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February 14, 2006

Culture Maven: Something’s happening downtown — and you don’t know what it is?

As Roseanne Roseannadanna would say, “It’s always something.” Especially when it comes to downtown. If it’s not John Schnatter and David Jones, those ne’er-do-well scalawags, causing mischief for Jim Host and the arena site selection committee, it’s consternation over our town’s next great piece of architecture. Along with concerns about Museum Plaza’s bold design, some naysayers are already wondering whether the structure will block the view of the Ali Center. Understand please, you’re supposed to see our favorite homie pugilist’s visage in those tiles on the walls facing the expressway. Never mind that our eyes should be on the road while driving expressway speeds. Of course, that wouldn’t be a problem if the Ali Center were on another site. But then it wouldn’t be along that beauteous I-64 corridor, which is where, according to the new company line, all important new structures must be built. Otherwise, we have it on good authority, our burg would fall to third-class status. So here we are with the still unfinished Ali Center, perched atop the always present parking garage, and we’re wondering if its visual stature — such as it is — will be overwhelmed by a new skyscraper to the west? Give it up, you nabobs of negativatude. Of course, there’s going to be a lot of carping anyway in the days ahead about Museum Plaza. Joshua Prince-Ramus’ design is awkward, finicky, more than a little akimbo, seemingly haphazard and seriously imposing. Which is to say it is boffo. As in unique, just the kind of edifice this town needs. One guy’s opinion is that Museum Plaza doesn’t have the “Wow!” factor of Frank Gehry’s masterpieces, the Guggenheim in Bilbao or L.A.’s Disney Theater complex. Or even Michael Graves’ Humana Tower, which still strikes the viewer as both stately and funky. But the Office for Metropolitan Architecture’s design is daring and fearless. The place is destined to be known as The Big Chair. It will be a good thing. King Kong’s on the run and shall need a place to sit and rest. So, let me salute Laura Lee Brown, Steve Wilson and Steve Poe, the dreamers, movers and shakers behind the project. You go, gang. You have put aesthetics and your serious moolah where your civic pride is. When you build it, they will come. As for pizza boy Schnatter and that old and in the way Jones dude, what the hell do they think they’re doing? They have the temerity to question the viability of the selected site for Louisville’s proposed arena? Oh, the audacity. David Jones just can’t keep his nose out of stuff, can he? So what that he’s the guy who, when other local power brokers kept their lips zipped, stood up for downtown and saved the Third Street corridor. The twosome are coughing up their own cash for an independent comparison of the downtown arena sites. Right on, dudes. I’ve never understood the backroom dynamics of this process, and, Lord knows, I’ve delved. Somehow the major domos became enamored with wedging the arena into a spot along already crowded I-64. As if it could possibly be some visual signpost jerry-fit between the Galt House and the bridge. Something’s happening here and we don’t know what it is? U of L is apparently a major player. Why the exact location downtown would matter to James Ramsey and Tom Jurich remains a mystery. There’s a powder keg somewhere, and Hizzoner Jerry is not the one with his finger on the switch. Abramson heralded the Water Company site early and often, but was left outside looking in. A birdie told me that Jim Host spent almost an hour on the phone with David Jones the day before last week’s press conference announcing the new study. I’m told the committee chair implored Jones not to go ahead with it. Let me repeat: Something’s happening here, and we don’t know what it is? One thing appears certain. The privately funded Museum Plaza project will be far more architecturally significant than the arena. Unless, that is, they get Frank Gehry to design the gym. And, given the public vs. private thing, the skyscraper will surely be completed sooner. That assumes the arena ever gets built at all. It’s not like beleaguered Ernie Fletcher rules Frankfort with an iron fist. Alas, there’s no space left to consider downtown’s other quagmire. Which is “8664 — Take Back The Riverfront,” the seriously inspired movement to demolish the Central Business District portion of I-64. My wholehearted support for that will simply have to wait.