Each to his own
When I was told that my days as a full-time newspaperman were over, one of many reactions was a sense of relief at no longer being tied to the annual cycle of things that happen and have to be covered, such as events in which people wave sticks and throw things at each other, Christmas, July Fourth, etc. However some things do come up now and again that are much juicier in content and certainly worth spending time on more than once.
Thus we find our fair city exercising itself over the business of whether to allow a modern art gallery to be built in a modern manner on Winter Street, or whether we should make it look somewhat like the defunct and much remodeled 1920s or '30s garage that occupies the spot at the moment.
I have gone back and forth on this debate before. I thought the new Middle School on Broadway should have been built in a more fitting manner, according to similar structures in town. Now I am so used to the strange pile they actually put up that I hardly even notice it any more. Sigh. Likewise, I was so irritated by the hideous extension to the Knox County Courthouse that was built a decade ago that I likened it to a piece of raw and bloody beef sitting on Union Street. In this case I still think it is a most inept piece of civic architecture, which slumps in so a slovenly fashion beside the elegant Victorian courthouse next door.
Perhaps the greatest architectural success in the city these past years is our expanded public library. Not only does the new half fit in with the neighborhood so pleasantly, but it is one of the most usefully modernized public buildings in the county, a fine improvisation on the original early 20th century structure that has succeeded both architecturally and socially. Camden’s underground library extension has certain fascinating qualities, but mostly they are an attempt to have change while avoiding the appearance of change. It is a library for those who like Hobbit architecture. Likewise, when the building that is now Camden’s Rite Aid was put up, it was deliberately disguised at the town’s request to look like the apartment house they tore down to build it, with a fake chimney and pseudo bay window. For Camden, then, embracing change was a question of camouflaging change and pretending it had not actually happened.
Each to his own.
In Rockland I do believe there is definitely a place in the business of developing public architecture for involvement by the city system, but let us embrace the fact that change rejuvinates us. Many readers may be unaware of it, but (as I have been told by certain interested parties) the Rite Aid building on Park Street was tinkered with by the planning board, and the developers were persuaded to add that sort of gable-style thingy to the end that faces Dairy Queen. Not a major innovation, you will agree, but certainly an effort within the general limits of the applicable rules to make the otherwise rather generic structure look less boxy and mechanical.
Likewise, when the new state ferry terminal was built back in the '90s (or so I think it was) city officials were able to prevail upon the designers to add a pitched roof so that it should not look like a large flat slab. The roof actually does, in a dim sort of way I must admit, reflect something of the roofline of 19th century ferry buildings that once occupied the foot of Tillson Avenue.
In my opinion the score card stands thus: Middle School — a bit of a bore but not so as you’d notice. Courthouse extension — a “tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing” expressed in an aimless pile of cute brick. Rite Aid — could have been a whole heck of a lot worse. Ferry terminal — saved at the last minute from being yet another dreadful heap. Public library extension — probably the best thing we’ve done in a century, and worth every penny.
The issues with the proposed Center for Maine Contemporary Art include the fact that reproductions of design drawings in the newspaper just don’t tell the proper story. Surely there is a three-dimensional model to be seen somewhere? And yes, the city should have a role in saying what public structures look like, but only a certain sort of role. I have cited the ferry terminal and the Rite Aid store, structural amendments which I think were nine-tenths persuasion rather than municipal edict, in support of the public function in design.
The section of our dear city where the CMCA gallery is to be built is in a process of change and improvement. It still has about it a residual atmosphere of the early 1970s, when parts of Rockland were still in their mid-century period of neglect. Do we really want to keep it looking like that?
We should consider how the CMCA project has the potential to transform what is still a more or less behind-the-scenes neighborhood in Rockland, possibly leading to hitherto unimagined but advantageous future land use in that area. I favor creative public input as I have explained above, and I also hope for reasonable public faith in this business.
If I am wrong about all this, I promise I will throw myself from the tallest of the concrete towers I inhabit at the foot of Mechanic Street. But I warn you full well; the last time I did that the Four Seagulls of the Apocalypse rushed down and caught me.
David Grima is a former editor with Courier Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.