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December 19, 2006

Guest Commentary: Promoting mediocrity in arena design

In a Dec. 10 op-ed piece in The Courier-Journal, I spoke in favor of a bold, modern and iconic design solution for the new downtown arena on the riverfront, something that would also achieve maximum interior functionality while, at the same time, successfully interacting with surrounding neighbors. I believe that with bold vision and daring thinking, all three are possible in one building.The C-J editorial board disagreed.In an opposing view four days later, they not only countered but actively promoted mediocrity. Celebrating the choice of less bold designs for the Ohio River Bridges Project, which also happened to be less favored by the majority of citizens who chose to comment, the C-J board argued that the bridge committee rightly “resisted the temptation to create icons — structures that would do more to call attention to themselves than to meet the needs for which they are built or to enhance the places where they are located.” Then they called on those choosing design options for the new downtown arena to do the same. In other words, as they summed up, “… to fit in.”How unfortunate.And what an interesting point of view, considering that it was The Courier-Journal that helped lead the charge to put the new arena in an iconic location on the riverfront, citing the site’s high visibility as a major reason to do so.Over and over again, the C-J editorial writer(s) insisted that we shouldn’t strive to have it all.“What the facility will do is more important than how it will look,” the editorial said, as though an iconic structure, proper integration and internal function are mutually exclusive concepts. Perhaps they are — for those who fear risk.What is more bothersome, beyond this particular project, are the consequences for this community from The C-J’s line of thinking, which, more times than not, has been the Louisville way. Don’t be too “trendy” or too bold, but then complain when we continue to be outflanked.Too often, when considering a major initiative or project, the first question many Louisvillians ask is, “What have Indianapolis and Nashville already done?” It’s as though our vision extends no further than a quick drive north or south on I-65.Why can’t our new arena be a bold, modern statement garnering international acclaim, rather than a predictable rehash of local and state history, which has already been done at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis? Why should we copy the Conseco concept and “Disneyfy” Louisville Slugger or Churchill Downs on an arena concourse when they sit just down the street, or re-create cast iron facades when we can marvel at the real thing three or four blocks away?The C-J says we should exhibit “an exquisite kind of restraint.” Perhaps what they really meant was exquisite surrender — away from bold thinking, the challenge of demanding and working toward something the rest of world, beyond our regional neighbors, won’t expect from Louisville, Kentucky.When this community begins such a conversation, as did The C-J, with self-imposed limitations, it’s little wonder we tend to follow rather than lead. Why can’t we have it all? As I said in the first op-ed, “To continue to insist upon mandatory links to the past, we cheat ourselves and our city of the chance to lead.”Downtown is a living, breathing cornucopia of all that was, is and will be Louisville. The C-J, unfortunately, wants to concentrate on “recapturing its past” rather than speaking to and taking the risks necessary to enliven our collective future.Hopefully, those who choose the new arena design will not be so afraid.The building should speak to who we want to be rather than who we have been. Too often, people see Louisville on a map and keep looking. I want them to think of Louisville first, then pull out a map to find out how to get here. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com