A Challenge for the Challenge

Note: a portion of this week's post has been omitted as events in Germany yesterday rendered it inaccurate. I will say that I am quite proud of Amy LePeilbet and the girls. We'll get 'em next time.

For those of you living under a rock (or outside of Chattanooga), you may be unaware of the upcoming Urban Design Challenge. The River City Company is sponsoring this year-long design competition that will feature design and visioning work by local architects on six sites in downtown Chattanooga. (Full disclosure: KCRW is working with RCC to facilitate the Challenge). It all kicks off at a public meeting on July 27th at the Chattanoogan, which also happens to be Christianmas (To the uninitiated, this the day that people across the globe celebrate my birth. Get your shopping done early to avoid the rush). This is the radio spot we did on WUTC describing the program. Yes, I realize I used one of the worst phrases ever and dropped an "outside the box". Sorry, I choked.
Ghost of Christianmas Past.
Ya'll don't know nothin' 'bout white, short-pant leisure suits.

Because of our role in the process, I’m not going to be able to participate on any of the design teams. In fact, I’m insanely jealousy that I don’t get to do any actual design work on the sites. However,  for those participating, it will not be all fun and games. There is the pressure of the blank slate. In the “real world” these designers are accustomed to dealing with constraints based on clients, programs and budgets. None of these exist in this exercise. There is also the pressure of producing ideas and imagery that will no doubt be compared to those of the other teams. No one wants to be “the guy” whose work wasn’t on the same level as his or her peers. I would guess that as the Challenge progresses we will find that the teams will be trying to outdo one another (which is good for everyone). I’m really excited to see our able community of local architects rise to the Challenge.

What is the metric for determining whether or not this endeavor is a success? I think it's safe to say that if the six sites are eventually developed in a way that was informed by the Challenge, it would be considered a great success. But what if the designers produce work that the community hates and developers won’t touch? Would it possible for the Challenge to be a success with that result? Absolutely. Perhaps that would even be a preferable outcome. Think “give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach and man to fish, feed him for a lifetime”.

It would indeed be a benefit to the community to have a design team develop a plan that has a realistic opportunity of being developed. This would be something that “pencils out” from a developer’s standpoint and has a style and substance that is easily digestible for a mass market. In fact a designer might construe this as an opportunity to “audition” for a potential client by creating something that is safe, grounded and plausible. So a potential outcome of the challenge is a set of 6 well-packaged concepts in search of client and capital. But in that scenario, after the dust has settled we would have 6 individual projects- nothing more, nothing less. In a sense, this is the “easy way out”.

The Sites.

On the other hand, it would be nice to see designers to go out on a limb and challenge some traditional notions. There would be great value in a design team developing a proposal for an impractical or improbable concept if it sparks imagination. The true challenge is how the designer forwards a concept that has intrinsic value, but does so in a way that sparks community dialogue. If the community hates a proposal, they would hopefully give voice to why. That voice naturally leads to a discussion of preferable alternatives. This type of public discourse is how we develop the collective will and design conscience of the community. This community constituency can then inform everything that we do downtown – not just on six sites.

Ya'll know I’m always on about how building a great downtown has to come from a community that is engaged in conversation and in partnership with one another. Design guidelines ain’t doing it, developers ain’t doing it on their own, non-profits can’t force it, and local government alone can’t do it either. Only in concert and with the mandate of the community is it possible. Getting each private/public/non-profit institution focused to do their job can be a relatively straightforward exercise. Finding a way to create consensus and voice for a community as it relates to design issues is far more challenging. The only way to get it rolling is to provide constant and continuing opportunities for conversation. The Urban Design Challenge is a fantastic opportunity to re-energize the community conversation regarding what we value as a community and how we want to see our community grow over time.

Over the course of the coming year I will be keeping you posted on the Urban Design Challenge. If you're reading this, you presumably have some interest in urban design or Chattanooga- I challenge you to work as hard as the architects and to participate in the process.

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