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The latest proposed design for the Kimball Art Center's expansion.

A twisting tower was architect Bjarke Ingels’s first stab at the Kimball Art Center’s proposed expansion; he submitted a more to-scale, triangular edifice on his second (shown above). What both designs had in common, however, was the heated community response they elicited in equal measures for and against the very modern, attention-grabbing designs. This controversy was not the first time the appropriateness of placing modern architecture within a historic area has been debated in Park City, and it will likely not be the last.

The Main Street Mall, the boxy Old Town shopping center built by the Mrs. Fields cookie company in the early 1980s, maligned virtually from the moment it was completed, is Park City’s most common reference to new building gone bad. “What I think was most unfortunate about the mall is that it turned people off to modern architecture,” says real estate professional Bill Ligety, who was planning director for Park City Municipal when the Main Street Mall was built. (A renovation of the mall calling for eight street-level storefronts, second-level condos, and a living “green” roof is currently under way.)

And though the mall’s departure from Main Street’s mostly mining-era storefronts was considered out of place at best, most preservationists agree: in designated historic areas both additions and new construction should be from their own era, clearly delineating the old from the new. “It’s the idea that you shouldn’t freeze a place in time,” says Kurt Huffaker, executive director of the Utah Heritage Foundation. “It should evolve over the continuum of history, as long as it does no harm.”

Complicating the often-delicate process of mixing old and new architecture is the recent emergence of the “starchitect,” building designers who, because of their striking, sculpture-like concepts, have achieved household-name status. Frank Gehry, designer of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is one. It can be argued that Ingels, whose credits besides the Kimball expansion include a commission to rethink the Smithsonian Institution’s National Mall in Washington, DC, is another. City planners and developers have gone after starchitects to help establish identity in otherwise homogenous cityscapes. But can starchitects’ cutting-edge structures coexist alongside older buildings in cities with identities already rooted in historic character?

Aspen is on the tail end of a process strikingly similar to the Kimball Art Center’s. In August, the Aspen Art Museum opens its new $45 million space in the heart of Colorado’s most famous former silver-mining town. The 33,000-square-foot wood lattice-enveloped building was designed by internationally recognized architect Shigeru Ban, and it will pose a sharp contrast to downtown Aspen’s mostly Victorian-influenced architecture. When conceived, Ban’s vanguard design received criticism similar to that of Ingels’s plans for the Kimball expansion, but now that the building is almost complete, community sentiment seems to have shifted in favor of the project. Outside of Aspen, the museum is already receiving high-profile accolades: Architectural Digest named it one of “The 14 Most Anticipated Buildings of 2014.”

It’s not hard to find examples of modern additions to older cityscapes that have worked well. Paris’s Louvre Pyramid, the Sydney Opera House, and, closer to home, the Salt Lake City Main Library are well known and appreciated landmarks. Although these cities are very different from one another, and certainly none is Park City, what they have in common is that construction of each landmark building was preceded by plenty of open dialogue. As it should be. Debating a city’s architectural evolution is probably one of the most important discussions a community can have, and as Huffaker points out, “it’s deciding what a city’s identity will be long after we are no longer here.”

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