In Defence of Great Public Architecture

Commentary, Taxation, Frontier Centre

Back in 1997, Chicago decided to turn a 10-hectare strip of lakefront parking lots and old railway lines into a new green space. Twelve years later, it’s called Millennium Park and it’s a pleasant cut above most public spaces.

Depending on how you approach the park (I was there in 2005), you might see an outdoor concert site with seating for 4,000 people, reminiscent of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The Toronto-born architect, Frank Gehry, designed all of them.

Other notable aspects of Millennium Park include the "Crown fountain," two 15-metre glass block towers that face each other across a reflecting pool. The two towers "spurt" water from filmed faces that are part of a constantly running LED display. It combines the practicality of a water fountain with a unique artistic contribution to the Chicago lakefront. The display is stunning at night when the colours constantly change and reflect upon the pool in which kids, small and big, play.

There are other Millennium Park amenities including a garden, sculptures and pavilions. Of particular relevance to Calgarians is a 280-metre-long winding bridge. The bridge was worth $14.5 million US, with about $5 million of that financed by BP.

Chicago could have settled for a plain park. That would have been cheaper –and boring. Which brings me to Calgary’s planned $22-million pedestrian bridge, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The bridge has been pilloried by many who see it as symbolic of a city hall shot through with the wrong priorities for public money.

The critics are right about city hall but wrong about the Calatrava bridge. Calgary has few architectural jewels and bashing the bridge is wrongheaded; the adornment of Calgary’s blighted public spaces is one of the few things public money should be spent on beyond basic city functions. Also, the bridge criticism takes the focus off where most tax dollars are actually spent: not on capital expenditures on parks or bridges, but on uncompetitive service delivery.

For example, the mayor and council have made some serious blunders on those latter costs and here’s one example: how the new recycling program was delivered to government unions, a decision itself symbolic of the tendency of city hall to forswear competition–competition that helps keep costs and taxes down. (The Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimates municipal public-sector wages are 11.2 per cent higher than equivalent private-sector jobs.)

I’m the first to call out governments on their wackier ideas–see last week’s column on a $3-billion to $20-billion high-speed train, an expensive "gift" that would give taxpayers massive bills for decades to come. It is those colossal capital and ongoing, above-market operation expenses that the public should be mad about, not a pedestrian bridge which might help beautify downtown Calgary.

In comparison, and on the scale of priorities, great public architecture is worth it. Great cities of the world spend some money on public spaces precisely to enrich the same (and smart cities don’t overpay their public workers relative to the private sector). Critically, such architecture, be it a bridge or cleverly designed fountain, are the few objects every member of the public can actually share and appreciate. That’s why the critics are wrong.