'Cane Warning

Congratulations to the kids from Cali. I love the Little League World Series. The action is riveting and the timing of the tournament signals the impending arrival of college football. I had a greater interest in the LLWS this year after spending a large portion of my summer coaching Spencer’s 5-6 year-old all-star team. One of my great joys in life is watching my son play sports. I love Spence, I love sports, Spence loves sports, it works out perfectly. One of the many things that I learned through sport, and that I’m trying to pass along, is that good technique and hard work are just as important as natural ability (and become more important as the level of competition increases). As with many other lessons learned in sport, this is equally transferable to other facets of life.

How 'bout them 'Canes!
Unfortunately, ironic mustaches and polyester
Bike coaches shorts are lost on five-year-olds.

Take for instance the act of writing. I am not a naturally gifted writer. I am, however, doing my best to compensate for that by working hard at it. That leaves technique as a variable that I can address to improve the quality of what I produce each week. In an effort to tackle that, I have returned to my long-forgotten copy of the little book: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style*. After reading the book again for the first time in years, it became apparent that I’m doing worse than I originally thought. It’s clear that I have let myself succumb to the cutesy tone of blog writing and the referential style of hipster communication. Apologies to you all for butchering the language, I'll get better.

After the third or fourth time of reading, another thought dawned on me. The guiding concepts of this manual could just as easily be applied to design, planning or architecture. The book centers on the concept that a clear, concise statement is the most effective means of communication. In that respect, how is writing any different from planning or architecture? To highlight the similarity of the endeavors I have rewritten a passage from The Elements of Style (left) to address built design (right).

The content of the book is applicable across disciplines and the delivery of the message can be as well. This little book is powerful example of communication. The book highlights 7 usage rules, 11 principles of composition and highlights commonly misused words and expressions. My favorite part the book is the chapter entitled An Approach to Style- 21 straightforward statements about good writing. The task of writing can be complex, but these rules are simple. To contrast their style to the technique we use to write about how to design, I offer the following: on the left is a list of principles from the little book, on the right are principles from the Downtown Residential/Mixed Use District portion of our zoning code:

Forget the fact that the content of the zoning principles is misguided in places and dead wrong in others. Pay attention to the tone. The book examples give clear, positive statements about what good design is. The zoning language provides flaccid instructions on what should be done, and limp alternatives for those who can even be bothered to achieve the low standards. Beyond that, the zoning code (a set of design guidelines) is essentially a set of minimum requirements. The Elements of style focuses more on what to do than what not to do. Despite the fact that the ordinance codifies the mean, it requires no less than 220 pages to do so. The Elements of Style tackles a more complex subject in 85 half-sheet pages. Frighteningly enough, this portion of the zoning code is the only one that attempts to address good design in any way.

What we have created is a system that encourages lowest common denominator design. The new Downtown Overlay District promises more of the same type of thought. I suppose, however, that given the spate of crap that has cropped up in the past couple of years there is some value in establishing some kind of minimum standard. I have seen the names of the (large) board established to draft and enforce the new downtown design guidelines. There are some sharp ones among them- I hope they speak up. The group has inherent limitations since it is a political body that will be governed by political processes and by legislation of their own in-house creation. It is the responsibility of the rest of us to provide them with the political will to operate, and to advocate for good as they go about their work (eternal vigilance being the price of liberty, and all).

Nevertheless, we need to be asking for more than tricks to mitigate the next Buffalo Wild Wings. Is our aspiration to create a downtown that is free of poor building or one that is a shining example of excellence? Will we be content with making lists of things we don’t like, or will we continue to produce bold, positive visions for our future?

*I admit it was the reading of this article that skewered the book and its authors that rekindled my interest. Notice, however, that the author gives the book a pass on the style portion.


Nature v. Nurture

I. Not i, I. A single vertical mark. This is perhaps the simplest and most abstract way of graphically describing man in relation to their environment ( ---, a horizontal mark being an abstraction of the earth as we experience it). In addition to describing humans as they exist in space, we have historically used single vertical elements to mark positions of importance or to commemorate important events. Around the globe we find objects such as obelisks, steeples, totems, spires, stone monoliths and all manner of other elements used to express meaning. I suppose there is some innate connection between these verticals and man because we “need” to build them, and I think we enjoy looking at them. (I know there may also be some kind of phallic/fertility thing going on, but this ain’t that kind of party.) 

In his classic book, The Image of the City, Kevin Lynch outlined five elements that people consistently use to mentally map their environment: paths, edges, district, nodes and landmarks. He defined landmark as a readily identifiable object that serves as an external point of reference. In more common use, it is an element one would use while giving directions to someone. Vertical things, especially tall ones, more often than not, fall into the landmark category. Of course, this is  not to say that a landmark has to be vertical). Tall things can be seen from many directions and at distance, handy wayfinding attributes. Some of the most famous objects in the world fall into this category: the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the list goes on and on.

It occurred to me, however, that in our community our wayfinding and orientation points tend not to be these vertical elements. For these purposes we seem to use either a) a horizontal public spaces (Ross’s Landing, Miller Plaza, Coolidge Park, Fountain Square, Walnut Street Bridge, Riverwalk), or b) semi-public buildings whose primary character is more of mass than of height (Choo-Choo, Aquarium, Memorial Auditorium).

The issue is not that we lack vertical elements, nor is it in their distribution. Downtown is choc full of prominent, beautiful vertical elements: IMAX, Creative Discovery Museum, 1st Centenary Steeple, First Methodist Church Steeple, Dome Building, 17th Street Water Tower, and the 1st Baptist Church Steeple to name but a few. However, for some reason they don’t seem to be the elements by which we mentally map our city. If you look at these verticals, they are for the most part introverted things. They express themselves in an outward way, but they serve internal purposes. The places we tend to use for points of reference are very public places. Example: if you were on Georgia Avenue in front of the Courthouse, would you be more likely to say “I’m by Fountain Square” or “I’m by the old First Methodist Church Steeple”. I think most Chattanoogans would orient themselves more by the square than by the steeple, despite the fact that the steeple is far more prominent from a physical standpoint.

Is this guy by Fountain Square or
the old First Methodist Church Steeple?

Does this mean that there is an innate quality in Chattanoogans that predisposes us to think of our community in terms of public space? What a fantastic concept. I think this would explain an awful lot of things. When the Design Studio was still around, we would host groups from around the globe who came to see the city and learn from what our community accomplished. Invariably, a group would arrive looking for a “silver bullet” project they could export and replicate back home. Invariably, the group would leave with the understanding that our successes were not due a single project, but in our community process and attention to the public realm. The care we (used to) put into the planning and design of the public realm in downtown is on display for all to see.

I will admit that there exists the possibility that I’m full of it- maybe we don’t really see the city that way (but as another great Alabamian once said: I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It). I believe that the community has a special quirk that makes us more sensitive to our shared public realm. Do we all share some genetic trait? Unlikely. If it's not genetic then it's a trait we have picked up from our environment. Perhaps there is something in the water or the pollen. Again, unlikely. So this trait must be something that we have learned. Hmm...I wonder how.


And so castles made of sand fall in the sea...eventually

Rushing Family Vacation 2011 is in the books. My hope was that during the week a couple of new posts would write themselves. That did not occur, but I developed several promising concepts. The week has taken its toll and I can’t seem to bring my thoughts to focus (it also doesn't help that I can't tear away from Radiohead performing King of Limbs in its entirety on Paladia...again). Therefore, it is with shame that I offer several short, unconnected thoughts as this week’s post (Hendrix references at no extra charge):

-I do not recommend going to the beach immediately following Shark Week.
-There is something strangely unsettling about hordes of Lacoste-clad, white folk lounging about on porches. (read: Seaside)
-I reject the widespread, anachronistic use of the medieval English typology of sandcastle. I believe that in the cathedrals of LeCorbusier (there are 3) and the works of Gaudi, sandcastles find their highest inspiration.

While playing in the sand I had this conversation with a kindly gentleman who happened by:
Kindly Gentleman: That’s a good-looking castle you have there.

Me: It’s Corbusier’s Eglise Saint-Pierre in Firminy-Vert. 

Kindly Gentleman: (pregnant pause)

Me: It’s a hyperbolic paraboloid.

Kindly Gentleman: …carry on.

Yeah, its a hyperbolic paraboloid. (and)
Spanish Castle Magic.

-While we’re doing the dialogue thing, the following exchange occurred more than once:
Me: Spence, when I was your age, none of this shi…none of this stuff was here. We stayed in these few little cabins (Sea Grove Villas) and the rest was forest for as far as the eye could see…
Spence: Yeah, you already said that.
Me: We spent our time fighting horse flies, having bottle-rocket fights and peeling shrimp for the grown-ups…
Spence: Right, did you get to play x-box?
Me: (pregnant pause)...just peel the shrimp Spence…

Oh, the difference 35 years make.

The primary driver of change between the Sea Grove of my youth and current day, was the development of Seaside. Seaside is the landmark town that put New Urbanism on the map. Reams have been written about the importance of the place, I have nothing to add. However, last week I promised to write about my latest impressions. Here goes.

I set aside one night of the vacation for some “me time”. After the family was tucked-in, I poured myself a stiff one, grabbed a cigar and stole off to the beach under the full moon. I was there for an hour and a half, but in reality it was a single moment, a single experience. I enjoyed the entire time, but it was just a snapshot. It reminded me of too many summer blockbuster movies that seemingly start with a stunningly beautiful image and contort the “plot” to justify its eventual display on the screen. When that moment arrives, it is indeed beautiful, but also seems a bit contrived and lacks depth.

While in Seaside I happened across a home
designed by my favorite architect.

I suppose that would be my latest impression of Seaside. Having been there a half-dozen times or so, I am no expert on the place. However, every trip there feels like Groundhog Day. Aside from some new-to-me food trucks on 30A, the place is exactly as I remember from previous visits. I do not find it to be fake or nefarious in any way, I actually quite like the place. However, there is an intangible quality of something not quite right, not quite “real”. Perhaps it’s the beach, perhaps it’s the lack of a non-tourist economic raison d'etre, perhaps the fact that the place has no history beyond 25-years. More likely it is my inability to wind down, relax and enjoy a place of slower pace. I will, however, readily concede that the critique of Seaside being cliché and staged is cliché and staged. Despite all of that, it is one my favorite places to visit.


Urban Exposure

By the time ya’ll read this, I will have already suffered my first sunburn and OD’ed on royal reds. Yes, the C.Rushings have made their triennial pilgrimage to the place of Rushing vacations past, Seagrove Beach, Florida. When I was a younster, our family would make the 3-hour expedition from Montgomery with the Turners and Voltzes to a virtually unpopulated Florida panhandle. Of course that all changed with Mr. Duany's New Urban masterpiece.  I fully expect that next week this space will be devoted to my renewed impressions of Seaside (a mere couple hundred yards from Sea Grove).

Royal Reds are not mere "shrimp" my friend.

This week, from the comfort of my satellite office on Cherry Street, I will offer thoughts on our city as a destination for so many other families as their vacation spot.

First, let me admit that I am uniquely unqualified to talk about this from personal experience. I never set foot in Chattanooga until I came for my first job interview. However, I will take a shot at describing what a person of my cohort would have encountered in their youth, and upon their return with a new family. In their youth this person would likely have seen Rock City, spent time at Ruby Falls, visited Point Park, and perhaps been treated to time at our civil war sites. On their return years later, they likely would take their family to those places, but with added excursions to the Aquarium, the Creative Discovery Museum, the Waterfront, the Riverwalk, and the parks and open spaces on the North Shore.

I will make every effort to talk to Spence about why Seaside is important and about why the way in which we build and inhabit our environment in important. I sincerely doubt that my descriptive capabilities will make an impression with him. However, I fully believe that being there with him, exposing him to an environment that has been excruciatingly designed to be dense, diverse, walkable and beautiful will make an impression on him. He will clearly lack the vocabulary and interest to want to talk about it, but he will have gained a sense that this is a different environment than the sub-urbs of say, Ringgold or Montgomery where he spends time with Grandparents on vacation. “Urban”, “dense”, “city”, “downtown” – these words will not carry the negative connotations for him as they did for me.

My first trip to the panhandle, and Big Luke's last.
(Before any of you hipster DBs ridicule the black socks,
recognize that at the same age you were going through
your 4th sophomore year and ironically swilling cheap
domestics, he was chasing Rommel's ass through the desert.
Show some respect.)

One can only hope that my contemporaries who bring their families back to Chattanooga will have similar experiences. The new generation of Chattanooga visitors will no doubt be entertained by our fantastic attractions on the mountain. When they visit downtown they will no doubt be entertained by our fantastic attractions, but they will also experience first-hand a dense, diverse, walkable and beautiful public realm. Will they fully grasp what they are experiencing, or develop the vocabulary of urbanism? Probably not. However, they will have what is hopefully an enjoyable experience in an urban environ. This is an experience that most southerners of my age did not have.

I recently read a piece suggesting that economic conditions and a surplus in condo inventory mean that little new development would happen in downtown for years. The piece went on to argue that governmental projects in North Chattanooga and Moccasin Bend were going to be essentially the only game running. I do not agree with either of those assertions, but for the sake of argument let’s say it’s true. Does this mean that we should continue to postpone our Community discourse on the future of downtown? Nay. In many respects it means that this is the crucial time to have that focus. While cities across the country get to take a breath after overbuilding for a decade, we should take this opportunity to focus on our future.

The concept that the only folks who want to live downtown are empty-nesters or skinny-jean-wearing hipsters is tired and played out. People across the country have been exposed to the benefits of urban places and aren’t afraid of them. As we continue into the future we are finding that more segments of the population in more stages of their lives are drawn to the amenities in urban areas. Every generation that gets to visit a vibrant, healthy urban environment only strengthens that. There may be some truth to the contention that the million-dollar condo market is overbuilt. However, that is just one market segment. The real challenge is to be able to provide a range of housing that makes it possible for anyone who wants to live downtown to do so. Of course, ‘round here there are those who would never dream of leaving the 'burbs (and that's fine). However, there is an ever growing number who have had positive experiences in the city and would love to live here if economics would permit.

I, for one, believe it will be a great waste if we spend the next few years waiting around to get ourselves involved in government projects. We should be taking this time to restart our community conversation, identify the gaps we have downtown, and put together partnerships to address those concerns. Oh, by the way, this is something we've done before.



Last week was everything it promised to be and more. Christianmas was great and the kickoff for the Urban Design Challenge was better. A standing room only crowd got to hear Alex Kreiger deliver a brief history of urbanism in America before outlining the indicators of healthy urban places. I wrote about my primary impression of his talk for Chattarati. As I mentioned in that piece, his talk was incredibly dense (not Hamilton County School Board Member dense, but packed with meaning). I will use this space (my own little corner of the virtual universe) to talk about another issue he brought up.

As Alex was talking about investing in culture as the fifth of his eight indicators of city center health, he flashed a slide of Der Graben in Vienna. Vienna is famous for its historic architecture and efforts in preservation (what, with the Bundesdenkmalamt and all). The next slide, however, was a counterpoint to a city of hoary 200 year old buildings- steel and glass contortions by the likes of Hans Hollein* and Coop Himmelb(l)au (pronounced co-op, not as in chicken (I bullshit you not, those guys are badass enough drop some parentheses within their firm name)) (while we’re doing the parenthetical thing, you will also notice that both of those firms painfully reinforce the stereotype of architecture firms with awful and impenetrable websites (However, if you manage to make it through to the “recent work” (aktuelle Projekte) section of either website, your eyes will be melted by sheer and unadulterated genius (said the man with precious little genius and awful, impenetrable website))).

Vienna. Rocks.

The point Alex was making is that celebrating and preserving our shared history is important. Being stewards of our inherited built environment is important. But it is also important for us to celebrate the present and aspire to the future. We should take chances, innovate and experiment with new technologies. Many are quick to dis (and rightly so) the modernist expression in most American urban renewal projects. But lest we forget, once upon a time gothic cathedrals were “modern”, as were all of the classical orders, as were Vitruvius’ works and for that matter, anything that came after the cave.

Which of these is more likely to be built in our downtown?
Which of these would spark more discussion?

I have high hopes that the design teams participating in the Challenge will heed Alex’s plea to make the city a work of art. Yes, I realize that not all art has to be cutting edge (and not all architects put parentheses in their firm name). However, one of the jobs of an architect is to read the needs of his/her client and address them. In this case the client is the community. The need of the client is a reenergized civic discourse (not necessarily shovel-ready projects). I have full faith that the vanguard of the design community will rise to the Challenge.

Apology: I want to make a public apology to my great friend (and talented architect) Matt Winget. We mispronounced his name during the award presentation. As we all know, it is pronounced ‘Win-Jet’ not “Wing-It’ (although in some respects that may be a more apt description;)

*Seeing the image of the Haas-Haus immediately brought me back to second year architecture studio. Our professor made the mistake of bringing a geode to class and drawing the connection to the Hollein building. For the next 6 months (like lemmings) everyone in the class (including yours truly) took a shot at the geode metaphor (with disastrous results). Please, if you ever see me invoking the geode technique, slap me down.