Debate begins on CMCA in Rockland

By The Courier-Gazette Editorial Board | Dec 25, 2013

It was interesting to watch New York City architect Toshiko Mori present her proposed design for the new Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland to the city Planning Board.

The contemporary art museum is planned for 21 Winter St. The proposal is to tear down the old garage that has served as art galleries, owned by Bob Liberty, and replace the structure with a new contemporary building. Her drawings show a clean design for the building, all right angles, a saw-tooth roof and a little fenced-in courtyard.

It looks very much like a contemporary art museum and not at all like a red brick, 19th-century store. And that's where the conflict begins.

George Terrien of the Planning Board was very firm in asserting the need to bring this design into conformance with the city's zoning regulations for this part of the downtown. The codes call for buildings made of brick or clapboard, with fancy cornices and a door or window every few feet.

Terrien's best point was concern about one long unbroken wall going down the street. Kind of boring for the pedestrian.

Mori pointed out, however, that this was not going to be another downtown store, it is going to be a contemporary art institution.

The question really is, what is the purpose of our zoning regulations? For the most part, we put zoning in place to protect the community's character and honor its history. It prevents businesses, especially national chains, from putting a cheap, ugly building in the middle of the community, a building that only serves the company's bottom line. Without zoning, Rockland would quickly end up looking like every other strip of the American landscape.

One might look to the new Wal-Mart on the hill. We remember descriptions of design features and landscaping from those planning board meetings, but the reality has been little more than a vast warehouse with depressing lighting and tight parking lot clogged with massive snow banks.

A project like CMCA, however, seems a little different. This is an organization founded in artistic principals, that wants to be unique and interesting. The last thing it wants to do is put an ugly or generic building in our downtown.

Does that mean it should be able to do whatever it wants and ignore present zoning? No, but someone listening to that meeting between the architect and planning board would come away with the impression that the zoning is very rigid and leaves the architect few choices.

A creative organization and designer needs a little room to make choices and try new ideas. We hope the city will work with this organization.

We have also heard some sort of knee-jerk negative reactions to CMCA. Residents often express resentment toward nonprofits in our community because property taxes are high. Someone even said this was a boon to the "one percenters," or the wealthy.

Such thinking may be short-sighted. The Farnsworth Art Museum is an example of a very community-minded nonprofit. It not only draws visitors and their dollars to the community: it enriches the lives of residents who live right here in Rockland.

It is open for free to people who live in Rockland and hosts a number of events and interesting exhibits every year. It is good for children growing up in Rockland, especially the 99 percent group, to come into a museum and be exposed to art, ideas and history.

CMCA will help cement Rockland's reputation as an art mecca on the coast, and if it provides even a quarter of the benefit we have received from Farnsworth, we will be better off for it.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Valli Geiger | Dec 26, 2013 11:35

I have to side with George Terrien here. Architects too often want to create a piece of sculpture, a personal "signature" building that has no relationship with the surrounding community and its buildings. In general, these buildings don't hold up over time and lack a sense of "place", meaning they could be built in anywhere, USA.

We have only to look at a few modern attempts in the mid-coast community to know what I mean. Do you still wince when you drive by the trendy stone cube, now Camden National Bank, on Rte 1 in Waldoboro? Or our own TD North building on Union Street? Too many of them destroy the cohesiveness of the town, decrease the enjoyment of walking and lead to safety issues. Eyes on the street, buildings that engage with the street and its walkers lead to a thriving downtown.

I welcome CMCA to the community and its already thriving arts scene, but not at the expense of another modern monstrosity that adds nothing to the community. Buildings live a long time, the turn of the century buildings in Rockland still speak to us, still look beautiful to most people's eyes. The buildings of the 60-80's, not so much. I hope they can engage the community they are moving to as they go back to the drawing board.

Most of the public "hates" modern architecture, it is unfriendly, all sharp angles and to have a long blank wall facing a city street is a terrible idea, one that was thoroughly confirmed as a destroyer of pedestrian life and safety back when Jane Jacobs wrote "The Life and Death of Great American Cities". I hope the planning board sticks to its guns and requires the CMCA to meet community standards and provide an art museum that honors place and community as well as art.

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