Who am I to write up a list of best and worst downtown architecture for the post-MAPS era?
We’ve seen a lot of new construction in the urban core. And while I have no schooling in architecture and design, I’ve spent the past two decades learning from some of the state’s best architects. I’ve met legends like John Johansen, a student of the Franklin Lloyd Wright “school,” and architectural photographer Julius Shulman (both of whom have since passed). I’ve seen the up close development of designs for Devon Energy Center, Lower Bricktown, the Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library, the Aloft hotel, Level, the Brownstones at Maywood Park, Legacy at Arts Quarter, the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the boathouses at Regatta Park, the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, the downtown YMCA, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation and many more.
The architects I’ve covered and observed include TAP Architecture, HSE, Elliott Associates, Sam Gresham, Studio Architecture, Butzer Gardner Architects, Frankfurt Short Bruza, Miles Associates, GSB, ADG Inc., Bryan Fitzsimmons, Jim Loftis, Randy Floyd, Rees Associates, Benham Group, LWPB, Catherine Montgomery, The Small Group, Hornbeek Blatt and many more.
I’ve sat in on dozens and dozens of design review meetings.
So am I the most qualified to do this list? No. But at least I’ve given you my qualifications for you to weigh whether or not this list is worth your consideration. I’d love to hear what you, readers of OKC Central, think are the best and worst architecture added to our urban core over the past 20 years.
That said, let’s start with my best list. Tomorrow, my worst.
1. Devon Energy Center
Pickard and Chilton, New Haven, Conn.
333 W Sheridan
Is there any surprise Devon Energy Center tops the list? Pickard and Chilton gets the top billing from most folks, but in reality, it’s a superstar team that also includes Gensler and Kendall Heaton Associates, also top notch architectural firms.
The Rotunda alone would make Devon Energy’s new headquarters a favorite. The respect to south, north, west and even east angles (there’s no back door!) would make it a favorite. The crazy elegant angles makes it a favorite. The chevron crown atop (a reversal of the First National tower beacon) makes it a favorite. The use of incredible stone work from around the world makes it a favorite. I could go on and on – the glass curtain wall, the subtle use a reflecting pool to create a security barrier, a design that welcomes public interaction … do I really have to argue how the 50-story Devon Energy Center is truly the best architecture to ever grace our downtown skyline?
2. Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center
Miles Associates, Oklahoma City
Address: 1200 Children’s Avenue
The rest of this list was a struggle for me. I could have easily given the No. 2 spot to the Oklahoma City National Memorial. I went back and forth on this several times. Consider my ranking difference here to be miniscule. It’s a virtual tie.
Both essentially tackle what could be a very depressing place and turn them into inspirational triumphs over adversity.
Miles Associates is as large if not larger than much better known firms like Elliott Associates and TAP Architecture. It’s to sing the praises for Miles Associates, which created a celebratory entrance for children facing sometimes deadly disease and potentially very scary hospital stays. The old children’s hospital played right into those fears despite some efforts to add some color to 1960s era building. The new hospital is big, it’s grand, it’s colorful, it’s playful, it’s what every kid looks at and says “wow.” Children’s Hospital is a glorious distraction and celebration of the healing that hopefully awaits every patient who enters through the front doors.
3. Oklahoma City National Memorial
Hans and Tori Butzer, Oklahoma City
The wrong winners were announced at the conclusion of the national design competition for a memorial to remember the victims and survivors of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. History will note that Hans and Tori Butzer won, but given the totality of their contributions to our city, the real winner was none other than Oklahoma City. The Butzers created a simple yet graceful tribute – the gates of time, the reflecting pool, the 168 chairs, the gentle and quiet park. The memorial is proving to be a timeless design that continues to awe visitors from around the world. Hans Butzer, meanwhile, has gone on to create other great landmarks like the Skydance Bridge over the new I-40, and is influencing new generations of architects who are continuing to make Oklahoma City a far more interesting and colorful place. Butzer is relatively young considering all he has accomplished, but his legacy is already established. The Oklahoman will be lucky to claim Butzer and partner Jeremy Gardner as designers for its future downtown home at Century Center.
4. Regatta Park boathouses
Elliott Associates, Oklahoma City
Address: Oklahoma River
Some may say the boathouses verge on the old form over function. I’ll put that debate aside and point out form was absolutely needed when it came to the river. Rand Elliott is not subtle. Rand Elliott designs places and buildings that are beautiful to photograph and look good in architectural magazines. Consider that the original boathouse planned for the Oklahoma River was set to be a forgettable cliché log cabin style structure. Credit former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon for recognizing the importance of design to re-establishing the Oklahoma River as a cultural asset instead of an embarrassment. McClendon didn’t have to look far for an architect who could create a “wow” for the river. McClendon and Elliott were good friends, had worked together designing the Chesapeake campus, and both knew how to dream big. They’ve done just that, and the first boathouse has inspired a great master plan that is rapidly becoming a reality. Boathouse row is sleek, modern, and presents an entirely new image of the city to the thousands of motorists who pass by on the nearby Interstate 40. A log cabin? Oh, what a disaster that would have been!
5. Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark
ADG Inc., Oklahoma City
Address: 2 S Mickey Mantle Drive
Tom Wilson and his crew were the unfortunate souls to be first up in the MAPS grinder. The city’s processes for implementing MAPS projects were not perfected yet when designs were submitted and then bid out for the ballpark. The results, at first, were disastrous. But ADG regrouped, and effectively changed the designs without sacrificing quality. How important is good design? Look no further than the ballpark. Public opinion of MAPS was dismal before the ballpark opened. The quality, the vintage elegance of this first MAPS project changed public perception as the thousands of baseball fans packed the place on opening day way back in 1998.
6. Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Allen Brown, Oklahoma City
Address: 415 Couch Drive
Art museums are often “mucked up” by designers who are derided as “black cape” architects. It’s the ultimate case of form over function, and in this world the designs are either homeruns or absolute fouls. Brown incorporated the existing Art Deco Centre Theater façade, complimented the surrounding Civic Center architecture, and yet also created a building that is clearly a new addition. The building’s simplicity is its triumph.
Skydance Bridge – Butzer Gardener Architects
Brownstones at Maywood Park – TAP Architecture
Block 42 – HSE