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Pei left mark on Rochester

I.M. Pei, one of the world's most iconic and prolific architects, has died at the age of 102. Most admired for his remarkable transformation of the Louvre in Paris and the Postmodern grandeur that is the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, Pei also left his fingerprint of genius on the Flower City.

In 1976, just after he completed the John Hancock Tower in Boston – and right before he finished the John F. Kennedy Library, also in Boston – he designed the Wilson Commons building at the University of Rochester.

As a central location for campus life, Wilson Commons provides space for gatherings, performances, lectures, exhibits, leisure, play, and eating. Among its many impressive features, the six-story glass atrium, which is adorned with flags representing the country of origin of that year's student body, make it a public environment that models democratic participation, global unity, and scientific inquiry.

The geometric design of the building's windows, for instance, exemplifies the virtues of inquisitiveness and honesty that Pei strived for in all of his structures. Poetically speaking, the building itself is the torch but the people gathered within its walls are the torch igniters and torchbearers. As Pei once wrote: "The essence of architecture is form and space, and light is the essential element to the key to architectural design, probably more important than anything. Technology and materials are secondary."

Wilson Commons, in its own intimate scale, brings together form, space, and light in a way that is both aesthetically compelling and functional to the everyday affairs of an academic community. It may not be considered by experts to be a Pei masterpiece, but it is a building imagined and constricted by a true master nonetheless.

In 1983, Pei won the Pritzker Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of architecture. Simply put, he was not just a great architect, he was one of the greatest architects of all time. Any Rochesterian who cares about beauty and greatness will be humbled that he found an opportunity to share his vision with us.


George Cassidy Payne is SUNY Adjunct Professor of Humanities at Finger Lakes Community College.

The loss of Hart's

In a letter titled "Questions from the loss of Hart's," a reader asks: "Is the urban experience really returning to Rochester?" I think the question encapsulates what's wrong with attempts to "revitalize" Rochester.

Those of us who just live here are always having "the urban experience." It's what happens when you live in a city. But that's not what the letter writer means, is it? Here, the "urban experience" is sort of an amusement park ride to entice affluent suburbanites into the city: Walkable! Theatah! Upscale retail! Fine dining! No crime!

In reality, the "urban experience" in Rochester is this:

• Our public transportation sucks. There's no polite way to say it. If you don't have a car and you live in Rochester, you know this.

• Most of Rochester is a food desert. Low-income residents, for the most part, do not have access to affordable healthy food.

• We are third in the nation in child poverty; 56 percent of Rochester's kids live in poverty.

Rochester's "revitalization" efforts, however, all seem to be for someone else. I assume the thinking is that an influx of affluent residents will increase the tax base, but I would like to see research that supports that expectation. There seems to be an awful lot of luxury housing being built in the city. Have we done the research to determine that there's enough market?

The letter-writer wonders why Hart's failed: "Were their demographic estimates premature? Were the 'specialty' intentions over-reaching? Or was it the almost complete absence (to this day) of residential sidewalk traffic?" The answers are "yes, yes, and yes."

When the closing of Hart's was announced, my Facebook feed was full of people taking a tone of consternation towards "Rochester" for failing to support a business that the owner had worked so hard at. Apparently I'm to blame because I didn't want to spend a quarter of my paycheck on a sandwich. I was informed that Hart's was an attempt to make Rochester a better place to live, and my mind couldn't help but go to that boring litany: food deserts, poverty, lousy public transportation.... But these are things that affect people IN the city, and we're trying to get people to COME to the city!

It's hard to miss the implication that we regular city folk who don't make much... don't matter much.

The letter writer asks: "Which comes first, the cart or the horse?" Well, it usually works better if you put the horse first. Which means maybe we should focus our efforts on improving the "urban experience" for those of us who live here, and worry about attracting the richies at a later date, if at all. I bet they'll be more eager to come to a city full of happy, healthy people. But if not, they can stay where they are. Then everyone will be happy!



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