By Dhyana Kaufman
I invite you to peruse the photo of a high-rise with large, arched windows and the use of colorful script to enhance the facade of the building. Perhaps not the most exciting modernist style, but to my eye it far exceeds the bland concrete and brick boxes that seem to be de rigueur for new construction in the downtown Iowa City area.
This photo from the front page of the New York Times Sept. 9, 2018 is, in fact, a new detention/ “re-education” center for Chinese Muslims in Hotan, China. At first I was bemused at how favorably the prison architecture of a totalitarian state compares to the “high end” hotels and condos being thrown up in the frenzy to transform our once-charming college town into a little Chicago. However, bemusement quickly morphed into angry frustration over the relentless and joyless parade of new construction that lacks aesthetic direction, guidance or vision for the future heart of downtown Iowa City.
As far as I can tell, the central ethos of developers is get it up quick, stack it up high and don’t waste money on architectural innovation. Create a concrete jungle with empty store fronts, no green space and eradicate as much history and sense of place as possible. And this is before the latest plan to cram 1,500 students into less than a city block near the new music building is completed! Maybe someone can get the contract to clean its sidewalks on Sunday mornings.
In contrast the city of Dubuque and some very savvy developers have created a real model of urban design and planning in its Millwork District, with spaces that nurture local business, support community, connection and innovation, while becoming a unique destination area. It is truly charming, delightful and uplifting, of human scale and very livable — in a word, inviting. The opposite of what is happening in Iowa City. What a botched opportunity we will be living with for a very long time. Perhaps we are experiencing a type of re-education camp by a different name.