individual and public lives.
Where are the creative architects and their knowing clients? Recent major projects in Salt Lake City have almost all been designed by outlanders, often contemptuous of us Utah rubes. Local clients, both private and public, have gone for the cachet of the "outside expert,"' dismissing a whole body of Utah talent starving for real opportunity. (The new LDS Assembly Building is the exception,: an a case of an outside architect but a contemporary building that promises to be the church's best since the tabernacle.) The new buildings reflect the taste of the owner, the developer or, too often, their bankers. The historic architecture we admire was a product of the best contemporary work that a particular generation could do. Have we now lost faith in our ability to do work that may be considered worthy in the future?
That there is a generic Utah architectural look, or feel, needing to be perpetuated is nonsense. We must respect our legitimate past but cease abusing that history. The issue cannot be dismissed as simply a matter of individual taste. It is a matter of honest creativity for the 21st century. Utah does not deserve architectural pablum, nor should it walk backward into the next millennium.