J. Irwin Miller died last Monday. That name probably doesn't ring a bell with many. But if you are tired of the trend of big box anonymity that envelopes too many American communities, the late Mr. Miller was something of an iconoclast and prophet.
For some three decades starting in 1954, Miller used his position as CEO of the Cummins Engine Co. to bring world class architecture to an unlikely place, Columbus, Indiana. The world's eminent architects, including Eero and Eliel Saarinen and I.M. Pei, did buildings in Columbus.
When Miller began his inspired patronage, Columbus was a decaying community of 19,000. Great architecture revived the place. Miller and Columbus offer a lesson for places such as Astoria, which has a large stock of good architecture, and other places that are coming up for their last breath before drowning in a sea of franchises and big box stores.
The lesson is that aesthetics matter. In the simplest terms, an aesthetic is a design element or artistic component that inspires good feelings about where we live. It can be embodied in a building or a restaurant's decor, a work of public art or a community walkway.
Communities with an aesthetic attract people with ideas and creativity. Conversely, communities whose soul is embodied in the big box and lookalike franchises are repellent.
Even The Wall Street Journal occasionally notes that the marketplace has its limits. The marketplace sometimes encourages endeavors that destroy the lifeblood of community.
The controversy last May over Wal-Mart's proposed expansion in Vermont was about the destructive power of the marketplace. Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, announced that for the second time, his organization was listing Vermont as one of the 11 most endangered historic places. The threat which Moe identified was Wal-Mart, which was attempting to build superstores in Vermont.
If the decibel level of the counterattack is a reliable measure, Mr. Moe scored a direct hit. The Wall Street Journal editorial page yelled at the National Trust for its fuzzy thinking. George F. Will devoted one of his columns to an attack on Moe and the Trust. It is amusing when newspapers and columnists feel compelled to endorse one of the world's largest corporations, as if they can't afford a mouthpiece.
Wal-Mart always wins if we measure community life by revenue-per-square-foot. Of course, that hardly tells the full story. The big box provides no spiritual nourishment for humanity. That's why J. Irwin Miller's contribution was so significant.
There is a randomness to how most of life happens. That is especially so with respect to cities and how they gain an aesthetic or have none.
Portland is blessed with a wide array of public art that came from a variety of sources. One of my favorite stories is that of Dr. Henry Waldo Coe, a physician who donated the statues of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln in the South Park Blocks, the statue of Joan of Arc at the center of a Southeast traffic circle in Ladd's Addition and another of George Washington off Sandy Boulevard. My late maternal grandfather and Coe shared a deep admiration for Teddy Roosevelt. The statue in front of the Portland Art Museum, is by the eminent sculptor A. Phimester Proctor.
With all due respect to the medical profession, relatively few physicians have risen to the level of public artistic philanthropy that Dr. Coe accomplished early in the 20th century.
Fast forward 100 years, and another random gift comes to Portland. In 2001, a Chinese businessman showed up in Portland City Hall virtually unannounced. Mr. Ho Bhazou is owner of the Five Rings company, one of the largest bronze factories in China. It took city officials some time to figure it out, but Mr. Ho was offering a major public sculpture, an 11-foot bronze casting of an elephant. You may now see it in the North Park Blocks.
None of this is academic. Many western towns are dying, because the fading of the natural resource economy has left them behind. There was a time when those towns had a rich aesthetic. These days it is largely gone, replaced only by the unistyle of franchises. Longview, Wash., is a good example of a town with every franchise known to man and a bevy of big boxes, but virtually no aesthetic and no patron.