Rubber Sole

The Blog comes you to you this week from the Project Pop-Up Grand Opening in the 800 block of Chestnut Street. While this a fantastic event and a lot of fun, I will remember it for another reason. After shaking hands with assorted VIPs and a couple of buddies, I turned around to walk back to the Retrospective space...and the bottom of my shoe fell off. I was slightly embarrassed, but more pissed because I love those shoes. Fortunately, there was a full bottle of super glue and a can of spray mount lying about, so I MacGyvered a solution. Nothing more to say about that other than the opening of Project Pop-Up will be forever linked to the loss of my sole. (ba dum bump) 

Only one shoe was harmed in the making of this post

I am chuffed that efforts are being made to bring the first floor of My Favorite Building back to life (you should go read that post if you haven’t already). Due to the fact that I have only one fully functional shoe and that I reek of an early Friday cigar, I’ve sequestered myself inside the retrospective to simultaneously attend to guests and write this post. As I was trying to figure out what to write about, I overheard a couple of humdingers from retrospective patrons. I was going to simply post a list of quotes Overheard at the Retrospective, but after writing the full list, I came off a bit like Mitt Romney, so perhaps that’s not the way to go. I will, however, leave you with a few jewels Overheard at the Retrospective:

“Yeah, I told my parents I wanted to be an architect, but Mom said I had to go to college for that, so I was like ‘fuck that’, right?”

“you know what I think should be everywhere? Amphitheaters.”

“I could not be an architect to save my life.”

“man. There is sooooooo much this city could do.”

As I have been fond of saying in this space, there is no finish line for the journey of city-building. There is no finished state for us to achieve. There is only constant and continual change that we can hope to influence that will result in a city that expresses our values. That goes for buildings as well as cities. A building is not finished after it is designed and constructed – indeed, its life has only begun. It is the up to the owner and users of the builders to determine what type of life if will have. In this case, the River City Company, Berry & Hunt and their partners are taking an active role to try to breathe new life into a great building that has the potential to make a great impact in that portion of downtown. In the same way that our friends are addressing a problem in a building for its benefit and the greater benefit of the district, so can we address problems with our districts for the benefit of downtown, and downtown for the benefit of the region.

Hmmm… a collaborative public-private partnership that focuses its efforts and resources to solve a specific, well-defined problem…seems like I’ve heard that one before…oh yeah, that’s The Chattanooga Way.


Capitol Ideas

I’m back in the Scenic City and in a considerably better mood. I will say I’m a bit disappointed though- as soon as I leave town, it’s a party: Creative Placemaking roundtable, the Project Pop-up VIP, Hackanooga, people dry-humping at the Riverfront. Sorry to miss all that, but I’m back for a few weeks so I’ll try to catch up. This one has naught to do with Chattanooga specifically, and I offer apologies for that.

Last week my client and I had a couple of free hours in Des Moines between meetings. I saw in the distance a golden dome, surmised that it was the state capitol building and suggested that we take a walk. While I’m still partial to a building on Goat Hill, the Iowa State Capitol is pretty impressive. My client correctly observed “they sure don’t build ‘em like this anymore”. Indeed. There once was a time when buildings were constructed with a care and purpose to embody the spirit of the institutions they housed. In this case, this state building was nothing less than the physical expression of society, community, inalienable rights, and democracy. Consider the vast majority of state buildings constructed within the past 50 years, do any of those concepts pop into mind? (The adjectives that pop into my mind when considering the State building on MLKing are anonymity, frugality, and indifference.)

I love Modern architecture, but I can't hate on this....

As I stood under the golden dome of Iowa’s Capitol, I thought of Stuart Brand’s book How Building’s Learn. The basic premise of his book is that buildings should never be “finished” and should be in continual state of alteration and adaptation. Brand makes some very good points in the book, and I agree with a great deal of what he has to say. In 1994, when he released the book, he went on a tour to support it- one of his stops was in Albuquerque at the UNM School of Architecture. As you may have suspected, as an undergrad I was not a likely attendee at school lectures unless required by one of my professors. This, however, was an exception. At that point in my academic career, I was still working on becoming an architect but the disillusionment that would eventually make me jump that track had taken hold. How Buildings Learn helped me bring into focus some of the issues I was struggling with. Mr. Brand was a rock-star in my eyes and I was relishing the opportunity of watching him rip my professors a new one.

As I recall, he did proceed to pillory both the profession of architecture and its academic root. My memories from the event are hazy, save for a point that one of the professors made. In his book, Brand uses the Metropolitan Cathedral proposal by Boullee as an example to show that the architect “wanted people awed, tiny and powerless before the magnificence of the architect’s achievement.” During the discussion portion of the lecture, one of the professors (can’t remember who, aside from the fact that she was female) called him out on his assertion. Her point was that it was not the architect’s achievement that was the object of marvel- it was, in this case, God. She made the point that buildings at their best have the ability to express immeasurable concepts and to evoke emotion- based on the purpose of the structure. If an architect is designing a place to worship God, is it not appropriate to design in a way that evokes emotions of awe? If one designs a bank, is it not appropriate to try to evoke feelings of stability and conservatism? If one designs a public space, is it not appropriate to evoke and preserve the spirits of openness, inclusiveness, and democracy?

Tell me Stuart, should this space be designed for
any other purpose than serving as the heart of Iowa?
Perhaps some buildings teach instead of learn.

I strongly disagree with the view that every building needs to “learn” and should be able to accommodate any use or change of use in its lifetime. I am wary of one-size-fits-all solutions that apply across the board with no consideration for context. I think that a city built of base, vernacular structures that are in constant flux and that have no ability to evoke emotion is a depressing concept to consider. The development of an architecture that is preoccupied with a constant, hyper-functionality is an interesting concept, however, there are elements of architecture that operate on higher level than the pragmatic. All due respect to Mr. Brand, I think it is perfectly acceptable for a building to be “finished”, maintained and preserved instead of being constantly amended- especially if the building embodies something more than the material it comprises. Architecture has meaning- it represents more than simply meeting our need for shelter and desire for storage. Buildings can rise above being places to store our stuff; they can speak to our souls.

The trip to the Iowa State Capitol was an unexpected treat- I was not anticipating being moved by a building during a lunch break. However, the deliberate placement of limestone, sandstone, granite, gold leaf, wood, and copper made me feel something. The value of architects is their ability to make us feel and to provide us with shared experience. A city full of buildings that make us feel something, and that create experiences we can all share and value should be our goal.


Looks Like Someone Has A Case of the Mondays

As you will see, I’m a bit cranky today. My apologies, but from time to time I have to vent my spleen.  The blog would be (even more) boring if I wrote only about collective conscience and civic will every week. This post is actually a watered down, edited version of a blinder I wrote this morning (it was really quite good and very funny, but in that version I named names and I’m not getting down like that). That said, there is still foul language and reference to dog feces in this version, so I suggest that the timid turn back now (maybe go here instead). Please note that I did my level best to stay away from the juvenile dog excrement analogy, however, the resemblance was just to strong for my adolescent brain to overcome. You have been warned.

The reason that I’m on one is that I have been shaken back to reality concerning the current state of affairs downtown. The two most-read posts on this blog were very early ones on The Declining Standard of Downtown Building. I was not in a very good mood when I wrote those either, but it appears that I lost the fire in my belly and moved on to write about other concepts. Although I know better, it was as if the community recognition of how bad those buildings were would a put a stop to it happening again.  It has just hit me like a ton of hot wings that while we have been singing kum-ba-ya around the Urban Design Challenge campfire*, not a damned thing has changed in the “real world”. This realization was brought on by a couple of specific projects-I can be explicit about one, for the other I will generalize.

For the first, we need look no further than the epicenter of downtown sub-urbanized architecture- Market and 4th. As we all know, Chili's set the bar low and established the first sub-urban building model in downtown since we began our comeback in the 1980’s. Applebee’s set the bar even lower by moving across the street and showing their ass to those entering downtown from our most prominent Riverfront gateway. We are now the proud new recipients of a building so sub-urban that it makes those two P’s-O-S look great.

I will admit that this one caught me off guard. I have noticed on-going construction at the site for some time. I was indeed happy about it since the building had not been well used since the Barber College left. It appeared to me that the crews were meticulously removing the homemade crap that had been installed and were rehabbing with solid, durable materials. If I had my druthers, that site would feature a 3-story building, however, I have no problem with the reuse of a shorter existing historic structure as it is. In short, it appeared to me that they were doing it right and bringing an old building back to life. Then, I happened by one day after the façade had been put up.

Add this to the canon of buildings that will undo downtown.

Have you seen the piece of shit on Market Street? I don’t mean shit as a pejorative term, I mean it in a descriptive way. I’m referring to the stylized, inverted piece of coiled-up dog feces that is the dominant feature of the Noodles façade. It is a prodigious pile and one that a Clifford-sized canine somewhere must be very proud of.

What’s wrong with it ?  (note: this is not an exhaustive list, but will suffice for now):
-Context- it does not respond to its physical or historical conditions in any way.
-Materiality- the EIFS is a cheap material that does not respect the fact that downtown buildings are typically built of durable materials such as brick, stone, or concrete (see context). The wood of the box column out front only references the bad building next to it. 

-Authenticity- it has none. This is made doubly aggravating by the fact that a quick Google image search shows that the company is not averse to using different building types for different situations. The parapet is in no way functional and serves only as a marketing element. In no way does the building speak of Chattanooga or of urbanity (see context).

-Quality- it appears that most of the construction was done in a quality way until the time came to put a face on it. The EIFS looks cheap (it is) and the parapet is essentially a 2D signage element that looks like it might come down with a solid wind (c’mon solid wind).

I'm all for exposed structure, but this is awful.

Noodles & Co.  has dropped a deuce on us. By their actions they have said “Chattanooga, we like you enough to be here, but maintaining our brand and identity is more important than the quality of your downtown…now give us your money”. I won’t. As a slightly right leaning Southerner, I have a solid private property rights streak running through me. I do respect their right to build as they see fit on their site. The flip side of that coin, however, is my right to identify their error, write about it, and to not patronize their establishment. I would not eat there if Bear Bryant came back from the dead to personally cook me the greatest noodle dish ever devised (and I have great love for both Bear and Noodle dishes). In the immortal words of Trent from Swingers "I’m outta here! I’m not eating here… I wouldn’t eat here… I would never eat here anyway! "

The second thing that has me depressed is the realization that the circle isn’t as strong as I thought. It is disappointing to see maladroit interventions when one would think that the designers would know better. It’s perplexing to hear people lament the state of Buffalo Wild Wing’s or Applebee’s, then see them contribute to work that exhibits a similar lack of contextual sensitivity. I’m not passing judgment though; I understand the pressure to create your own context when paying clients are involved.

The fact that the community is talking about urban design issues again is fantastic. While we are talking, however, downtown continues to exhibit a declining standard of building. Will the forthcoming downtown design guidelines help? Maybe, but from what I have heard to this point, they may do as much harm as good. Unfortunately, in our country there is no clean solution to good urban design. Legislating design is nigh upon impossible, depending on designers to convince their clients to do the right thing is hit and miss (assuming that the designers even know the right thing to begin with), and the persuasion/peer pressure route is a tough road to hoe. I do not paint a pretty picture, but the fact is, it's not all roses on the downtown scene.

With that off my chest,  I’m off to Iowa (to deal with a totally different set of problems). Hopefully, I'll return in a better mood. During my absence, please don’t eat at Noodles and please design like it matters.

*I had a blast camping with everyone! That is definitely something we needed, let’s get together again some time soon.


What the Hell is a Spinjitzu?

Friends, I hope you all had a fun, restful and safe holiday weekend. As for me, the hits just keep on coming: football season is back, Bama mauled Michigan (watched it once live and twice on replay), Birmingham City got their first win, and the boys got to spend some quality time with their grandparents- one with the yankee side of the family in New York, and one with my folks in God’s Own Alabama. In other very exciting Rushing news, I became an uncle again with the birth of Luke Larkin Rushing this past Friday. Fortunately for the child, he appears to favor his mother and not his father. Lastly, In an effort to further connect with own progeny, this weekend I immersed myself in the lore of their latest obsession- Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu. My ego has taken a bit of dent as after two days of studying plot lines and characters I’m still not sure I really get it. OK, vacation over, back to business…

A couple of weeks ago, I had occasion to visit an office in Miller Plaza. I noticed that construction in the corner retail space on Market was in full-swing in preparation for a new restaurant. What caught my eye was that work was being performed in the arcade- they had just started so it was difficult to tell what their intent was. (it ended up being a temporary construction barrier). I texted a buddy that I really hoped that the integrity of the arcade was not going to be compromised. His reply was “Don’t be afraid of change…its not sacred”. That brought me back to earth and calmed my nerves a bit because it’s just a building, it’s not sacred, right? That thought stuck with me for a while and I couldn’t shake it. I eventually figured out why- it’s because my esteemed friend was wrong. In my estimation, the place is sacred.

Before we go any further: I have no reason to believe that the space will be anything other than excellent. I know the team of folks involved and they are all top-shelf professionals- they will do a great job. This post is no way a commentary on their work. As for my friend who said it wasn’t “sacred”, my apologies to him for taking his text out of context as an excuse for a blog post.

It should go without saying that different people have reverence for different things and concepts. In this instance, as a Chattanoogan, a downtowner, and a lover of architecture and design, Miller Plaza is sacred ground to me. As with most sacred things, it is not necessarily the object that is precious, it is the more intangible qualities, concepts and history that it represents that are important. Miller Plaza and the Waterhouse Pavilion are fantastically designed pieces of architecture that are well constructed. It is not, however, the brick, the stone, the roofline or the landscaping that set the place apart. This is one of the rare works of the profession that has transcended its material and formal aspects to become the embodiment of a higher concept.

The grim condition of our downtown in the late 70’s and early 80s is well documented. Also well documented is the fact that at the same time and number of efforts were launched to revive the city. In 1982, UTK architecture students at the Design Studio began investigating urban design interventions in the center of the city to reestablish a “heart” for downtown. On a simultaneous track, an effort was afoot to expand Miller Park north, across MLKing Boulevard. The work of the students and the observations of the Studio convinced decision-makers that the expansion needed to be a hardscaped plaza, rather than another grassy lawn. In his speech at the AIA conference earlier this summer, Rick Montague recalled the Design Studio Director’s thoughts: “You don’t want to build more park at the city’s heart; it will become a hole in the urban fabric. It wants to be a plaza – not a park – with a hard, urban edge, and a gateway to the M. L. King district positioned precisely where the historic grid of the city meets the modern grid. The whole district should be built under design guidelines as a room in the city, using a vocabulary to be taken from the outstanding historic structures – the Volunteer State Life Building and the Federal Courts and Post Office. It will become a vibrant heart of the city.”

Design Guidelines were indeed crafted and the work was performed by Koetter, Kim & Associates in conjunction with the Design Studio. Koetter, Kim is a Boston firm led by Fred Koetter, the former Dean of Yale’s architecture school and co-author of the excellent book Collage City. As a proof of concept exercise, five national and international architecture firms were engaged to interpret the guidelines and provide a vision for what the district could become- Koetter, Kim and Associates, Skidmore Owings and Merril, Peterson Litternberg, Tuck Hinton Everton, and Robert Seals. The work was written about in the New York Times and the guidelines received a number of awards including a Progressive Architecture citation (a big deal). This project vaulted sleepy ole downtown Chattanooga into the national spotlight of architecture and urbanism.

The work put us on the map in the architecture world, but it served a greater purpose. The philosophy behind the design and the quality of the work expressed the aspirations of the community. If that project were undertaken today, I’m not sure most people would bat an eye. But undertaking those steps, engaging that level of talent, and building to that level of quality was an audacious move in the mid-80s. That is to say nothing of the fact the project was about the public realm and had a district focus- unheard of in the South at the time. Miller Plaza is more than a community gathering place, it is a statement about the values of the community. It is more than a park with an arcade, it is a blueprint for urban intervention. Miller Plaza is more than a piece of architecture, it is a symbol of the rebirth of our city. With that understanding, the building is still just a just a building. It is not precious, and as with all things man-made it is impermanent. If Miller Plaza were gone tomorrow, life would go on. However, it is our appreciation and understanding of the history of our built environment that gives meaning to the city. This is why we love downtown- there is a communal history and meaning here that enriches our lives.

It is our responsibility to future generations of Chattanoogans to be good stewards of the places we inherit and to transmit the histories that imbue those places with meaning. It is also our task to create our own history and meaning by building anew and adapting our inheritance. You will definitely find me at the new restaurant in Miller Plaza when it opens. To find out where you will not find me dining, tune in next week.