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.

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