Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Short Tour of Arkahoma Architecture

Our old friend the Catoosa Whale, perhaps the mascot of all American roadside "ducks"
There's more to Tulsa than a shameful desire to eradicate the past, including, somewhat to our surprise, a lot that is of architectural interest. We knew that Tulsa has a surprisingly large assortment of Art Deco buildings, and on our last trip there we'd already seen the distant cousin of the World Trade Center that dominates the north end of downtown. This time, though, we got a better sense of the city's overall architectural heritage.

Tulsa seems to be driven almost entirely by oil money—the Deco buildings date to the era when the city and state were first booming on that income, and each one seems to be an attempt to outdo the previous one in perceived opulence. Tulsa has always been a relatively small city, and it seems clear that there was a lot of social interaction among all the leading players, who generally seem to have pushed the city to develop an architectural identity. It is almost certainly not a coincidence that Frank Lloyd Wright's only skyscraper, which we visited in 2004, is in not-so-far-away Bartlesville, home of the Phillips Petroleum fortune.

Price Tower in 2004
This same push seems to have led in the mid-20th century to a significant investment in Modernist architecture, particularly in the government plaza that seems to be a direct and fairly immediate descendant of New York City's Lincoln Center. We both thought that this was pretty well done, with a lot of attention to detail, and the mere fact of it shows that the city leaders placed a premium on architecture.

As you might be able to tell, though, there's not a lot of life on this plaza. This is in large measure because the tower on the right, which used to house City Hall, is at present empty—apparently as part of a conversion to a hotel. As a result, this part of town seems a touch desolate (though the court buildings are doing a robust enough business) and unloved. To wit:

That fountain probably looked a whole lot more delectable when it was new, clean, and filled with water. Or oil. Or, really, anything.
So, wait, City Hall is becoming a hotel? Well, the march of architectural progress waits for no man in Tulsa, nor any institution. From what we can glean, City Hall was frogmarched into this building not too long ago:

There seems to be some feeling that perhaps this was done precipitously. One thing that's not getting quite the priority is the downtown's transit mall—a feature for which readers may remember I have some fondness. This is what happens when you don't invest in upkeep:

No way to treat a transit mall
We also got a look at some of Tulsa's residential and strip commercial architecture, including a sprawling Wright creation:

But things were not all architectural sweetness and light in this part of the world. A few hours to the east, in Arkansas, we found our way to Crystal Bridges—who turned out to be a museum and not a country singer or a porn star. Despite the pedigree of the museum, which is essentially a Lady Bountiful project by a Wal-Mart heiress, we (I think I speak for both of us) had fairly high expectations. The museum buildings were designed by Moshe Safdie—perhaps best known for Habitat 67 in Montreal, another high-water mark of Modernist design—and the grounds were handled by Peter Walker.

The collection of the museum does a tolerable job of illustrating a conventional history of American art; to the extent that it is essentially a primer, it succeeds. At the risk of offending some museum in Fort Smith or wherever, I believe it is also the only thing resembling a contemporary art museum anywhere in the region. (The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City is 200 or so miles to the north.) So it is a good thing in that it is bringing art and awareness of it to a region that probably hasn't seen too much of it. Some of the choices are peculiar—but when you limit your collection to things you can buy outright all at once, that's going to happen. We did note and like the much stronger representation of female artists, particularly of more recent decades.

Unfortunately, the main buildings look like a few glassy armadillos clustered around an algae-choked pond, and the gallerie within them are dark, rectangular boxes that don't take the least advantage of the sweeping views or the natural light. The grounds, too, are awkward. We can only speculate whether Safdie and Walker phoned in their work or whether they were overly constrained by their client and the chosen terrain.

Odd spaces abound.
To be fair, there was something of a drought on, so the presumably desired sparkling aquatic feeling would have pretty lacking in any event. But then again, shouldn't the design have better anticipated the Arkansas climate?

This little retaining wall kept what water there was on-site. 
Nothing says "Let's have a snack" like this intestinal Claes Oldenburg
sculpture in the dining area.
Bentonville itself looked like Bedford Falls South. We did admire the design and flow of the Wal-Mart corporate museum, which didn't make me think of The Manchurian Candidate more than ten or twelve times. The museum is located in not-actually-the-first-Wal-Mart, on the twee-as-can-be town square. Here's a town that is as in thrall to its dominant industry as Tulsa has been to its—but look how much less they've made of it.

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