Power to a vision of the many

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain attracts worldwide attention, draws tourists and has...
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain attracts worldwide attention, draws tourists and has invigorated a city. Photo: Getty Images
If a proposal to redevelop Dunedin’s harbourside is the answer,  Mark McGuire asks what was the question?

We should be grateful for the well-considered and polished architectural master plan by Ian Taylor and Damien van Brandenburg that has focused our attention on the future of the Dunedin waterfront and the city that surrounds it. It has been received by many as an exciting and aesthetically satisfying conclusion to the long story of our efforts to shape and celebrate this historically and culturally significant site.

The idea that an iconic architectural development could attract worldwide attention, draw tourists and invigorate a city has a history that we could learn from. Perhaps the best-known example of this approach is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which was opened in October 1997. It was the result, it should be noted, of an architectural competition. Writing in The Guardian  in October 2017, Rowan Moore, the architecture critic of the Observer, reflects on "The Bilbao effect: how Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim started a global craze". He acknowledges that, although the combination of iconic architecture and cultural investment succeeded in putting the struggling Basque city on the map, this was the result of "a coincidence of conditions that is unlikely to happen again". He describes several "wannabe Bilbaos" that failed to find the magic that made Gehry’s project so successful and memorable.

Just as Gehry did for the Bilbao project, Taylor and van Brandenburg have employed advanced computer technologies to create and present innovative architectural forms. In fact, the digital simulations, fly-throughs and 3-D models used to visualise the Dunedin scheme are much more advanced than what was possible 20 years ago when Frank Gehry used software developed for the airline industry to create the complex curvilinear forms for his Guggenheim Museum.

These days, an architectural presentation can utilise the impressive power of visual storytelling to offer a solution that seems attractive, convincing and even inevitable. A professionally rendered and animated solution takes us on a smooth, choreographed ride through, around and above pristine architectural forms and spaces populated by people enjoying a walk in perfect weather. It appears to be the answer to all our dreams. However, even the best-rendered answer isn’t half as useful as a well-considered question.

If the proposal that has been presented to the city is the answer, then what is the question? Is this the only, or best possible, answer? Does it preclude us from asking and addressing other questions and concerns that would also require significant attention and resources?

David Weinberger suggests that "the smartest person in the room is the room itself" . In the years since Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, we have developed networking technologies that enable us to connect people, find and share resources and ideas, and engage in open, public deliberation at a scale and speed that has not been possible before. The room has become much bigger.

Our ability to deal with the wicked problems that we face and to take advantage of opportunities as they arise depends on how well we can learn to work the room. Taylor and van Brandenburg have offered one of many possible conclusions to one of many strands of the complex, branching and evolving narrative that is Otepoti Dunedin. But the stories with the greatest power to move and motivate us are the ones that we have helped to create — stories that we can relate to not just as listeners and readers but also as narrators, protagonists and authors.

A successful urban development, like the city in which it is built, is not something that can be delivered like a speech from a podium, a package to our door, or a gift under the tree. A creative, inclusive and sustainable city is best imagined and realised through the collective deliberations and efforts of the many and varied people who live in it.

- Dr Mark McGuire taught design at the University of Otago for 25 years.

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