Monday, February 18, 2008

Pointed Questions About Pyramid Future

Finally, someone is asking the right questions about The Pyramid.

Someone is stepping back to ask the “real” question about its future.

Someone is willing to consider that the two best ideas for the darkened arena may not just be the ones that coincidentally walked through the door.

Someone is willing to suggest that it’s not simply a choice between Plan A and Plan B.

Someone is willing to speak the truth: we are having the wrong conversation, and in doing so, we limit our own possibilities.

Someone is willing to consider that the land occupied by the project could be put to a higher and better use than remaining as a perpetual monument to our civic sense of unworthiness.

Amen And Amen

That someone seems to be City Councilman Shea Flinn, and all we can say in the wake of his questions about the proposed uses for the old arena is, “Amen.”

As Councilman Flinn said to The Commercial Appeal: “We need to see what else is out there, so we can test the market and see what the market says about it.”

Only to those fixed in their position and fixated on the building itself does this sound revolutionary. To the rest of us, it just sounds like good business.

An Iconic Failure

As he logically puts it up, when we couple The Pyramid site and Mud Island, we open up new possibilities that we may not even have imagined at this point. Heck, maybe there’s even a way that the land could be used for the best of all worlds – in a way that could draw on the Riverfront Development Corporation’s idea from a few years ago for new, high-quality development along the river and Friends for our Riverfront’s positions about green space.

If the site could become the answer to ending the kind of controversy that has nagged us for too long, The Pyramid could actually become a symbol of a growing maturity in its very absence.

The notion by some – notably The Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck yesterday – that The Pyramid is an architectural signature for Memphis is on its best days simply ludicrous. On its worst days, it’s the kind of misguided thinking that got us in this mess to begin with.

Symbol For What?

Mr. Peck, who often seems to have a tenuous grip on what makes Memphis tick, sees The Pyramid as Memphis’ answer to the Eiffel Tower, the St. Louis Arch and other comparable city landmarks. But the truth is that those icons are reflective of those city’s ambitions, successes and aspirations.

The Pyramid is just the opposite - a constant reminder of the price we pay for low expectations, lack of ambition, lack of national standards for public investments and an Elvis-like tendency toward kitsch.

I guess that’s why the notion of demolishing The Pyramid has never upset us. To us, it’s never been an architectural gem – the design is too pedantic, the building materials too cut-rate and the setting too depressing – and because of it, The Pyramid stands as a symbol all right - our tendency to settle for cheapness in a world where successful cities are being defined by quality.

Fish Photos

Mr. Peck’s clincher for his argument for The Pyramid is that there are 1,500 photos of the deserted arena on Flickr. We just couldn’t help but wonder how many photos will be taken if there’s a 50 x 60 foot leaping bass added to all four sides?

But maybe Mr. Peck’s instincts are right. There are 12,330 photos of Paris Hilton on Flickr, so maybe someone in City Hall should contact her for exclusive rights to her museum for her career, a Pyramid scheme if there ever was one.

As for us, we prefer to think that if we’re looking for the iconic symbol for Memphis, it’s the river, stupid. It’s still the most visited and most photographed site in our city, and frankly, we think the view is improved if the jarring presence of The Pyramid was gone for good.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

When I look at the Pyramid I don't see cheap materials. I do see an interesting skyline additive, and with a few lights or neon additions, I see an attractive anchor on our riverfront, vacant or not.

As for Pyramid use, plans should be made in the context of the entire riverfront, Fairgrounds and Shelby Farms/Wolf River. The fragmented, isolated decision-making process for these facilities will produce isolated, fragmented attractions, which will be weaker in their separate states than if blended to complement one another.

Smart City Consulting said...

Here's why we say cheap materials. The "skin" of The Pyramid was changed from the original plans which were a gold mirrored surface to a second plan that had a seamless silver sheened surface, but finally, the present surface was selected because it was the cheapest. As a result of the changes, it allows the pidgeons to roost on the building and it has the seams that are so obvious.

In addition, the quality of the concrete was changed, and as a result, before it ever opened, cracks appeared.

Finally, in the pursue of cheapness, the entrance was modified and the most upgraded finishes removed.

All in all, The Pyramid was an exercise in cheapness from top to bottom. The notion that we could build a "state of the art" pyramid arena now is so ludicrous, it is hard to believe that we swallowed it. If you want to see the difference in quality to a higher quality arena - design, materials, etc. - we need only visit FedEx Forum.

Where you see an interesting skyline additive, we see something that's totally incongruous to downtown Memphis and deserves to be down in a hole.

We second your comments about the fragmented decision-making. Great point.

bob said...

Tearing it down because it gives you psychic relief from the pain of your past mistakes doesn't seem to me to be well-founded rationale. Rather, it just closes the loop and underscores what you've many times identified as a Memphis problem.

We have low self-esteem. We look for the fast fix by building pretty but too often ill-conceived stuff. When relief doesn't come fast enough, we abandon them, and then go build newer stuff something else. Rinse, repeat. Our City is littered with built/abandoned monuments to our addiction to the quick and easy fix.

You're just proposing that we tear that old stuff down so we don't have to be reminded of our regrets.

Don't get me wrong. If the best solution for the property requires demolishion of the Pyramid, then by all means do so.

But I couldn't give two bits about your psychic pain. I didn't build the damned thing, so I don't feel guilty when I look at it. I'm used to it. It's kinda cool, even.

I prefer your idea of making it into a convention annex. Run the numbers.

made our own bed said...

The Pyramid would not be empty were it not for the ill-guided decision to let the Forum have first right of refusal on every event that comes to town.

That is the bad decision.

Amie said...

If you want to attract CREATIVE people to Memphis, do you think tearing down yet another 'mistake' and going back to the drawing board about what to do with an empty lot is going to attract them?

The fact is that the Pyramid is there, regardless of the reasons of why or how... I think if we could band together as a city, pool the creative resources we already have, and cut through some of the bs, we can find an appropriate use for it, and when we do, I think it will be a symbol of how we OWN AND THEN FIX our mistakes instead of tearing them down and pretending they never happened.

I defend this city with every breath I take, but when I hear this kind of thing, it depresses the hell out of me and /almost/ makes me want to give up the fight. Memphis needs to see that to be a great city, we need to start acting like a great city, and following a set of formulas is not the way to be a great city. I would also suggest that we need to define what we think will make us a great city. We should stop tearing everything down and start really planning things.

What do we want for Memphis? Better quality of life? What are the goals? How can we create a vision to satisfy these goals with the buildings we already have, and I mean ALL of them? Stop and think. Use critical thinking skills and resources. Look at the whole picture. Plan for the FUTURE, not just quick fix everything to death. How can we create greenways that interconnect the entire city, same with public transportation? How do we create more jobs? How do we improve our school system? I saw that you touted a weekend planning to start a new company... why don't we have a weekend that puts all kinds of different people in a room to strategize a comprehensive plan for our city's future instead of starting a new company? How can we get the people of Memphis to UNIFY instead of divide? It is going to take a lot of work and a lot of, here's that word again, CREATIVITY... it's not just about a certain class of people, it's about every person in the city, rich or poor, black or white, educated or uneducated... we all serve our purposes, so we need to work together to figure out what we all want and how we can get there.

I am tired of seeing defeatist attitudes, finger pointing and whining, and I guarantee you that until we fix this, you will not get your dream of new 25-34 year old 'creative people' and you might also lose the creative people you already have that are tired of listening to all this talk and no action.

Smart City Consulting said...

Bob: This wasn't about any psychic pain. We're not sure where you came up with that one. Other cities tear down mistakes or outdated facilities every day - from a baseball stadium in places like Atlanta to downtown interstates. We think that Councilman Flinn is right to consider what the possibilities really are for the site.

Smart City Consulting said...

Made our own bed:

It's not that simple. If there had been no non-compete with The Pyramid, the city and county governments would now be paying the operating losses for FedExForum in exchange for having another venue downtown. In return for the non-compete, the Grizzlies ownership took all operating losses at FedEx Forum. That still feels like a good deal to us.

Smart City Consulting said...

Amie:

Your questions was: "If you want to attract CREATIVE people to Memphis, do you think tearing down yet another 'mistake' and going back to the drawing board about what to do with an empty lot is going to attract them?"

Our answer: yes. If nothing else, it shows that we are a city looking forward rather than looking back, that we are willing to consider options that create more vibrancy, and that our traditional creativity is not confined to music and entrepreneurship.

As we said earlier, other cities don't hesitate to tear down unwanted buildings, mistakes in civic investment, or duplicate facilities. We don't know why we are so reluctant. Interestingly, some of the cities that have shown the boldness to so this - Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, Charlotte, Boston - also coincidentally (?) are some of the most successful today.

We agree with you that we need to start acting like a great city. We think that is precisely what we're advocating.

We agree with all of your questions, because they are definitive questions for our city to address. We just don't see how the presence of The Pyramid contributes to any of them being answered in any progressive way.

As for 25-34 year-olds, we believe that in an election, the majority would vote with us. After all, in the entire time The Pyramid was open, the best approval rating that it ever got was still under 50 percent.

Smart City Consulting said...

Amie:

Your questions was: "If you want to attract CREATIVE people to Memphis, do you think tearing down yet another 'mistake' and going back to the drawing board about what to do with an empty lot is going to attract them?"

Our answer: yes. If nothing else, it shows that we are a city looking forward rather than looking back, that we are willing to consider options that create more vibrancy, and that our traditional creativity is not confined to music and entrepreneurship.

As we said earlier, other cities don't hesitate to tear down unwanted buildings, mistakes in civic investment, or duplicate facilities. We don't know why we are so reluctant. Interestingly, some of the cities that have shown the boldness to so this - Seattle, Portland, Atlanta, Charlotte, Boston - also coincidentally (?) are some of the most successful today.

We agree with you that we need to start acting like a great city. We think that is precisely what we're advocating.

We agree with all of your questions, because they are definitive questions for our city to address. We just don't see how the presence of The Pyramid contributes to any of them being answered in any progressive way.

As for 25-34 year-olds, we believe that in an election, the majority would vote with us. After all, in the entire time The Pyramid was open, the best approval rating that it ever got was still under 50 percent.

PeskyFly said...

Oh---

Smart City, if you could see with fresh eyes only what is, rather than what should have been.

The Pyramid's not perfect, and maybe outright campy. And that sounds like Memphis to me.

My daughters wonder at it. My out of town guests do too (and go crazy for old Ozymandius out front).

As an uptowner who wants to see the Pinch develop, I have some interest here. And I'm with Shea--- explore the options. But when I stand on my porch and see that pyramid looming over and through the trees, I've got to hope it can become everything it was ever intended to be. Or at the very least something useful. We're a mythic city, and from its shape to its crystal skull it's a mythic structure.

Tear it down? For something assuredly awesome, sure. But I'll always love it. Seams, hole, and all.

Considering The Pyramid's relationship to the city's skyline is amusing. It's really not much of a skyline, and none of it makes any sense. Besides, the tomb pairs nicely enough with the M-bridge, as a greeter for eastbound traffic.

If we simply must say nasty things about contemporary Memphis architecture, I'd look a little further South on Riverside, and the horrible penis like welcome station. That's what we talk about when we talk about incongruity. I know, it's not a nagging white elephant. It's just an ugly green penis on Riverside. Nothing to be done.

Smart City Consulting said...

Pesky:

We refer to that structure as part of Memphis' penis envy period. It got us the welcome center and the clock tower on main street and more.

gatesofmemphis said...

Those who like the Pyramid aren't "looking back" (what to? the glory days of Bill Morris and Dick Hackett? woohoo!) In fact, the belief that demolition == looking forward is an old, tired, and boredom-spawning Memphis fantasy that has never come true. We don't get rocket pads and biodomes; we get parking lots and brownfields.

High Camp or the Eighth Wonder of the World, we like the building.

Smart City Consulting said...

Gates:

It's just awfully hard to see camp as a competitive advantage for Memphis.

For the record, we thought that putting a shiny pyramid on our skyline in the first place wasn't a shining hour of public decision-making. It's so clear that if we wanted an arena downtown, we shouldn't have had to put it inside a malfunctioning building to do it. It could have been where the Forum is today, but the city fathers were too afraid to do it.

Maybe we'll feel different when there are bass logos on all of its sides.

amie said...

If the pyramid is torn down, what would you like to see in it's place? I simply think tearing down the pyramid without a plan to do something with the space is typical of waste. There is too much tearing down without rhyme or reason and THAT is the issue I am concerned with. This is not a problem limited to Memphis, and just because other cities are ok with tear down and sprawl-type activities, doesn't make it ok.

Just out of curiosity, what makes the cities you mentioned 'successful'? Also, what did they tear down, and what did they replace torn down buildings with? Did they have plans for the replacements before they tore them down?

Smart City Consulting said...

Amie:

Here's an earlier post where we suggested that The Pyramid and its parking lots become a festival ground to take the pressure off Tom Lee Park and make the area of the old arena green: http://smartcitymemphis.blogspot.com/2005/06/carols-thoughts-on-re-use-of-pyramid.html

We don't disagree with you about considering what an alternative plan could be. That's why we found Councilman Flinn's proposal so reasonable and timely. But as Mayor Herenton has even said - while romancing Bass Pro - perhaps it just never worked and needs to be removed. We think there's a need for more information and creativity given to solutions before anything definitive is done to the building. We just think we need to shake up our thinking, and that seems to be happening.

It's hard to think of a city that has such an incongruity on its skyline (there's the one in Las Vegas but incongruity is the name of the game there). We think of cities that tore up highways to put in parks, tore out old arenas for new art museums, etc. The list is pretty long.

gatesofmemphis said...

The Pyramid gives us no competitive advantage in isolation, but as contributor to a richer texture of Memphis, it does.

Like the Jungle Room. People would think we're hillbillies if all we talked about was how great the Jungle Room is. But it is a beautiful thread in Memphis' tapestry.