Genius is Sorrow's Child

In the past few years, much has been written about the world becoming flat. New technologies allow ideas and trends to spread far and wide very quickly. In many ways this is a fantastic boon to humanity. But from the standpoint of community identity it has troubling implications. Once upon a time you could look at examples of architecture from any number of cities and make a pretty sound judgment about their place of origin. These days everything looks the same, from the mundane to the sublime. McMansions and sterile office parks are the same in Ooltewah as they are in Omaha. Even the works of most Starchitects could be transplanted to any metropolis in the world with little or no effect.

In many endeavors, hiring an out of town consultant can be a very useful strategy with little downside (aside from cost). If a business hires a marketing firm from Richmond to work on an ad campaign, what’s the worst that can happen? If the campaign sucks and fails, you can scrap it and move on to the next firm/idea. Cities are different. If a building or open space sucks and fails, we’re stuck with it. And if a building or community open space is great and a success, we’re stuck with it. Yes, that’s right, “stuck” with a great building or place.

When going outside of the community to hire an architect or planner, it is done presumably because that level of expertise or genius cannot be found in the local community of designers. So a genius is brought to town, they do their thing and return to New York or LA. The community is left with the gift of their building. What happens beyond that is the stuck part. If you accept that local designers can’t work on the same level as the genius, how is the building grown or maintained? You can either a) get back on the genius-hiring treadmill, or b) have locals try to raise their game to the level of the work. In our fair city we have a few examples of those two tacks.

When the Aquarium wanted to expand as a part of the 21st Century Waterfront project, instead of hiring a local to do the work they returned to Peter Chermayeff (although the name of the firm was different, it was essentially the same crew). I think they did a fine job with the new building. I will, however, go on record as saying that their concept for a flat roof for the addition was a better solution than the repetitive glass peaks that were built. (But that is a minor quibble) I have the utmost respect for Mr. Chermayeff and think he is a genius designer. But from the perspective of a “homer” I can’t help but think that the aquarium building is more about itself than it is about our city and the environment in which it exists. Chattanooga and Baltimore are vastly different places, are their aquariums vastly dissimilar?  This brings up one of the characteristics of Starchitects. What makes them genius is that they have a certain thought process. It follows that similar thought processes for similar programs and similar uses (even for different places) will produce similar works. That makes perfect sense from the standpoint of ideological consistency of the architect, but kind of sucks for the cities that have relinquished a degree of uniqueness. In any event, when faced with moving forward, the Aquarium decided to return to the out-of-town designer to ensure that things were done right. It seems to have worked well for them.

Of course, ours is better...but that's not the point

On the other hand there are a few examples where out-o-towners have done work here, and the locals have picked up the torch. Coolidge Park is one of the great public spaces in our city. The designers of the park won a slew of awards, and rightly so. One of the great original features of the park was a big-ass elm tree. Alas, as with all that live, it eventually passed. In honor of the tree and to fill in a conspicuous hole in the park, the City devised the concept of a peace grove. The grove comprises a stand of trees native to and in honor of our sister cities. A really cool concept, I must say. But the devil is ever in the details. It appears that rather than hire a design firm to help them make a sympathetic intervention in the park, the City designed the grove themselves.* Seems easy, it’s all just circles, right? Unfortunately, what was put out there doesn’t follow the same design “rules” or ethos that everything else in park does. As a result it just sticks out as being somehow wrong and incongruous. The good news is that most park users won’t have the visual literacy to point that out as the issue. The bad news is that even if it can’t be specifically identified, the discord will be sensed subconsciously. This was a missed opportunity.

I challenge you to not find the homemade piece.

The prime example of gulf the between genius design and local expertise can be found in the 21st Century Waterfront. We had world-class designers create a world-class place, but it's being maintained and evolved by people without that level of design sophistication. In a sense a Ferrari has been given to a 15-year-old. Hence we get “improvements” like the ticket shack that I'm so fond of dissing. I'll refrain from commenting on the redesign of the Passage lest I get sued, countersued, or otherwise served. The problem with Geniuses is that they do genius work. What makes that a problem is that the built environment is need of maintenance and growth long after the designer is gone. The genius leaves when they’re finished. The community is then charged with stewarding a work that (not being geniuses themselves) they can’t fully understand.

After writing all of that, I’m not exactly sure what my point is. I suppose it’s that if you’re going to go out and hire geniuses to design for you, you have to make sure that the same level of talent is applied over time. Otherwise, the initial investment is lost. On the bright side, if you choose to work with local talent you have two things on your side: 1) you know where they live and presumably can have them help you over time; and 2) they are hopefully designing in way that is informed by local tradition and vernacular- in this way other local designers are able to take that work and evolve it over time.

Ah, I remembered my point: I’m available for all of your out-of-town design consulting needs.

*I don’t know that for a stone-cold fact, but that is what I’ve been told. If a professional designed that, the critique still holds true, but apologies for calling you out.


Kahn did it, Kahn did it...

 Let me start with a Happy Father’s Day to pretty much all the dads out there. I’m having a great one with Spence and Stern, I am indeed a lucky man. (Lucky Man is from the Verve’s 1997 album Urban Hymns. One of my favorite albums of all time – get past the obvious Bittersweet Symphony and find a rich and rewarding listen.)

As it turns out, I’m kind of taking this week off, but not out of laziness. I spent the last couple of hours writing about the concept of the street as a public room. A number of architects and planners have described the concept over the years - the road itself and the sidewalks serve as the floor, the faces of buildings and trees form the walls, and of course, the sky is the ceiling. As with a “real” room the quality of the “street room” is based on a number of factors. The scale and proportion of the floors and walls, the quality of material and manufacture, activities in the space, and the level of detailing are all determining factors in whether or not the room is comfortable.

I wanted to write something that went beyond those somewhat quantifiable factors. I wanted to address the immeasurable- the spirit that make these public spaces so very important to us. So, in a thousand words I came up with a post that I was pleased with. As is my writing wont, I took a break to browse around do some reading on similar topics, only to have a “Simpson’s did it” moment. A year before my birth, upon his receipt of the AIA Gold Medal, Louis Kahn delivered a talk in Detroit. I’ve read the transcript probably half a dozen times over the years and it has no doubt consciously and subconsciously driven my appreciation for the importance of the urban public realm. But perhaps because I’ve been hyper-focused on the concept for the past couple of hours, I’ve found a newfound clarity in his words. In any event, after revisiting his work my trifling thousand words fell victim to the delete button, and I offer you:  

The Room, The Street, and Human Agreement. 
follow this link to read the transcript

Kahn did it, Kahn did it..

Nothing else need be written...


Riverbend is Here Again

Truth be told, I haven’t been to Riverbend in years. The festival and Neocon run simultaneously which means that Denise is in Chicago with her clients. Consequently, I’m either along for the ride with her, or at home with the boys. (This is me resisting the urge to write about how much I love Chicago) However, before marriage and kids this was my favorite Chattanooga week of the year. I enjoyed it more for spectacle than for its musical offerings as my favorite bands and genres are not well represented. Back then, if pressed to give my main reasons for attending, the answer would have most certainly included drinking in public and people watching. In my old age, I have crotchety quarrels with things such as “those darn kids”, loud music, carny food, late nights and mullets so I don't really miss it.  But I know I’m in the minority and that a lot of people come here to have a great time and I think that’s fantastic. Riverbend does a number of great things for our community and for downtown above and beyond its obvious financial impact.

Yes, I would (and did)
skip Riverbend for a trip to Farnsworth House.

I think that the Riverbend experience changes one’s perspective on the city. Ordinarily, people experience the Riverbend venues from the comfort of their cars. It is not often that one can go strolling about unmolested in the middle Riverfront Parkway or Chestnut Street. Being able to get in those places and experience them at human scale instead of through the lens of a car establishes a totally different connection. Cruising a 12’ wide travel lane as a pedestrian and as the driver of a car are two completely different experiences. That place is not made for a single individual, it only feels comfortable during the festival because there are (thousands of) other people there. Hopefully, even if subconsciously, it conveys the point that the city should be designed for the person, not the machine.

The festival also helps inform people about walkbility. It is a walking festival, and hopefully, for those who don’t ordinarily embrace pedestrianism it underscores the ease and common sense behind the practice. A lot of our visitors live the suburban lifestyle and drive from front door to front door to front door throughout their days.  Even though it’s a festival and not “real life”, one would hope that the process of parking the car, walking from music venue to food vender to restaurant to bar, would shed some light on just how easy it is to be a walker when the environment is designed to accommodate that activity. (Not to mention that walking helps burn off funnel cake, deep-fried onions, turkey legs, and other various foodstuffs on a stick.)

Perhaps the only food-on-a-stick not on offer at Riverbend.

For thousands of people, the festival provides a glimpse into downtown living. Each hotel guest gets a taste of what day-to-day life living in downtown is like. Wake up in the morning, walk to a coffee shop, visit any of our numerous attractions during the day, stop by a restaurant and have lunch, walk to a baseball game, walk to any of the dozens of restaurants or bars. I wonder how many people sample the downtown living experience for a week and wonder what it would be like to live that way? Ditch the car, forget the yard work and live within walking distance of the regions best restaurants, biggest attractions, largest employers and biggest customer base?

Clearly, this is a social event. Yes, there are people who attend for the sole purpose of listening to music. But I would argue that the vast majority of attendees are there for the social component. The festival provides the opportunity for people to bump into friends, old and new. It provides unparalleled people watching, and provides the opportunity to see and be seen. Face it, Riverbend Bingo is good stuff. One of the reasons that Riverbend is successful as a social event is that the spaces that accommodate that activity are designed for that purpose. The Friends of the Festival had a prominent place at the table during the design phase of the 21st Century Waterfront project. In fact, it seemed to me that the FoF drove a number of the riverfront design decisions to a questionable degree.  I found it baffling that we were being so deferential to a week-long festival as we were talking about designing the city’s living room for the other 51 weeks a year as well. But I digress. The point is that improvements to the riverfront were designed to accommodate the needs of Riverbend and its patrons, and it shows.

Finally, Riverbend is a celebration. It’s a celebration of our natural environment, of our built environment, of our community and for our region. It’s important for us to gather as a community, throw a party for ourselves, and celebrate what it means to be a Chattanoogan. So while you probably won’t see me down there, y’all go, have a good time and drink a cool one for me.


Chattanooga: The Next $$$$$$ $$$$$ ? – Part 2

Last week I wrote about how a number of places have lost their identity in the quest for the tourist dime. I made the observation that there is evidence that we’re heading down that same dark path. It all comes down to money. More accurately, it comes down to simplistic first cost fiscal accounting. Every argument for or acquiescence to the degradation of the place we live is based on the first time cost of doing business.

Why does that dire casual “dining” restaurant have to look like that? 

-“It costs too much to hire an architect to design something better”
-“The folks who spend money here only recognize our store if it looks like that”
-“Conspicuous architecture will attract customers”
-“Building materials other than EIFS cost too much”

On the bright side, they probably didn't have to pay a lot for it.

Why did we place an out of context ticket booth in the middle of our riverfront park?
-“It didn’t cost us anything” 

-“Money can be made by selling tickets there”

What is appropriate next to an historic building
looks out of place in a 21st Century Waterfront.
(no matter how much money we saved)

Why are streets and sidewalks being ripped up and replaced with inferior, incongruous materials?
-“As long as it works, it doesn’t matter what it looks like”
-“Doing things ‘right’ is too expensive”
-“It’s cheaper”

If prevailing forces are concerned only with how cheaply we can build, and immediate first-time costs, what are the alternatives? Triple bottom line, long-term thinking.

In and of itself, money does not sustain life. Among our fundamental human needs are functional societal and environmental settings (the interacting field of Max-Neefs matrix). The triple bottom line is way of accounting for our activities in terms of profit, planet and people as opposed to simply profit. We have to recognize that impacts on the environment (including the built environment) and on our community of individuals are as important as monetary profitability. The pro-forma for a new development should be a factor in the decision-making process, but so should an analysis of the project as it relates to issues of sustainability, local environmental quality (including built environment), and the community and neighborhood. Whether or not the new (fill in the blank) can make money is an important factor, but just as important are how it physically relates to its site and how it supports our local culture of community. The only way for us to stop our turn toward the dark side is to recognize that environmental and community concerns are co-equals with monetary concerns.

There's no free lunch. When we save money on the front end building cheaply, we pay for it several times over in the long term. People visit and live here because downtown has a unique character, is set in a beautiful environment, and because of our commitment to quality in the public realm. When we make decisions based solely on how cheaply we can do things, we destroy the elements that make Chattanooga the place that we love. Once the bar is lowered we find ourselves on a very slippery slope. Every unfortunately designed chain restaurant, every asphalt patch in a pavered sidewalk, every cut corner degrades the quality that makes people want to live and visit here in the first place. Saving a few cents in the short term, costs many dollars in the long run. Once those decisions are made, they become easier and easier to justify again and again. We run the risk of waking up one day to find that the unique character of our place has been lost. What remains will be the sum of years of cheap thinking.  Instead of a vibrant and diverse economy we would be left shilling kitschy trinkets and happy meals to the lowest common denominator of tourist traffic in a place that will be difficult to care about.

There are a number of reasons to be pessimistic about our ability to stem the oncoming tide. Chief among those is our general apathy about design quality. This includes the emerging refrain that “Well, it’s not very pretty, but it makes money, and it’s their property to do with as they see fit”. That’s an argument that money is more important than our community identity or the environment in which we live and raise our children. I reject that argument, not from a socialistic standpoint, but from a capitalistic one. Capitalism presumes that the players will be making decisions based on rational or enlightened self-interest. Therefore, the future of our downtown is dependant upon on both public and private sectors understanding that their long term self interest lies as much in environmental and social realms as it does in fiscal realms. Not only do they have to understand that, they then have to make rational or enlightened decisions based on that understanding… uh-oh…

Epilogue: Do I really think were going to turn into a full-on Pigeon Forge? Not likely. I would wager that the inertia of the city scale will preclude that possibility. However, I do think that our quality and character can be seriously degraded by a lack of attention to the issues I’ve pointed out. With every step we take on that dark path we lose a piece of ourselves that will be very difficult to earn back.