Flashback doesn’t get any better than when it features a story by the late great Mary Jo Nelson. If you like what I do, credit her. If you don’t like what I do, then blame me, because no matter what I still fall short of the standard she set over 40 some-odd years.
I was lucky to have known her, to have learned just a fraction of not just what she knew, but how she went about telling stories and also creating the sort of community discussion that made this a better place to live. She was all about urbanism when urbanism wasn’t cool. She was all about old buildings and architecture when they weren’t cool either.
I miss the anxiety I felt whenever my phone rang and it was Mary Jo saying “Steve, this is Mary Jo. About that Century Center Mall story you just wrote …” And then I’d wait. Did I screw something up? If I had, she’d nail me on it. She knew EVERYTHING. And when she was happy with my work, well, that was just great.
Bricktown Project Is Applauded, But-Noted Architect Critical of City’s Downtown Buildings
By Mary Jo Nelson
Sunday, November 21, 1982
Oklahoma City’s latest downtown buildings are “just terrible,” in the eyes of one world-renowned architectural critic.
Hiroshi Watanabe, author of several books and critic for leading art and design journals, candidly describes much of the downtown urban renewal area as “awful.”
But he did praise its plazas, parks and restorations.Given a special tour during a visit here, Watanabe found it “quite informative,” but was not favorably impressed by most new construction. He did find Bricktown, being restored by local developer Neal Horton “very exciting” and called Myriad Gardens and Kerr Park “tremendous.”
Generally, though, he found little to praise in the building architecture.
“Not too much, I’m afraid,” was the designer/planner/critic’s description of how he liked office buildings and other replacements for scores of destroyed structures.
He saw “nothing particularly striking” in the Liberty Tower and Fidelity Bank buildings. But he praised their setbacks, plazas and use of sculpture and flagpoles.
The Kerr-McGee Tower was a building high point. “It’s all right,” he said, giving a solid positive ring to the “all right”. He said it was “very nicely done” and fit into the general scheme of good design. He especially liked its plaza and the tie to Kerr Park.
His harshest criticism was reserved for the three newest downtown structures Mid-America Building, American First and First Oklahoma Towers particularly the 32-story First Oklahoma.
“The office buildings all sort of merge. They are really awful,” he said. Why would the designers, some famous for other works, turn out such creations? Could it have been that the out-of-state architects assigned lesser importance to an Oklahoma project?
“I don’t think they were that cynical. I think they have done very good buildings elsewhere,” said the U.S.-educated native of Japan.
Then he defended the architects in part: “They don’t have a scale to work with. I suppose they weren’t responsible for tearing down what you once had.” Reminded that I.M. Pei, who fashioned the American First Tower, also authored the Pei Plan that destroyed scores of downtown buildings and replaced them with new ones, Watanabe had no answer.
Mostly concrete and glass, the new buildings were seen as an extension of the international/modern movement, which Watanabe acknowledged has fallen into disfavor with much of the worldwide architectural community.
“They are isolated towers, criss-crossed by service roads. They are isolated from the people they are supposed to be for. There is no place for pedestrians. They’re just islands.”
In some instances, he said, the new buildings “turn their backs” on people.
Vincent Carrozza, Dallas developer of the office towers, declined to respond. “I don’t thing I can comment. That is for architects to comment to each other about,” he said.
Response was sought but was not forthcoming immediately from I.M. Pei & Partners in New York and Morris/Aubrey Architects in Houston, designers of First Oklahoma and American First buildings.
Watanabe admired styling and siting of the county courthouse and city hall, but particularly disapproved of placing so many parking garages in the heart of the city. He suggested a better solution would have been to build them on the fringe of downtown and run shuttle buses to the core.
The critic also found the lack of shops and stores deplorable, a deficiency Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority officials recognize and have been attempting to remedy for years.
“What really excited me downtown was Bricktown,” he said. “That is going to be very impressive.” He said some other major North American cities have done restorations similar to the old brick-street warehouse district where developer Horton is restoring several blocks of early statehood buildings.
“The fact that the brickwork is part of the city’s history makes it unique,” the critic said. An apparent lack of concern for history is a flaw in the Oklahoma City urban renewal plan, he believes.
“I think more of a concern for the city’s history might have been shown. I can’t say what quality or historical value the (torn-down) buildings had, but I understand that now there is a continuing effort to save what is left. This should be strengthened and encouraged.”
Watanabe sees the future Myriad Gardens, now under construction, as a “tremendous asset” to downtown. He snapped many pictures of the Gardens and Kerr Park, to be shown to Japanese audiences.
He praised the interior of Sheraton Century Center, but made no comment on its exterior. Restorations of the Skirvin Plaza Hotel, the old Black Hotel, the Montgomery Ward and Harbour Longmire buildings on Main Street were seen as “excellent” and “outstanding.” But he said it was a “negative” to close Main Street at Robinson. That shuts out people, he said.
Although Watanabe didn’t like all of the new downtown, he found other parts of the metropolitan area “very exciting.” Among these was another urban renewal project, the Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. The capitol complex also was highly approved, and he was especially delighted with the oil wells on the capitol grounds. He called the Francis Tuttle Vo-Tech Center an outstanding design.
“This is the type of building that will be of great importance in the future,” he said.
For another, he thrilled to see several Bruce Goff-designed houses, if only from the outside and, in the case of the Ledbetter House in Norman, in the rain.
“I could only see the top of the Bavinger House (in Norman) from the road, but it was exciting anyway.” He also considered the Goff “seven gables” house near Penn Square a high point.
Some of Watanabe’s most enthusiastic praise came in Heritage Hills, a preservation neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The author of several books, Watanabe has been widely published in Asia, North America and Europe. He is a critic for the American Institute of Architects Journal, Asian Wall Street Journal, Japan Times, ARTnews, the Encyclopedia of Japan, and, until recently, Progressive Architecture, a the leading U.S. architectural design magazine.