I swear this is not a soccer blog... but....

Ladies and gentlemen, due to Birmingham's shocking upset over Arsenal in the Carling Cup final yesterday, I have given myself the week off from writing.

However, last week I did contribute to a piece on Chattarati regarding the growth of our city. If you haven't seen it, you can find it here.


It's Futbol Time in Tennessee!!!

Last week I was honored to return to my home state to participate in Design Alabama’s Mayor’s Design Summit. We produced a lot of good work, and I met some very nice, bright and energetic people. The downside to the trip was that I have not had a lot of time to think about a blog topic. Consequently, this week I will be shooting from the hip. With college football over and Birmingham City still alive in the FA Cup and in the finals of the League Cup next week, I find that I am now totally fixated on "the other" football. Let's see if I can make a cogent argument for the connection between Chattanooga+Design+Sport. Here goes…

On March 6, Columbus and New England of Major League Soccer will be playing an exhibition match here in our very own Finley Stadium. I am quite excited about this. However, I must admit that some of the initial excitement came from rumors that Stern John may be signing with Crew again. Yes, that Stern John, that Stern John, and inspiration for a certain other namesake Stern. (as of this posting, the rumor remains just that and there is 0% chance he will be playing in Chattanooga).

Stern & Stern
When I was a young man, in the early days of ESPN I saw an English 1st Division game (before it was called the Premier League) between Aston Villa and some other team (little did I know that Villa would eventually be the object of my hate and derision later in life.) The most memorable thing about the game to me was the atmosphere – it was rainy, muddy and the fans were singing loud and in unison. The stadium looked more like a theatre, it had vertical stands that came right down to the edge of the field. I was sold on the whole thing.
As fate would have it, later in life one of my fraternity brothers in New Mexico happened to be an Englishman (Jem) whose father (Alan) was club secretary at Birmingham City Football Club (Burmingum not BirmingHAM). As we became friends I became a Blues fan for life. Jem and I kept in touch in the pre-electronic era, and by the turn of the century the internet had made following Blues as easy as following Bama. By that time Denise and I had some 'ends (the kids were still a few years off) and several trips to England to visit the Joneses and watch football ensued.

Jem & I at St. Andrews - home of my Blues
The thing that draws me to the English version of the sport is atmosphere. It’s the grounds, the singing, the weather, and the fans. So what the hell does this have to do with urbanism and design? The atmosphere that draws me to the game is in part created buy its physical form.  How stadiums respond to their surroundings and their form make a large contribution to the experience.
The grounds are generally located in a neighborhood and are not surrounded by a sea of parking (as is most often the case in America). So, instead of tailgating on asphalt, you go to a pub near the grounds to drink and sing, then walk over to the game. Most of the grounds there evolved with their cities over time. As the neighborhoods around them grew, the stadiums had to grow up instead of out to accommodate larger fan bases. There is a special feeling to going to a place that is purpose built for an activity and that has evolved over time with its surroundings. These places are about people, for sharing, singing, laughing and crying together. Celebrating a passion that has been carried through generations and shared with a community in a communal place is a truly awesome experience.

St. Andrews in Birmingham 
I have no great love for QPR, but Loftus Rd is a cool
grounds located in the middle of a neighborhood.
I can hear the Americans: "...but where do they park?"
Secondly, the design of the stadiums is perfectly suited to watching a soccer game. Traditional soccer grounds have stands built up to the edge of the pitch. How so unlike an American football field where the stands are separated from the action by 20 yards and 50 reserve players. Most of the stands have steeper slopes than American stadiums. These stands almost always have overhanging structures that provide some form of protection from the elements. The overall effect is that of a performance in a well-proportioned outdoor room. The sense of space is very well defined and adds immensely to the atmosphere of the grounds.

Main Stand at St. Andrew's (which surprisingly enough
is not the "main" stand. Highlighted is the perch
from which I saw my first Blues game

Unfortunately, they’re not all that way. A lot of the new stadiums are Americanized, multi-purpose places that accommodate track and field, rugby, etc and are located on major motorways set in a sea of parking – the Reebok Stadium springs to mind as an example. This is somewhat similar to the MLS experience in our country. To be fair, it makes sense to have a venue that is flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of activities throughout the year as opposed to single-purpose venues that lay fallow most of the year (ahem, BellSouth Park, ahem). I would not suggested that it would make any kind of sense to build the CFC a replica of Loftus Road in the Southside- but how cool would it be to have a few pints and walk over to watch the boys play in an intimate, bespoke soccer grounds.

Soccer in a massive football stadium just isn't the same.
Although the experience of the game is better in England, I do not want to disparage the passion and interests of MLS fans. I'm very excited about the MLS game they’re playing in Chattanooga, a tip of the cap to the folks who pulled that one off. Luckily for me, the CFC experience isn’t far off from the English one- they play in my neighborhood, I can walk to the game, and there are several pubs along the way. So cheers till next week, hope to see you on the 6th, and Keep right on to the end of the road... 

Bonus Material:
just because...
My friend Daz Porter... 


...I'm going to Disney World!

A few weeks ago I received a comment from a reader who felt my observations regarding bad urban design were irrelevant. He made the point that what happens downtown doesn’t matter since 35%* of our fellow Chattanoogans live below the poverty line. His other point was that the riverfront portion of downtown Chattanooga (5th to Frazier and West of Georgia) was designed and executed as a theme park so we should expect nothing less than the ultimate sub-urbanization of the district. By calling the area a theme park he suggests that it exists solely as a money-making mechanism, that it caters primarily to tourists and lacks authenticity. Those are some pretty heady claims, so instead of simply posting his comment I thought I would devote this week’s column to addressing his points.

The Poverty Question
There is no doubt that the successes of downtown have not been shared across the board by all Chattanoogans. However, you can’t blame poverty in our city on downtown redevelopment. If anything, our downtown renaissance has contributed to the quality of life all Chattanoogans. The tax revenues generated enable the City and County to provide services to all citizens. Downtown businesses provide tens of thousands of jobs to Chattanoogans of all socio-economic backgrounds. After the initial success of the riverfront, that investment has spread into languishing neighborhoods. ML King, Highland Park, North Chattanooga, Cowart Place, Fort Negley, and Jefferson Heights are all neighborhoods that have seen new investment and marked improvement. We’ve also built two new elementary schools to serve inner city neighborhoods- these would not have possible were it not for the economic engine of downtown. I will not make the case that we are where we need to be- but I will refute the argument that the rebirth of downtown has happened at the expense of our city’s indigent.

Our community still has issues concerning social equity. However, like a downtown, the issue of poverty is very complex. I think that urban design can have an effect on the quality of life of impoverished citizens- that it can treat some symptoms. However, the cure to the root causes of poverty has more to do with education, family structure, and access to opportunity than it does with setbacks and building materials.

The Theme Park Argument
Because of the wild success of the Tennessee Aquarium and the restaurants and hotels it spawned, maybe it’s easy to convince a casual observer that the riverfront portion of downtown Chattanooga has become a caricature of itself. However, the most cursory of observations of the area reveals a complex ecosystem- one in which Chattanoogans live, work and play.

My first issue with the theme park claim is that it requires a sub-urban mindset to even make the argument. There are places where you can paint a 130-acre area with a broad brush, but a downtown is not one of them. In the sub-urbs, where monoculture is a defining characteristic, it’s easy to say “that’s a shopping area”, “that’s a residential area”, “that’s an office area.” However, downtowns are incredibly complex systems that resist the broad brush. These days, downtown marketers love to use the phrase “live, work, play”. In other words, these places afford residents the opportunity to conduct most of life’s business in this one place. Perhaps the best way to judge if the area is theme park or city is to test the viability of living, working and playing in the district. 

My wife and I both work in that area (neither of our jobs are theme park oriented…most of the time). The same can also be said for 2,500 Unum employees and 4,000 BCBS employees in the district. I don’t have the time or patience to list every other non-service-oriented business with employees in the district, but they are legion.

The dozens of people who live in the Cherry St Townhomes, the dozens who live in Walnut Hill, the dozens who live in River Pier Landing, the dozens who live in 1st and Market, the dozens who live in Museum Bluffs Riverside, the hundreds who live in Museum Bluffs Parkside, the dozens who live in the Robert E. Lee and the hundreds who live in the Riverset apartments would argue that their homes are not a theme park. (This is not a list of all downtown residents, just the ones that live north of 5th street and west of Georgia.)

Yes, there is a high concentration of restaurants and eateries in the area. Do they serve the tourist trade exclusively? Do Chattanoogans eat at Easy Bistro? (yep). Do Chattanoogans eat at Lupi’s? (you betcha). Do Chattanoogans drink at Hair of the Dog (this one does). Locals at Big River? (affirmative) Hennan’s? (check) Blue Plate? (yessir) 212 Market? (indeed). And the list goes on…

By definition, a downtown will attract people from outside its borders. Healthy regions have vibrant centers, and vibrant centers exist in part to serve their region. It is good for downtown to be a destination for visitors. Downtown is the shared living room for the region and the logical place for us to come together. Does the fact that the riverfront district attracts visitors make it a theme park, or is it indicative of a healthy urban environment? Downtown is supposed to attract people, to house people, to feed people, to offer them diversion, and to provide them a chance to make a living. Ours is an authentic place, not nostalgic. What happens here matters, because the health of our downtown affects not just the people who live, work and play here, but the health of the region as well. 

Downtown is not a theme park, it’s a city. 

*That’s his stat, I think the real number is closer to 27% in Chattanooga in 18% in the region - which is still too high.


My Favorite: Building

As promised, I will not bitch and moan week in and week out. So this week lets go to a happy place- the first of a series of “My Favorites” will highlight a favorite building. The handful of well-designed downtown buildings are kind of like one’s children, it’s impossible to pick a favorite. So, if in the future if I refer to another building as my favorite, just roll with it. I’ll be doing my best to stay away from the usual suspects and try to point out things that would ordinarily escape notice.
So, with no further ado, this week’s favorite building is…(drum roll please…)

Yes, Citipark, the brutalist structure on the northwest corner of MLKing and Chestnut. Architecturally speaking, the term Brutalist is not in reference to “a quality of being cruel or savage” but after the term that refers to the finish of the concrete. Béton Brut refers to concrete that is left unfinished after the forms are removed, thus showing the imprints of the material that the form was made of (plywood, wood planks, etc). At first glance, it’s a building only an architect (or concrete salesman) could love. The building is a 6 level parking structure of béton brut concrete, glazed red tile, and glass. From an aesthetic standpoint, I have a visceral reaction to it. I just like to look at it. From an urbanistic standpoint it embodies a fair few of the principles of good urbanism. There are no doubt more beautiful buildings from an artistic standpoint, and there are also better examples of urbanism downtown- but this is my favorite for combining the best of both worlds.
(Before some ass points it out, yes I see the irony in the fact that I have named a parking structure a favorite building while constantly making the case that downtown is for people not cars. What can I say, the heart wants what the heart wants.) 
About the Form
I love the simple geometry. The dominant feature of the building is a curved ramp, the repetition in the form gives the cylindrical volume rhythm and motion.  The concepts of rhythm and motion are further expressed in the columns supporting the parking trays. The negative space between the trays is forceful and figurative. I’m also a sucker for the variety of texture: rough concrete, glossy red tile, smooth glass.

In addition to being beautiful, the building functions well from an urbanistic standpoint. The building is built to the sidewalk and frames the pedestrian realm. The height of the building mass is almost exactly the same width as the street it frames (Chestnut). That 1:1 ratio of building height to street width creates comfortable, human scale proportions for the “outdoor room” we speak of so often. 
 If I have a critique it is that I don’t particularly care for how they handled the corner of MLKing and Chestnut. Triangular corners can be tricky I guess. I also miss the CitiPark signage that has been replaced by a corporate logo.
Nothing against the mark or the company, but I'm a font freak.

About the Function
The building is multi-story, and respects the fact that land is scarce downtown. It takes cars off of the sidewalk and puts storefronts in their place. It has effectively removed 3 full city blocks of surface parking while still providing space for other activities on site. The building is multi-use, currently housing an optometrist, a sandwich shop, a printing company, a brokerage, and a convenience store.
Parking structures downtown are generally a good idea, however, some can be more effective than others in terms of location. In one of his concepts for the redevelopment of Philadelphia, Louis Kahn proposed that parking structures surround the core of downtown. In this case people would arrive downtown, park their car on the perimeter and the entire core of downtown would be reserved for buildings and parks to be accessed by pedestrians. For a number of reasons, that particular plan was never going to happen, but the idea that we should devote scarce resources to buildings and people rather than automobiles is as sound as a pound.
Louis Kahn Civic Center, project, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The location of this structure is perfectly suited to its function. In theory, visitors to downtown could exit at MLK, park at Citipark, then spend the rest of their visit downtown as a pedestrian. But as we all know, theory and practice can be two different things.
So the next time you enter downtown from Exit 1A from US-27 have a look up at CitiPark, and don’t hate it ‘cause it’s beautiful.


Another resolution checked off the list...

Well friends, no new thoughts this week. I spent my writing time putting the finishing touches on an online portfolio of my work (again, 10 years after everyone else). I'll have a new post on monday, in the meantime, please feel free to drop by...