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22 June 2005
Published in the Columbia Tribune 3 July 2005


Canopy Conundrum

A few years ago, I proposed the elimination of the concrete canopy downtown, and the installation of a glass canopy which would span the entire street.  (See the Columbia Tribune for June 20, 2002, or my website.)  I figured that this would create an atrium-like space which would be more friendly to public events such as Twilight Festival, and would allow for the full beauty of the downtown architecture to be enjoyed.  But most importantly, I thought it would get rid of the need for the butt-ugly concrete canopy.

The proposal was ridiculed by many, who said that it would act like a greenhouse or cause some kind of wind tunnel effect, or would'ít be able to withstand the snow load in winter.  I expected that sort of criticism of the idea.  What I didn't expect was what a number of people told me:  they liked the existing concrete canopy.

A few weeks ago, the downtown merchants voiced their opinion that the concrete canopy should be removed, because it is deteriorating, because it is in the way of architectural renovation and, well, because it is butt-ugly.  Currently the question is being studied, since there will be a substantial cost for removing the Stalinesque monstrosity, but my bet is that the money will be found and what's left of the thing removed sometime in the next few years.

Again, a number of people are supporting the canopy.  I guess there's no accounting for taste.  What I find even more disturbing, though, are the people who say that the canopy should be turned over to local artists for painting.

No, no, no.

First off, putting lipstick on a pig don't make it a fashion model.  And slapping some paint on the concrete canopy won't make it into something attractive.

Second, most artists aren't painters.  And the ones that are painters don't usually work on crumbling concrete.  It isn't a surface they're used to working on.  And it would require materials and techniques that they aren't familiar with.

Some artists do like working on such structures, and have developed the requisite technical skills to do so.  But their work is considered to be graffiti.  It is embraced by some, hated by most others.  In fact, many cities go to considerable trouble and expense to remove graffiti.  I doubt that those suggesting that the concrete canopy should be turned over to local artists are thinking graffiti artists.  No, what is usually being suggested is that local painters should paint pretty pictures on the canopy.  Nice, safe landscapes is what they want.

I like landscapes.  I have a number of them, painted by local artists.  But few landscape painters, or even muralists, are going to want to put their work on the canopy for free.  Because that's behind most of the "let local artists do it" comments:  that it would be some kind of free advertising.

Why are artists presumed to want to do something for free just for the exposure?  Particularly in this case, when the medium they are working on is deteriorating?  Chances are that any such paintings would be subject to vandalism, as well.  Who would want that kind of "opportunity"?  If you are a painter, you're going to want to have your work respected and protected, not treated as an interim solution to disguise a butt-ugly concrete monstrosity before it is torn down.

The reason why some people think that turning the canopy over to the artists is a good idea is that they donít have much respect for the artists or their craft.  For them, artists are hobbyists who should be grateful for any chance to put their work before the public, not serious professionals who deserve to be adequately compensated and respected.  So, tossing them a bone like decorating the canopy is a great opportunity.  Ugh.


Oh, whatever happened to my idea for the glass canopy?  Obviously, it hasn't been done here.  But last summer I was surprised to find that it was done in downtown Denver.  Yup, three city blocks over their theatre district has a glass canopy of just the sort I proposed for Columbia.  And it makes a perfect atrium-like public space.  It wasn't any hotter in the midday August sun than the surrounding streets, there was no wind tunnel, and it seemed to have been holding up just fine to the much harsher Colorado winters.  Gee, maybe we should reconsider this idea . . .


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