Tuesday, May 4, 2010

I.M. Pei OKC: Resurrecting the Model

Some months ago, I made a passing Prior post reference to the destruction of downtown Oklahoma City at the hands of architect I.M. Pei. Now Pei's model of his plans has been resurrected and the revisionist historians have taken over. Did you know that it wasn't Pei's intention to raze many of the fine old buildings that were destroyed to make way for his vision? Nope. Well, okay, maybe not all of those buildings. Just that one and that one and that one over there. Beautiful buildings turned to rubble and dust to be replaced by some of the most painful eyesores you can imagine. So don't blame him. Blame urban renewal. And greedy land developers, according to some paranoid commenters at the site. You know, the usual suspects.

What happened to Oklahoma City happened to many large cities across the United States. Residents fled to the suburbs not because they were duped by developers to leave downtown but because it was preferable to live in the suburbs. And we've never returned. Sure, I admire some of the efforts we're now making to attract residents back downtown but I think, in the long run, it's folly. We're not Manhattan. Never have been. Never will be.

I can't be bothered to plow through the site and learn where Pei is today and what he thinks about how Oklahoma City implemented, or didn't implement his plan. All I know is it seems he high-tailed it out of here out of here after milking us yokels for his fee and was never heard from again. Maybe I'm being unfair. Maybe Pei weeps long into the night because his dreams of a Utopian Oklahoma City never came to fruition. But the history of Oklahoma City and its grand buildings speaks for themselves. This exhibit is should serve as a reminder to those who think the new plans that have recently received approval will somehow be different.


  1. Ouch on the revisionist historians bit. I don't think anyone associated with the model exhibit is excusing I.M. Pei's mistakes. In fact, when we were initially asked "are you celebrating the Pei Plan," our immediate reaction was "heck no."
    I would find it difficult for anyone to defend Pei's call for tearing down such treasures as the Criterion Theater, Midwest Building and Baum Building, only to replace it with such an overwelming and immediate failure known as Century Center Plaza (truly an abortion of architecture and design).
    For what it's worth, the effort to put this model on display is to allow people to see it for themselves and come away with their own ideas as to what went right and wrong, and what should happen in the future.
    Pete, email me sometime and maybe we can meet and trade thoughts about the Pei model and Pei's legacy in OKC.
    - Steve Lackmeyer

  2. Steve!

    How nice of you to drop by. You're a good guy to take the time and leave such polite and insightful comments. Come by any time.

    Maybe I'm being a little harsh on the revisionist history thing but I remember when I first arrived in Oklahoma City as a gangly teen back in 1973, the adult members of my family would carry on and on about Pei and how the City fathers - and mother, because I remember Patience Latting didn't come away unscathed - had fallen for his golden spiel and how badly the City now looked. I remember, too, the demolitions of the old hotels, though, since I was new here, I didn't yet know their significance. There was even a local punk band that wrote a song called "Back at The Hotel Black" that recalled that notorious hotel's decline.

    Maybe it's we who look back on what the City was before Pein are the ones who are revising history. What was the City going to do with those old buildings anyway? Well, if Bricktown has taught us anything, those old building might've seen their heyday years before but they could've held some kind of promise for the future. Wrecking 'em was permanent.

    No, the sense of revisionism that I'm getting from this project is the time, expense, and festive atmosphere surrounding the unveiling of the I.M. Pei model. I'm not saying the whole sordid mess should've been trashed - heavens, no! - but I do think a more appropriate venue would have been the Oklahoma History Museum. Restore the model to a showable condition and put it on display with a minimal about of fuss. Yes, it's of historical value. Yes, we can learn from our past folly. (And, yes, there might be some who thought it was folly not to follow Pei's plan to the letter.) This project brings a positive spin to Pei's plan that I don't think it deserves.

    E-mail, meet, and trade thoughts? Great idea! Lunch? It'll be on me.

    Thanks again for coming by and letting me know your thoughts, Steve. You're always welcome.