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Cultural precincts: An old idea?

March 21st, 2010 · 44 Comments

No, I’m not in Bologna or Surrey, as some speculated earlier. I’m in Los Angeles as I write, a city I have grown to be fascinated with because of the way it works and doesn’t in various ways.

Lots of things to write about, but I’ll start with my visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art, where current Vancouver Art Gallery director Kathleen Bartels used to work until she moved north to be with us in 2001. The MOCA’s central gallery is in what I guess is the civic cultural precinct of Los Angeles, though it’s not called that. It’s on a raised section of Grand Avenue near the financial district that is home to MOCA, the Frank Gehry-designed hall for the LA Philharmonic and, next to that, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that is home to LA’s opera company.

And what a empty place it was. We went on a beautiful Thursday afternoon and it was like being there on at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. A few people drifting along the street, a couple of handfuls of visitors at the MOCA — supposedly an architectural thing of wonder, but it looked like a bad 80s office complex to me — and a sense of being cut off from the city. (Too bad, because it is putting on a 30-year retrospective and there was wonderful stuff there: big groups of photos by Robert Frank and Nan Goldin, a whole room of Mark Rothkos, and more.)

It reminded me that every civic “precinct” I can think of has the same feel. The area around San Francisco’s city hall, also loaded with cultural buildings, is one of the few dead-feeling areas of lively San Francisco. Lincoln Centre in New York has never struck me as particularly friendly feeling. And it made me remember that cultural precincts were things that planners came up with in the 50s and 60s, when they imagined that you could remake whole areas of the city into single uses.

The cultural institutions I’ve always enjoyed the most are the ones that are part of an interesting street or plaza: the Musee des Beaux Arts in Montreal, the British Museum surrounded by Bloomsbury, the Beaubourg in the middle of a lively ancient part of Paris (even though they bulldozed part of it to build the modernist spectacle).

But I’d be happy to hear from some of the energetic researchers here if they know of a city that has a lively cultural precinct — that is, a whole district cordoned off for big institutions — because I can’t think of one among my admittedly limited list of cities I know. There’s something about the vast, windswept plazas those kinds of places seem to require that makes them feel not-human-friendly. As well, they’re often set in parts of the city that were being “rehabilitated” or something equally ominous and so they’re not surrounded by a lot of pedestrian-generating businesses.

Some people might think that that applies to all of the Los Angeles downtown, but that would be wrong. Just a few blocks to the south of the precinct is Los Angeles’ old downtown, which feels busy and lively in a 1950s way. The streets are lined with big jewelry stores and the old theatres and hundreds of little businesses. If you took pictures in black and white, the street scene would look like old photos of New York’s downtown in the 1950s where regular people shopped and worked.

The contrast between the two different parts of the downtown made me try to imagine how a new Vancouver Art Gallery could work at that east end of the downtown, removed from the busiest part of the downtown, and what it would need in it and around it so that it wouldn’t become a dead zone.

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