Back at it

Friends, I offer my sincerest apologies for missing the past couple of weeks. I tried to try to keep it rolling, but had a couple of projects that conspired to steal my writing time. Things are settling down a bit, so I’m back at it. For the record, I’m bailing on the Pink Floyd tribute, for now (if you have a serious problem with that let me know and I’ll reconsider).

As you may know, the big project I’ve been working is the Design Studio Retrospective. (If you don't know, now you know, know, know, know). The Retrospective takes a look back at more than 20 years of urban design and visioning for downtown Chattanooga. Over the spring and summer of this year, I canvassed the community and reached out to studio alums to assemble as much of the work that the studio produced as possible. The primary product of that effort is an online archive. The secondary product is an exhibition of outstanding examples of the work that is being put on display in my favorite building. The exhibition follows the work of the Studio as it progressed from general downtown structure studies to work on some of Chattanooga’s most beloved places. The exhibition also features an interactive connection to the complete archive of work. The website is now live and can be found at www.chattanoogastudio.com. If you're not from 'round here, be sure to go to the "retrospective" page and download the ibook for you iphone or ipad- it's almost good as being there. If you are from here, you can still download it, but you have no reason for not actually being there.

One of the things that Stroud taught was that all of our work should “respect the past, reinforce the present and predict a future. By its nature a retrospective is a look back at something that happened in the past- I had that part covered. One of the things I struggled with during the process was how to make a retrospective relevant to the present and pertinent to the future. I really believe that what has been put together is more than simply a history project.

If we consider the present in regard to urbanism and design in our community, the big deal going is River City Company’s Urban Design Challenge. The overwhelming support of and participation in the process is evidence that the community values civic dialogue on issues of urbanism and design. It seems to me that the retrospective could be considered a 20 year long urban Design Challenge with hundreds of team members and all of downtown as the site. Chattanooga has been incredibly fortunate to have had an influx of young (and not so young) creative and engaged transplants over the past decade or so. Due to the ignoble demise of the Studio, many of our new neighbors have no clue about the high level of work that was necessary to create the city that we enjoy today. In those regards, the retrospective has relevance in the present.

A couple of concepts stood out during my research, and I hope that these are things that come across to those visiting the exhibition. The first is that downtown didn’t just happen. When we go to nightfall and have a great time, enjoy a stroll around the riverfront, enjoy a meal in an outdoor space, or go home to our neighborhoods in the Southside, it’s easy to take those things for granted. The reality is that virtually everything we enjoy downtown- especially as it relates to the public realm- is the result of years of planning, sketching, design, debate, and hard work. Great places (especially in America) are the result of careful thought, design and planning.

The other thing that stood out has to do with time. The big maneuvers in downtown: Miller Plaza, Ross’s Landing, the Southside, and the river’s edge, all took at least a decade from the initial concept until completion. (That’s fast, by the way). The issue with that timing is that it cycles very differently from political cycles, funding cycles, and often community attention spans. I think the exhibition highlights the importance of having “something” that is a stable long-term steward of community vision. This “something” has to be a place of common ground, and a place where ideas have time and space to gestate. Without this function, the city develops in an ad hoc, piecemeal way that shortchanges greater possibilities. By highlighting these considerations and interjecting them into the civic dialogue, the retrospective projects a future.

The Retrospective will be open until late October and will be open to the public from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday-Thursday. As mentioned earlier, it can be found in the Citipark building at 831 Chestnut Street. Invite a friend, come out and have a look, and make sure you find me and say hey.

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