By Alison Furuto • ArchDaily • November 11, 2010

Like many large scale projects around the country, REX’s Museum Plaza, in the city of Louisville, Kentucky, had just broken ground and had given light to many dreams for the downtown community when the nation’s financial crisis hit the city. Needless to say, financing came to a standstill and funding for the towers the city had been hoping for was no longer an option. Their current construction loan of $140.5 million, city contributions, bonds and funds already put forth by the team was not enough to proceed in their construction efforts until positive news came their way at the turn of the month.

Upon applying for a $100 million federal load from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) this past summer, Congressman John Yarmuth and Governor Beshear were very grateful and pleased to announce a letter that was sent by HUD stating an optimistic loan commitment while will allow the city to continue construction on the project. Of course, many might speculate why this would be the opportune time to carry out this endeavor, and the answer is very clear. By applying for this loan, the city would not only have an elegant skyscraper to act as a landmark, but it would bring much needed economic stability and ignite a sense of pride for its residents in a risk-free environment. This proposed funding would be risk-free in the sense that the developers have agreed to give back the money through its expected profits. This project would create about 4,500 construction jobs combined with about 2,300 permanent jobs to make a total of about 7,000 jobs will soon be available to give great hope to Kentucky’s economic stimulus.

Breaking from traditional mixed use architecture, Museum Plaza blends commercial and cultural programs in an inviting downtown skyscraper to, “mark an exclamation point on Louisville’s skyline,” according to Mayor Jerry Abramson. REX has firmly grasped the unique characteristics of this site to develop a very creative solution for a very engaging public space.

Museum Plaza rethinks conventional attitudes towards property development. It begins with a vision to construct a contemporary art institute and concludes with a business pro forma that supports this commitment. Culture is placed physically and spiritually at the project’s center. To avoid over-saturating Louisville’s market with any single commercial program, its uses are necessarily mixed, including luxury condominiums, hotel, offices, loft apartments, and retail.

The economic and dimensional imperatives of the project are resisted by the physical constraints of Museum Plaza’s site. Located within the Ohio River’s 100-year flood plain, between a levee wall and an interstate highway, the site is a disparate set of parcels with no immediate relationship to Louisville’s Central Business District. The site is further complicated by a subterranean electrical utility right-of-way and several arterial streets.

By keeping the towers discrete, their dimensions and the resulting pro forma remain adjustable—like a stereo equalizer—during the project’s design. Market exposure is thereby reduced to only three months—the time between submitting the exterior envelope for wind tunnel analysis and starting construction on the foundations based on the analysis’ results. In contrast to the “dumb” towers, the Island houses all the unique and public elements of the development, both cultural and commercial. By isolating the project’s uniqueness within the Island, difficulties such as exiting, circulation, and security are also contained. Creation of construction documents for the rest of the building is thereby accelerated, and construction started over a year before the Island’s design is complete.

The collision of cultural and commercial uses within the Island (galleries, pool, auditorium, bar, education spaces, gym, restaurant, hot shop, ballroom…) provides fruitful opportunity to question the typology of a contemporary art institute. Museum Plaza advances several issues facing art institutions, including gallery flexibility, synergy between culture and commerce, and procession.

In most large developments, culture is an afterthought, a bone thrown to mollify a municipality. Museum Plaza invents the program for, and then realizes, a vehicle that literally and metaphorically places art at its center, challenging the art institute’s typology in the process. Steve Wilson, of the project development team for Museum Plaza, put it best as he reiterated in a June 2010 press release that, “Now is the time to build Museum Plaza!”