Empire editorial: Capitol design needs to be one Alaskans can rally behind

Posted: Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The four designs for a new Alaska capitol stopped many Juneau residents cold when the concepts were unveiled last week.

As if promoting a new capitol in Juneau weren't tough enough, the finalists in the capitol design contest submitted drawings of buildings that are anything but Alaskan. Capitol planners face an uphill battle trying to sell the idea to legislators who want the capitol in their own back yards; it's important to not sabotage the effort with designs that alienate the general public. The capitol site, perched on a bluff overlooking the waterfront, could make an impressive setting for the building that houses state government. Now we need a capitol design the people of Alaska can rally behind.

The concepts behind the designs, created by some of the top architects in the country, are imaginative and intriguing. One design is inspired by glaciers, with its silver stories flowing toward the waterfront. Another involves indoor and outdoor landscaping that would represent the five regions of Alaska. But the actual building designs are cold and futuristic and illustrate that in their brief introductions to Alaska, the architects got little chance to understand the culture that makes this state unusual. The designers seem to have missed that this state is more retro than sci-fi, that people often move here because Alaska still offers things often lost in the 21st century: a closeness to the land, tight-knit communities, and lifestyles in which hunting and reading are often more important than TV sitcoms.

This doesn't mean that capitol designs shouldn't be modern and innovative. They should, however, embody the Alaskan spirit more than the impersonal, space-age designs that have been submitted. Designers should consider veering away from the high-tech look of steel and glass and make their designs better reflect a state whose economy and lifestyles revolve around natural resources and the outdoors.

Alaskans should not write off the capitol design contest after first glance at these entries. Some have criticized the Capitol Planning Commission for its selection process, but people need to remember in this type of contest, the top designers were chosen before they came up with their actual proposals. The jury narrowed the field of competitors down to four, based on outstanding projects in the past and philosophies that meshed well with the goals of the design competition. Then the four finalists created their initial concepts for a capitol.

The Capitol Planning Commission should be given credit for designing a contest that has brought in some of the most innovative architectural firms practicing today. But commission members are in a delicate position. They need to let people know quite clearly that they are not going to foist on them a design that does not resonate with many Alaskans. And they need to remind them that this is not the final design. Commission members also need to work with the jury and architects so that the chosen winner is one who can develop a final plan that generates more excitement among Alaskans.

The designs already show that these architects are creative enough to go in unexpected directions. Now the Capitol Planning Commission needs to steer this creativity into the design of a capitol that is a fitting icon for the people of Alaska.

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