For a cultural center to work it’s not just the buildings that matter, says Adrian Ellis, it’s everything in between that really counts
Cultural districts – quarters with a high density of art galleries, museums, theaters and concert halls – have become the anchors of a formidable swathe of urban development projects around the world from Rio to Montreal, Helsinki to Melbourne, Hong Kong to Abu Dhabi. Many more are in the pipeline.
These “top down” exercises often get bad press in the mistaken belief that the great cities they seek to emulate such as Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, New York and London were organic, slo-mo, naturally occurring phenomena that cannot and should not be manufactured. How nouveau riche to try...
This is, of course, to misunderstand, – often with a daft, sniffy hauteur – how those cities took their shape and character, which was through forceful top-down planning. Haussmann, Nash and Schinkel were planners and architects of ruthless self-confidence and with an almost totalitarian mandate, expunging the past and the present with barely a thought. In contrast, cultural districts are now usually planned, even in the least consultative of political cultures, with agonized attention (rhetorical or real) to community input and vigorous genuflections to history.
But for all the deliberations, the cultural district boom still seems to have two blind spots. First, this is happening as high culture sometimes struggles for audiences as well as financial support from the box office, philanthropy and public sector. Audiences for high arts are under threat, the reasons well understood, and the business model for arts organizations challenged as a result. Whatever the sizzle, when the steak is not as appetizing as it has been, is building steak houses the best strategic bet for urban regeneration? Not unless serious effort is given to working out how the buildings’ occupants can develop audiences and programs in a way that is relevant and meaningful for the communities for whom these projects are the centerpiece.
The second challenge is that the big difference between successful and less successful cultural districts lies in whether thought has been given to the animation of the surrounding public spaces and provision for outdoor performances, smaller-scale galleries, live music in cafés and bars, craft studios and maker spaces, informal gathering spaces and educational facilities. The small stuff that feels like background is as important in making a compelling destination as the more grandiose cultural temples in the foreground. The “software” and the infill are as important for success as the iconic and photogenic hardware that grabs the headlines. And it takes careful planning and supportive economics – well beyond the architects’ paygrade – to attract artists and makers, collocating production and consumption, and to ensure that street-level animation is viable.
Cities are striving to become less interchangeable, less commodified, more distinctive. Expressive and iconic architecture and bespoke must-see spectacles are handy weapons in that battle. The arts community has stepped up to the challenge with enthusiasm and intelligence, and sometimes more than a little expediency. There is barely a forum you can think of – urban regeneration, health, tourism, economic development, inward investment – in which the arts community is not an active, articulate and canny participant.
The committed capital expenditure in the pipeline for investment in cultural infrastructure over the next 10 to 20 years is staggering. Planners should not fixate on buildings themselves, but make sure they are designed for truly compelling programs and that between the buildings are vibrant, attractive public spaces for the communities they aspire to serve.
Adrian Ellis is the Director of the Global Cultural Districts Network and founder of AEA Consulting, an international practice that specializes in arts management. From 2007 to 2012 he was Executive Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.