Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The late architect and planner had some very big ideas for Oklahoma City in the 1960s. But the final result wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.
Welcome to the second season of “Public Access,” where CityLab shares its favorite videos—old and new, serious and nutty—that tell a story about place.
As soon as word spread of I. M. Pei’s death last week at the age of 102, architecture lovers around the world (ourselves included) shared their memories of the much-admired Modernist and his buildings. While most remember Pei for the Louvre and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, folks in Oklahoma City are more likely to recall him for something entirely different: Pei was also an urban planner, and his vision for the young city’s downtown in the 1960s would change it forever.
As seen in the 1964 promotional film, A Tale of Two Cities, Pei gave the Urban Action Foundation—a group of Oklahoma City power brokers—the city of tomorrow that they wanted. Gone would be the blighted older buildings and their modest, even unsavory, tenants. In their place would be soaring modern skyscrapers, a massive new convention center, and postcard-worthy public spaces, all filled up with productive, affluent locals and tourists.
A Tale of Two Cities moves back and forth between the real and imagined Oklahoma City, cutting between shots of what looks like a pretty normal frontier town with sweeping aerial views of Pei’s model city, which looks slightly more exciting than Crystal City, Virginia.
But like so many anxious American downtowns with big dreams at the time, knocking stuff down was the easy part. As recalled by 405 Magazine in 2015, city officials adopted the plan in 1965 and embarked on a demolition spree, flattening 40 percent of the existing downtown (530 buildings!) in anticipation of new concrete-and-glass towers. Gone, recalled 405, were the “French-inspired Criterion Theater, the Venetian-themed Baum Building, the ornate Mercantile and Pioneer buildings, the dramatic Patterson Building, the limestone-and-marble Hales Building.” Even buildings not targeted under the Pei Plan were demolished, including the Lee-Huckins and the Biltmore hotels. But as the region sprawled, aided by developers who were more than willing to accommodate their needs, the retail and residential dreams from the Pei Plan never came to be.
An aversion to the this kind of ‘60s-style urban renewal eventually emerged, and by the late 1980s, it was time for a reckoning in Oklahoma City. Some of the big architectural visions were realized—the city did get a massive parking garage, a convention center, a new tallest skyscraper in town (surpassed in 2012), a new theater (since demolished), and a botanical gardens—but downtown lost its vitality in the process. By 1993, city officials had established a new capital improvement program (still used today) that was able to more successfully realize a lot of the same ambitions as the Pei Plan: a downtown that could draw in conventioners and tourists while addressing the needs of urban dwellers and attracting more of them.