Arts & Events » Arts and Culture

The Arc de Triumph

A rare opportunity for a grand civic space.

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The design of the courthouse promises judges coveted views eastward past the rooftops and cupolas of St. Peter's and St. Paul's churches and toward Capitol Square beyond. But architect Stern wisely puts the building entrance facing Broad near Eighth Street so the building will salute Broad Street with both pedestrian flow and the architectural grandeur of the sweeping arc.

This offers a solution for the whopping hole in the ground: Now that the courthouse has taken form, it's clear that its spectacular arc cries out to be answered across the street with another arc of the same 90-degree radius. These two pie-shaped wedges, when combined with Seventh Street, would form a spectacular 180-degree, protractor-shaped space that could become a major piazza by closing Seventh Street on special occasions. It would form a grand space for street fairs, concerts, political rallies and other public events.

More often than not, such outdoor plazas — large or small — in American cities are disaster areas. They are poorly defined by surrounding structures, inadequately programmed, underused and sometimes barren, windswept repositories for clunky abstract sculpture.

But something special is emerging at Seventh and Broad streets. First, by building another building with a 90-degree arc, the courthouse will make splendid good sense architecturally, whereas standing alone it will look, well, peculiar. Second, much of the piazza would disappear when Seventh Street remained open (which would be most of the time). Third, we need a handsome but utilitarian downtown public space. Festival Park, which occupies leftover space between the 6th Street Food Court and the Coliseum, works well enough for rock concerts and other events, but has no overriding aesthetic. Capitol Square, a glorious public space, is mostly hillside and too crowded with historical reliquaries to accommodate special events. We need a versatile downtown space worthy of a sophisticated state capital.

The new arc-shaped building itself could house office functions. Rents paid to the Carpenter Center would generate revenue for operating and programming at the performing arts venue. There is significant precedent for putting real estate to work for cultural organizations: In New York City, the Museum of Modern Art and Carnegie Hall have both constructed adjacent, income-generating residential towers.

The ground level of the new arc-shaped building would house restaurants and retail activity opening onto, and giving life to, the piazza. Modest retail spaces for such operations have all but disappeared from this part of town.

A friend suggested the idea for a flanking arc-shaped building in passing after he realized how dramatic the courthouse arc would be. He's absolutely right: One good arc deserves another. And a piazza here would work well considering its context. There is a beautiful view of the river down Seventh Street, the buildings on the north side of Broad create a solid flanking urban wall and even the art deco tower of the Verizon building at Seventh and Grace would be an important part of the visual action.

Public spaces with 180-degree arcs are not new. Rome's Piazza della Repubblica, at the head of Via Nationale near the train station, has a dramatic, arced arcade that was built in 1886 to create an entryway to the center of the city. The federal triangle in Washington, D.C., has grand buildings forming 180-degree outdoor spaces. Broad Street could benefit from a dose of baroque grandeur in the form of a piazza breaking the handsome procession of mostly public buildings.

The new building need not mimic the stone facing slated for the courthouse. The arc form is so powerful that glass or any number of facings could work.

Rarely do walls talk more clearly than they do here. The uncertainty of an expanded Carpenter Center opens the door for something different to happen in the space that could be income-producing, not just architecturally spectacular. S

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