Architecture for the people, by the people. Sounds ideal and democratic, right? It’s also from across the pond. Apparently, a British conservative think tank has come up with the idea for an “X-List,” a public poll of undesirable public buildings, to be implemented in the near future if the country’s political winds blow to the right. Condemned eyesores would be discussed for three months before a final decision is made whether or not to demolish them.

Angela Cesere

And it’s not just about aesthetics. Issues of abandonment and social blight are key in determining a building’s value – or lack thereof.

This policy would give the people a direct say in how their cityscape evolves around them. New York City’s exhausting fight against Donald Trump and his towers comes to mind: Should the public have the last, legitimate say in terms of public architecture?

It certainly happens with art.

The classic example is Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” from 1981, a 10-foot-high, 120-foot-long black arc that extended across the breadth of New York City’s Federal Plaza. As a result of widespread public outcry, the sculpture was dismantled in 1989.

The response was singular: Serra’s piece was seen both as a symbol of elitist art and in practical terms did nothing to improve the plaza’s overall comfort.

Is architecture not an art to be debated on the same grounds? The plans for the University’s North Quad were scrapped for their lack of aesthetic cohesion. The Frieze Building, intended to be demolished in favor of North Quad, found many staunch defenders declaiming the building’s historical (and for some, visual) value. Stipulations in the original Law Quad contract decreed that any expansion would have to be executed in matching rusticated stone and Gothic revival architecture. As a result, the significant library expansion went underground – literally. A little further away, in Paris, the Louvre’s 1989 renovation, specifically Ieoh Ming Pei’s glass Louvre Pyramid, sparked much public debate.

And our own Big House? Not only is it the current renovation a subject of intense debate, but don’t forget 1998’s maize and blue “halo,” a costly project that ultimately was taken down due to significant public outrage.

Public dialogue and compromise regarding architecture is the norm, we might think (Trump and his towers notwithstanding), but the Brits’ radical X-List plan would take the debate one step further. The hope is that in time Britain’s cities and their architecture would be revitalized on a broad scale – assuming there are enough developers eager to make use of the new free space.

It could be argued that such an approach would keep both egregious and ahead-of-the-curve architecture out of the skyline. How can the average citizen indiscriminately determine “bad” and “good” architecture? Such a question hardly seems relevant considering that a popular consensus is, well, popular. Cities would begin to reflect the wishes of their inhabitants, not those with the money. Corporations and the avant-garde be damned.

Be that as it may, a “jury” of architects, engineers and urban planners would eventually lay down the law, so the power is not completely in the hands of the public. There is also the issue that once buildings are torn down, new ones need to take their place. This might be easy in the upper West Side or downtown London, but Detroit? A D-town X-List list would be long, filled with abandoned and forgotten buildings.

(Consider: Object Orange, a Detroit based artist collective responsible for painting condemned buildings in virulent orange as a means to highlight rampant urban blight. Currently, approximately 7,000 buildings are abandoned, and only 2,000 are marked for demolition.)

The X-List concept is certainly viable, but only in economically secure regions. It doesn’t matter how unpleasant and/or unnecessary a building is if there’s no one willing to replace it. But the notion of an X-List speaks to a great need: cohesive, communal urban development.

Our cities would be all the more beautiful because we helped make them so – ideal and plausible.

– E-mail Klein at andresar@umich.edu.

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