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.

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