The case for the useless 'dome
Roland Barthes once argued that the beauty of the Eiffel Tower lies indeed in its own uselessness. What created the icon was the inability to make an appropriate use out of what originally was the entrance to the World Fair in 1889 and such inability allowed common people to apply their own significance, their own stories and their own dreams to it. Its skinless emptiness denotes no pragmatic function, other than being now the symbol of Paris, the symbol of travel worldwide and the most recognizable structure in history.
Urban icons are always a tricky thing= albeit they define a sense of place that cannot be replicated anywhere else, they get their status by the interaction with the locals and almost always by accident. It is very unlikely that the Eiffel Tower would have become that iconic if Gustav Eiffel had started to build one in every city of Europe. Or if Parisians hadn’t been allowed in to interact with it= by taking pictures of it from the Ecoile Militaire, by riding its elevators and by eating at its restaurant –among countless other things-, they defined themselves in it.
The building wasn’t conceived as a thing from the past that needed to be left untouched but an important part of city life, regardless of its age.
Now, coming to another city -an American one- dealing with its own defining urban icon, one question comes to mind= Did Houstonians really defined themselves in the Astrodome this way?
Certainly when it opened it exemplified the zeitgeist of the city, the spirit of its time= it was the 1960’s and Houston was a leading enclave characterized by its technological feats. NASA and the Texas Medical Center were in their early days and the city was the undisputed energy capital of the world. However, it was the same “reach for the stars” attitude that might have driven the ‘dome into obsolescence. When the Astros moved downtown and the Oilers left for Tennessee, the 'dome lost its justification. And when a bigger, non-descript stadium was built next door, the ‘dome lost its singularity.
Nowadays, the ‘dome faces a great disjunctive= it is functionally obsolete –and costly to maintain- while it is the most recognizable iconic structure in the city. If it is kept it would cost a lot of money to run. If it is demolished, the symbol of the city will be lost.
We are dealing with a ghost. We can feel its presence briefly only to acquaint ourselves with its absence. We have grand plans for it but not the means, intention or feasibility of carrying them home.
A couple of years back, I had even indulged myself in dreaming of a great future for the ‘dome by suggesting in a previous online forum -organized by Bruce Webb and Madeleine McDermott Hamm- arguing that it could very well become the next great interstate bullet train station –a Gare du Dome-, part of the high speed train system of corridors the Obama administration had promised about back in the campaign days. Later I realized the irony= Houston had already turned a train station into a stadium, it was very unlikely now that another stadium was to be turned back into a train station
Earlier this year, a post on the Offcite blog announced yet another three new proposals of refurbishment. To be honest, I felt skeptical about them: they were sexy proposals that offered the promise of a great future for the ‘dome, but at a great expense and without having a thorough reality check in their programming (A “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Institute”? What the heck is that?).
One proposal out of the three stood out because of its simplicity= the cheap one, the one that advocated for its demolition and the construction of a ghost plaza on the footprint where it had been once. Very discouraging but probably the only feasible way to avoid maintenance costs.
Could the city summarily avoid the cost of maintaining the building while not losing the beloved icon? Could it deal with its obsolescence and decay effectively while offering a renewed promise for the future?
After looking at pictures from the Save the Astrodome facebook page, a strong idea comes to mind=
I’d say let’s grab the emptiness of the ‘dome and make it symbolic= it is our current zeigeist, money is scarce and we long for a brighter past and a better future.
I’d say let’s be radical! Let’s strip it bare back to its frame and have out-of-towners wonder why it is so. It will minimize maintenance costs while keeping the footprint of the building. Thus, by only making it useless it may be the only way to save it. That way, we’ll buy some time to see how it can truly, purposely be reused AND don’t lose it to circumstantial interests along the way.
The ethereal nature of its bare structure will capture everyone’s attention. I imagined that for the people involved in its construction process, the shell in itself wouldn’t mean much, just another day at work, putting together bolts and plates. But to us looking at it 50 years later, facing the prospect of demolition for lack of good options, this shell becomes both haunting and evocative, that memory of a brighter future and at the same time, the challenge of not forgetting.
Alfonso E. Hernandez
Architectural Designer + Sust/enabler
(c) all rights reserved
Just some musings about the intersection between Architectural Design + Sustainability. Alfonso E. Hernandez is an Architectural Designer + Sust/enabler. He is a graduate of the Sustainable Environmental Design program of the Architectural Association in London as well as the Hines College in Houston and the ULA in Venezuela. He has worked and taught in the US, England, Europe and Latin America. He currently splits his time between Houston and London.