There’s a disturbing trend emerging in suburban Louisville. Resulting from what appears to be a genuine interest in creating a more pleasing suburban landscape, some new developments are pawning a fake history at once dishonest and insulting to new urban fabric and to the original reference. I will discuss two examples from the area in and around Norton Commons in the east end. It should become apparent that this model of falsifying history is not only the wrong approach for development anywhere but carries cultural baggage about the meaning of our city.[ Please note that I am limiting the definition of architectural honesty for the purposes of this discussion to only a couple egregious examples. An endless and ongoing debate in the architectural community continues to struggle with the more nuanced ideas of design integrity and I don’t wish to cast this article upon the crucible of opposing architectural theory. Perhaps there will be another discussion in the future. ]
It appears that we are literally creating two cities of Louisville. A new strip mall called Chamberlain Pointe on Brownsboro Road on the site of a former nursery and garden center has taken for its architectural inspiration some of the iconic buildings of Downtown Louisville. While only the first phase is finished, the project calls for replicating Union Station, the Frazier Museum building, the Actors Theater building, and several others typical of West Main Street. In total, the two-story structure will be broken into over 20 facade segments.
I hope it’s obvious that creating clones of existing historic buildings is absurd, especially when our building practices cannot even replicate an historic structure accurately. While the original Bank of Louisville building built in 1838 was crafted of stone by one of Kentucky’s most celebrated architects, the modern day equivalent is crudely made from EIFS (synthetic stucco over a Styrofoam base more or less) and what appears to be a stone veneer. Take a look at the photo comparison above and it becomes clear that the end product is a joke of the original. How can we stand to build a caricature of our history and act as if nothing is wrong?
Besides dishonesty, these examples demonstrate a clear lack of creativity for shaping the built environment. Instead of contributing something original, they attempt to carbon copy an existing structure. A more productive, albeit more difficult and expensive, exercise could be to discern the rules governing the composition of the historic buildings in Louisville and apply those lessons in an original way. (Let’s ignore the implications of the urban form of strip mall development for now and focus on the facades.)
Similarly disturbing is a structure in the town center of the Norton Commons development. While some critics have dismissed the entire notion of building with an historical “town” aesthetic that is common in New Urbanism, I can only find fault with design that is poorly executed or blatantly dishonest. Most of Norton Commons’ town center is fine and doesn’t fall victim to the traps found in “Engine House 7,” but this building never housed a firetruck. Its first occupant was a pet store.
It’s no secret to anyone that Norton Commons is brand new and there’s no shame in that. Everything was new once including the structures that these buildings clone or emulate. Are we building ourselves a theme park to live in or do we just not care what anything means anymore?
There’s an interesting and admittedly quite challenging book called Simulacra and Simulation by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard that discusses some of what is at play here in our Postmodern world. A simulacrum is a representation of reality that becomes more real than the original. Baudrillard posits that Disneyland’s idealized Main Street has become more real to many than the real thing. The argument is more complex than I have space to write here, but interesting nonetheless.
Now that these structures are built, how will we interact with them culturally? How will we explain these fake structures to our children and what does it say about the society that built them? When the “Engine House 7” grows older and inherits a patina that gives it gravity, will it cause us to look differently upon authentic fire houses that have been repurposed? Will future generations venture downtown and say, “There’s that building from the suburbs!”