12.30.2013

All Roads Lead From Rome - Part II

I owe all of ya’ll a belated Merry Christmas and very best wishes for a Happy New Year. This week, part two of my very scattered, and random thoughts from a recent trip to Rome. It became immediately apparent that I was not capable of crafting a comprehensive review of Roman streets in a thousands words. I know I'm missing some major points and observations, but the weekly deadline waits for no man. Time's up, pencils down...

Via del Corso on a Saturday night.
Time is a funny thing. I’ve been back for less than two weeks, but with Christmas festivities sandwiched in between, it feels like months since we were in the Eternal City. This week’s post is about roads, but it’s also about time. Their incremental development over millennia has created a street system that stands in stark contrast to what we experience. This portion of their public realm is clearly a societal institution. People love the streets and piazzas, and they are integral parts of how life is lived. At first glance, their street system seems disorganized, haphazard and substandard by our measure.  Closer investigation, however, reveals that their system is more sophisticated and urbane than anything we have to offer.

Via Frattina
The obvious remark is that Roman streets are shared spaces. Yes, there are places that shade either more car or pedestrian, but there is a broad gradient in betwixt. Even along the same street, the character changes and fluctuates (Via del Corso being an excellent example). Over here when we talk streets, we talk cars- then everything else. Over there, cars abound, but they are only part of the larger conversation (if not an afterthought).

Nova Via. A rather old street.
Rome was founded around 750 BC- that’s about three thousand years ago in round numbers. As a place that eventually became the greatest city in human history, tremendous development pressure was put on every square inch of space in the urban area. This led to a naturally integrated system of streets of and piazzas that was human in scale, and that addressed transportation needs while deferring to the greater activities of life in the city. When the car made its appearance, it was subjugated to the weigh of civic form. The intersection of history and new technology created a distinctive set of circumstances.

Via dei Condotti from Piazza di Spagna
For 97% of their existence, the primary mode of transportation has been the shoe. Obviously, the streets and piazzas of antiquity weren’t dimensioned with automobiles in mind. To utilize new technologies they had find ways to shoehorn them in to the existing fabric. An example of that is the proliferation of one-way streets. In the states, one-way streets are (thankfully) coming under scrutiny, but they work in Rome because that is their only option (and ain’t nobody speeding down a crooked eight-foot wide cobblestone path anyway).


Over here, we love spatial segregation. Streets are streets, plazas are plazas, parks are parks, and parking lots are parking lots. People in one place, trees in one place, bikes in one place, and cars in another. None shall mingle. Over there, streets and piazzas are funky combinations of people, bikes, cars, architecture, food and open space. Often, a piazza is simply a slightly widened portion of a street in front of a building. This is as it should be. The life of the city, of the buildings, and of the open spaces where people live, work and play is given precedence over how people move from activity to activity. This system can best be described as civilized.

The guy with the baby stroller would be arrested in America.
The contrast in systems goes beyond physical form, it extends to operation as well. The American system is like an official game of basketball, while the Roman system is more like a pick-up game. Over here, there are explicit rules for everything. “The game” is closely officiated, score, stats and fouls are kept, and the players all abide within that framework. Over there, rules definitely exist, but there is informality in how they are applied, and the players often take liberties with their interpretation of the rules.


Take, for instance, that act of street crossing. If you want to cross Market Street, you find an intersection and wait for a light. From there, simple rules apply to both pedestrian and driver. In Rome, on several streets with a similar sections (it’s tough to say as individual lanes aren’t generally marked, only the centerlines), signalized intersections don’t always exist, and crossings are made at crosswalks. To cross, you take your life in your hands decide when to cross, and essentially walk into oncoming traffic. As if by magic, the oncoming cars stop, slow or swerve to allow pedestrians to pass. This is (literally) a foreign concept to an American, but one that seems to work fine. In fact, it works better than fine. Their system is respectful of pedestrians and puts people and cars on more or less equal footing.  Our system treats pedestrians as nuisances to be grudgingly dealt with during the task of moving cars.


The Roman public realm is driven by civic agreement. In fact, they fulfill the promise of the concept- it is truly shared space. We, on the other hand, are selfish, no matter which mode we choose. Our transportation system is designed for a group of spoiled young children who can’t play together without having a referee (police) or chaperone (lawyer) supervising the action. They drive like maniacs, yet are patient and respectful of pedestrians. Their pedestrians are bold and entitled, yet make concessions for cars, trucks and transit. While at first glance their system is chaotic and disorderly, it is at its core sophisticated and civilized. Our system is segregated, and therefore adversarial. So, while we have a long way to go, the good news is that we have another 2,800 years to work on it.

12.23.2013

All Roads Lead From Rome

Buongiorno amici, It’s good to be back with you after taking a couple of weeks off. As you may recall, in a previous post I pledged to leave the country if the unthinkable happened. It did and I did. To rub salt in the wound, on the following Monday I received a form letter from the Auburn Fund asking for a donation. Unfortunately, the levels of giving did not include “Kiss my Ass”. I have, however, recovered from my bitterness and have managed to do so without resigning my post on the Alumni Advisory Council. We'll get 'em next year.

As “All roads lead to Rome”*, I could think of no better place to gain a bit of perspective than the Eternal City. It’s probably too early to say, but Rome may have replaced NYC as my favorite city. I lack the vocabulary to describe just how remarkable the place is, but will share with you my impressions of the city. I’ve tried over the past couple of days to craft a cohesive narrative, but find that the task is beyond my capacity. The best I can do is offer my thoughts loosely grouped into the categories of public space, roads and architecture. This week, my take on public space.

The morning view from the hotel did not suck.

I suppose we should start outside the hotel door at the Piazza della Rotonda. I chose our spot because of its central location in the city and  of the hotel, but I was primarily seduced by the fact that it was mere feet from the Pantheon (more on that in a few weeks). While I was excited about the architecture, I did not expect that the piazza would become a favorite place. The space is a little more than half the size of a football field, is fronted on the south by the aforementioned Pantheon and on the other three sides by five and six story buildings. Each of the buildings has ground floor café/restaurants that spill into the space. The fountain, in the middle of the piazza, was designed by Della Porta and is topped with an Egyptian obelisk (dating from Ramses II). There were always people in the piazza- wandering, lingering, or having a drink in a café. The space is welcoming, comfortable, impressive and inspiring all at the same time. Dodgy guitar players notwithstanding, I loved that space. It fit like a well-worn, favorite shirt.

Robert Plant Memorial Sqaure Piazza della Rotonda

A young man who set up camp in the Piazza each day provided the soundtrack for our trip. He was an electric guitar player who knows only two songs: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. He played those songs back to back… to back to back from 9am until 11pm every day. All day. Every. Day. I used to love those songs. 


Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti. Hey...is that an obelisk?

The Spanish Steps were pretty cool. We made it past a few times and there were always hordes of folks loitering and milling about. I will admit however, that with everything else to see, I couldn’t be bothered to take too much time to linger. That said, I could definitely see the attraction. Although I thought I knew the site pretty well, I did experience it in a unexpected way- but I’ll save that for next week. The thing about the steps is that they are a sterling example of using a site constraint (in this case topography), to advantage in creating something that has civic value. Considering the current state of affairs in Chattanooga, do you think we would be more likely to build a “Spanish Steps”, or to build a big ass wall because it would be cheaper?

Fontana di Trevi. I forgot to throw coins in, damnit.

The Trevi Fountain was fine. We stopped by once for about 10 minutes. The sculpture of the fountain was impressive as was the spatial character of the piazza. My memory of the place is that the mob of people who were there to see the fountain was overwhelmed by the mob of those trying to sell things to the people who were there to see the fountain. Speaking of people hawking cheap wares…

Borromini v. Bernini
Borromini v. Bernini v. Gatlinburg
They also have (a Roman copy of) an obelisk.

Our experiences are greatly colored by our expectations, and I had very high hopes for Piazza Navona. I was disappointed. This public space has been around for millennia, dating back to its life as the Stadium of Domitian. This has been a gathering place for Romans and a center of civic life for two thousand years. The piazza boasts one of the most famous fountains in the world- Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain- topped with the de rigueur obelisk. The piazza is also home to one of Borromini’s masterworks, Sant'Agnese in Agone (more on Borromini v. Bernini in a few weeks). I prepared myself to be blown away by baroque and historic forces, and was somewhat let down. The fountains and buildings were as good as advertised; the space however, was jacked. The best description I can muster is that if Panama City, Gatlinburg and a state fair had a ménage a trois, the resulting lovechild would look like this. Perhaps, that's a bit harsh, but everything within the space was pure schlock. The fact that it happens in such a grand setting makes it feel worse. That said, for the couple of precious moments that I could manage to dodge the gypsies, shut my ears, and keep and my eyes above the ground floor, it was a beautiful experience in a well-proportioned space. The heartening thing is that all the crap could easily be swept out of the piazza at any time, thereby restoring the dignity of the place. It’s not as if their community constructed a bunch of one-story, casual dining and hot wing restaurants- who would ever do that…oops.

Piazza del Popolo: Better than anything you've got.
A three thousand year old obelisk...whatev.

Piazza Del Popolo is one of the most impressive public spaces I’ve ever been in. If this space were in any other city in the world, it would be that city’s greatest public space. In Rome, however, it’s arguably the sixth most significant place (behind Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Campidoglio, and St. Peter’s Square). The piazza, once the major northern gateway into the city is a large oval. Three main roads radiate from the piazza into the city. The “twin” churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto occupy the two spaces between the roads. In the center of the piazza is (yawn) obelisco Flaminio, an Egyptian obelisk dating from Sety I. Popolo is larger than Rotonda, and the fact the edges are sculptural instead of active building make the piazza feel more expansive and formal. I really liked it here, and not just because of the Cuban cigar and Nastro Azzurro.

The world's greatest public space.
Child please, my obelisk is 4,400 years old.

As arguably the greatest public space ever created by the hand of man, I had high expectations for Piazza San Pietro. I was let down, but only slighty. The space is grand and awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, for yours truly, a potion of Bernini’s portico was behind scaffolding, and the piazza itself was full of chairs, barricades and T.V. screens in preparation for Christmas events. While it was bad luck for me, it was not quite the kind of let down that Piazza Navona was. The formality of the space is a direct result of rigid symmetry and axiality, and is reinforced by Bernini’s arcade and Maderno’s façade. Did you think it would not include an Egyptian obelisk? This one dates from the Fifth Dynasty (that’s 2400BC to you and me). There are no cafes or active ground floors around the piazza- it doesn’t need them. The space is undeniably about people, but whereas the other spaces I’ve highlighted are about community and the social nature of the individual, this space is about the relationship of the individual to God. It is about people, and society, but it is imbued with greater meaning. This is a truly great space, in every sense of the word. Sadly (wink), because of the visual clutter during my recent visit, I have no choice but to return and see it again.

To try contrast Chattanooga and Rome would be silly and unfair. However, the clear takeaway from a public space standpoint is that we suffer from an appalling lack of obelisks. I could have written more (most notably the Campidoglio), but space here is limited and I know you're dying to read the latest about Duck Dynasty. So, arrivederci for now. Next week, the roads of Rome!

*A little trivia: I was informed by an archaeologist that the old saying was actually “All roads lead from Rome”.

11.25.2013

The Process


Greetings from 35,000 feet above the heartland. I am heading, once again, for the bastard cold of Southeast Iowa. This on the heels of a weekend soccer tournament in (the bastard cold of) Decatur, Alabama. The good news there was that S.Rushing scored two lovely goals. The bad news is that those were the only two goals the mighty CFC U-9 Blue scored in three games. Win some, lose some, on to the next one. Late November and early December are proving to be quite the gauntlet. No complaints though, equal parts business and pleasure. I will try to stay on topic for the next weeks, but it with all the exciting goings on it be may be tough though. Plus, you must realize that this is my mother’s primary method of keeping up with me as some of her children “must have broken fingers since they can’t pick up the phone!” I ask your forgiveness in advance if the next few weeks turn into C.Rushing's Adventures.

Obviously, the thing in the multi-verse this week is only the Most Important Iron Bowl of All-Time. Never, in the history of God’s Greatest Rivalry have the both teams been ranked this high entering the game. Never have the stakes been so high. I may well immolate before Saturday. I will most certainly throw up. The rivalry is very complex for me. I was raised an Alabama fan and have lived and died with them since I can remember. I went to graduate school at Auburn and currently serve of the Advisory Council of the graduate program in planning. My inner struggle, however,  has turned out not to be such a struggle at all; I’ve found that my heart and soul roll with the Tide. The turning point would have been the gut-turning 2010 game that also Mr. Updyke off the cliff. That said, I harbor no ill will toward the plainsmen during fifty-one weeks of the year. Such is the importance of this game, however, that I pledge to leave the country if Alabama does not win. (Stay tuned on that.)

Speaking of the Tide, on our way to the soccer this weekend, we listened to a bit of their game on the radio. It happened to be Senior Day, and we listened as Eli Gold went down the list of legendary players who will be graduating this year after four or five years at the school. Graduating as the winningest class in school history and with at least 3 National Championships, I might add. Normally, the shadow of an event such as this is the realization that you’re losing your best players and that leaner times are to come. Fortunately for ‘Bama, however, this is not the case. As a legendary recruiter, Saint Nicolas Saban has also pulled together the nations number one recruiting class five of the past six years. This is one of the facets of his famed Process.

The Process

There is much that city builders can learn from the well-oiled machine that is Alabama football. Think of specific projects to be games within a season, or even seasons unto themselves. It’s great to win. It’s great to celebrate wins. The next game, or next season, however, is always right around the corner. Is it possible to build a great program/city when all of the efforts are focused on winning single games? I suppose its theoretically possible, but over the long term it’s not sustainable.

So how might we go about creating a Process for sustainable success in city building? The cornerstone would have to the establishment of a set of shared principles that are derived from the community, and that guide the process. As with all good teams, coaching is important. In this case, the coaching of the community is a learning process. The process of community education happens in many ways: through overt instruction, through institutional operations, through community conversations and by example. Once equipped with those tools, the members of the team need to understand their role and responsibilities to the community. Further, they must be committed to doing their job, and be held accountable to the rest of the community.

Over the past few weeks, I have probably sounded like a crotchety old man pining for the good ole days. Perhaps there is some truth to this. I am undoubtedly influenced by a man who suggests that we always understand past and present as we look to the future. My take on past and present leads me to the conclusion that we are currently, at best, disjointed as it relates to issues of urbanism and design in our community. While we have the human capital in place to continue the work of making this a great city, we lack a Process for implementing successful urbanism. Do you not think we could create and sustain success if there was means of establishing community principles, providing education, reinforcing roles, and establishing accountability to the whole? Would that not then lead to the recruitment of more talent? Is that not the blueprint for how to win?

Fundamental and of utmost importance to the Process is recruiting. The community must ever strengthen it’s ranks- both from within and outside of its borders. Our challenge is not to reassemble the exact team that led to our successes over the past thirty years. The task should be to assemble a framework that can continually add to and augment a community of thoughtful and engaged designers and citizens.

The beauty of the Process is the promise of the future. It relieves the pressure of the single game. Is Alabama’s long-term success at risk in a single game against Auburn? (the answer is no) Saint Nicholas Saban has created a machine that focuses not on the outcome of a game, but on doing day-to-day tasks to the highest standard. If the aspiration is a sustainable level of success, the focus has to be on process instead of project.

My prediction: The Process 35, Auburn 21.


11.18.2013

It's Not Life and Death, It's More Important Than That

Last week, I hastily penned a post about the discontinuity of our civic conversation on urbanism and the atrophy of our common understanding of principles, goals and vision. Before we jump back into that, however, I must comment on the weekend.

It is clear that society places too much emphasis on matters of sport and our priorities are out of whack. We spend billions of dollars on games, while more serious issues go unaddressed. I get it, its lunacy. Perish the thought, however, of life without it. Did you see the games on Saturday? If not, you missed: a great catch to avoid a major upset; a keystone-cop-esque last second field goal; a down-on-their-luck traditional power pulling a massive upset; some dude running for a bajillion yards; and millions of redneck prayers being answered on this play (you can’t really call it Hail Mary since Alabamians don’t really go for Catholicism). I ask, where else in contemporary American society can one experience such a microcosm of the human experience. Oh, the joy of that extraordinary emotional swing- feeling the dread of certain defeat to a bitter rival to the manic jubilation of victory over seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

A couple of thoughts:

1) How good was SEC on CBS this year? They were lucky enough to broadcast such instant classics as Awbun/UGA, ‘Bama/LSU, Awbun/TAMU, LSU/UGA, ‘Bama/TAMU. Those games, as great as they were, are mere prelude to…
2) The most anticipated Iron Bowl ever. My beloved home state is home to the last four national championships (let that sink in). This year ‘Bama is ranked #1, Awbun is ranked #6. The day of reckoning is two weeks away with Awbun having a bye week and ‘Bama also having a bye playing Chattanooga. This game will wreck me, I feel like I’m going to throw up. As Bill Shankly once said of another kind of football, this game is not a matter of life and death…it’s more important than that. 

Lest I peak too early, we shall return closer to home and to issues of design and urbanism. The intent of the post last week was to observe that over the past eight-plus years a variety of factors have conspired to erode the community understanding of our shared principles and vision. To be certain, bits and pieces of various visions survive, there are a number of people in town with sophisticated understandings of urbanism, and there is an almost palpable energy coursing through the city.  There does seem to be, however, a certain lack of focus or common purpose. At risk of sounding like a broken record, I will again sing the praise of the Urban Design Studio. The Studio was a sort of “home base” for the community as it relates to issues of design and urbanism. The studio was the facilitator of community vision, and the keeper of the flame of that conversation. The strength of the studio was that it was a place of ideas, a place of education, a place of principles, a community resource, and the place that served as the steward of the community conversation. Our civic renaissance is directly attributable to this work.

I am of the opinion that there exists within the community a fundamental misunderstanding of the role and vital importance of vision. In this regard, we are a victim of our own success. We now take for granted that we can make big projects happen. We don’t just dream big, we build big. Because of our abilities, we are now prone to be more concerned about “doing things” than taking pause to consider what we’re doing. Because vision is ephemeral and intangible it is too often seen as being less important than action. The reality is that vision and action need each other. Do you think that the initial investments at the Riverfront would have been successful without the comprehensive community vision for reestablishing the “front porch” of the city? Do you think any of the development in the Southside would have come about without the community vision for creating a place for people to live, work and play?

The Design Studio was one of the most important, successful and influential players in the revitalization of the city. Despite that overall success, however, it had an abysmal record as a regulatory entity. Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten. There have been conversations regarding the creation of a new urban design resource for the city. Those conversations inevitably lead to questions of whether or not it is possible to create an entity that has the teeth to prevent bad development like BWW, Applebee’s or Publix. Those conversations always miss the point. Design Studios shouldn’t be wrapped up in that mess. If that is the goal, there are a number of better solutions to that problem. Studios should be concerned with the vitally important, indispensible, and essential task of facilitating the civic vision. The unfortunate reality is that many people can’t wrap their head around the idea that the success of our Studio was rooted in the intangible and ephemeral. Indeed, it is difficult to point at a project and say the design studio did this, or prevented that. Yet, everything we’ve accomplished is a direct result of their work.

The success of our historic revitalization is rooted in the fact that every project, public and private, contributed to an overarching shared vision of what the community wanted to be.  The country is littered with cities that have failed in their efforts at revitalization because they focused merely on building things. Our efforts were successful because we understood the absolute necessity of marrying vision and action. In my humble opinion, we are at risk of losing nothing less than our unique understanding of how to get things done...the right way. 

11.11.2013

Issue One: Community Conversation

Well kids, I’ve left it to the last minute this week, so this will be a brief one. What can I say, the life of a silversmith’s apprentice urban design consultant is not an easy one. (Which is not actually true. I’m blessed and fully aware that in the grand scheme we have it better than 99% of the people on the planet. Just come with me on this one.) In any event, good things come in small packages…

Working in a place over any amount of time presents a unique challenge. Pretty much everything the consultant does is based on some level of client and community education. Cities are complex things that often require complex solutions to complex problems. Cities belong, however, to everyone who lives in them, not only those who understand urbanism. One of the tasks of the planner/designer/consultant is to establish among the citizenry a common level of understanding of basic principles of urbanism upon which more complex concepts can be built.  That, in and of itself, is not a difficult task. The challenge is in maintaining that common base of understanding over time- people forget, people move here, people move away, people die, people are born, people are people. The very lucky places have people and institutions that provide this education and maintain it over time. Places with these frameworks develop a level of education and sophistication that allow them to tackle increasingly complex and difficult issues. Places without these types of frameworks typically end up starting from scratch every four or eight years. 

On that scale, Chattanooga is in-between. For twenty-five years, the Design Studio coached us up. One could argue that outside of the New York’s and Chicago’s of the country, Chattanooga’s level of sophistication in matters of urban design was unparalleled. Such was the depth of this sophistication that eight years after the dismantling of the Studio, it is still on display in efforts such as the Urban Design Challenge and the City Center Plan. Still, eight years is a long time, and a great deal has happened during that time. There are a number of hold-over’s from the old days, but many are no longer with us, and the city is attracting new blood on a daily basis. Growth in the community is a great thing, and the new downtown residents we are attracting are in many ways the end game. The problem this poses, however, is that without leadership in the realm of urbanism and design, we are essentially a rudderless ship. (Please note that leadership in this case is not a person or institution dictating the terms of community development, but a steward of the community conversation of what we want to be when we grow up, and how we want to do it.)

Time to go all McLaughlin Group on you…

Question: How can the community maintain a common level of understanding and elevated conversation over time without a steward of that foundation? Is that even possible? Is it possible to build a great city while starting each process and project at square one?

Answer: It can’t. It’s not. No.

Bye-Bye…

11.04.2013

Goal for the Blog: Be 13.5% More Inspirational

Bleary-eyed, I approached the counter at the airport snack bar and ordered a coffee. “You take yours black” noted the barista. I answered in the affirmative and made a crack about needing my caffeine at such an early hourly. When she replied, “Well, this isn’t your first time on this flight, I’m sure you can handle it” it dawned on me that perhaps I have been on the road too much. Despite the fact that I have become a regular at CHA, ORD and DSM, life is good and I have no complaints. I typically don’t write about on-going projects unless they happen to be public processes in Chattanooga that jibe with the theme of this space. This week, however, I will borrow one story from my travels as it supports a point I want to make (again).

I’m working with a small community in Iowa on the revitalization of their downtown and a vision for their riverfront. In the downtown scope, one of our WIGs (wildly important goals), is the reversion of their one-way pair to two-way traffic. This one seems to be an easy call: five different consultants over the past twenty years have made the recommendation; it’s supported by traffic analysis; we don’t lose any on-street parking; travel time through the area remains the same; it’s cheap; and a philanthropic entity is prepared to essentially foot the bill. It appears that most people are on board with the switch, but some are not yet convinced. Politics in Iowa, I have found, are a different ball game.

During my most recent visit, I had an exchange with a skeptic during a stakeholder meeting. She essentially challenged me to convince her to change her mind. I proceeded to make my case (two-ways reduce out of direction travel, increase safety, increase business visibility, make navigation easier for residents and visitors, and on and on…) She did not accept these conceptual arguments- she wanted hard numbers. I then laid out a number of case studies of positive results in similar situations. She did not accept these examples because they occurred in other cities, not her own. She again stated that she needed hard numbers on why she should support the project. At some point during our conversation, it occurred to me that she was asking for the impossible. Sure, it is possible to project what will happen if we make the reversion, but no matter how thorough our methodology, a projection is a guess. Aside from the unrealistic expectation of future telling, I was once again face to face with a nemesis- the philosophy that if something is important it can be measured.

Not everything of value can be quantified. This, I have said this before. What number describes the love we have for our children? What is the price of the atmosphere of a Birmingham City v. Aston Villa game? What is the value of our public realm? How much is community vision worth? What is the metric by which we measure inspiration? Which brings us back to Chattanooga. The City administration (which has been a breath of fresh air after the WME) is working towards implementing an outcomes based budget. In short, this process is an alternate budgeting approach that is based on relationships between funding levels and results. I think it’s fantastic to consider another approach to spending public money- our country has not proven to be the most efficient or frugal. I am concerned, however, about a subtle distinction in the approach to budgeting for outcomes.

In reading through various approaches to outcome-based budgeting, the common theme is the application of funds to community values. The typical steps in the process are to: determine the price of government (what the city has to spend), determine civic priorities, determine a price for each priority, determine how best to deliver each result at the set price, establish measures for success. The detail devils in this approach have to do with how civic priorities are established, and how measures for success are approached. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the community has a decent track record for establishing priorities and this will not pose a problem. This leaves us with the aforementioned subtle distinction- achieving civic goals vs. achieving measurable civic goals.

If you are reading this blog, you are probably aware of the vitally important role that the Design Studio* played in the rebuilding of the city over the past thirty years. Even in hindsight, is it possible to say that the value of the studio was found in the measurable goals it achieved? The Studio didn’t really do projects- it worked to make good projects great, to interject new concepts into the civic dialogue, to advise decision makers in both public and private sectors, and to be a voice for a constituency that did not exist until the studio created it. Did that play a crucial role in the rebirth of the city? Yes. Can one use numbers to describe the value of that work? No. Did it achieve civic goals? Yes. Did it achieve measurable civic goals? Eh, probably not.

My hat is off to the Mayor and his staff for having the stones to take on the big challenges facing the city. He has taken on the Herculean task of reforming a $200 million budget when he didn’t have to and no one would have expected him to. He and his crew are all sharp folks, so I have faith that their work will bear fruit. It is imperative that that the public sector perform the civic duties that they are alone are equipped to execute. My hope is that as the city continues their work the value of the unquantifiable will be appreciated.

*Yes, I know that the Design Studio was a not a city entity. It did, however, receive some form of civic funding going all the way back to the days of Mayor Gene Roberts. The point, in any event, is that not everything that is of value to the community can be evaluated by quantifiable measures.

10.28.2013

Sometimes the Best Man for a Job Isn't

And with that victory by “the red team”, all is right with the universe for at least the next year. At the beginning of each football season, I establish a set of measures or goals for the season in an effort to help me put things in perspective. This year’s list:

1. Beat the orange team

2. Beat the orange and blue team

3. Win the National Championship

4. Win the SEC Championship

5. Win the SEC West Division

6. Beat LSU

You read correctly- I would take win against UT over a national championship. Thankfully those two are not mutually exclusive (as we have proven three of the past four years). This year’s game, however, was a melancholy one, as the circle suspended our tradition of traveling to the game together. We’ll be back at it next year, and I’m sure we’ll make up for lost time.

As much as I hated to miss the game and my buddies, I was happy to be home.   I’ve been traveling too much lately. Work travel can be taxing, but the upside is that I occasionally get to do and see things that I otherwise would not. For instance, this week I got to see a lecture by Denise Scott Brown. For those of you who aren’t architects, Ms. Scott Brown is one of the most influential designers and educators of the last century. She is a post-modernist whose influence is equal parts practice and theory. (See how I was able to describe her without mentioning her husband Robert Venturi?)

The reality is that you can’t describe the work of Ms. Scott Brown or Mr. Venturi without acknowledging the role of the other. While they are indeed individuals, their work is inextricably linked. This fact led to controversy as Mr. Venturi was awarded the 1991 Pritzker Prize and Ms. Soctt Brown got nada. A group of women students at the Harvard GSD started a petition asking the Pritzker organization to consider retroactively making a joint award of the ’91 citation. Their request was denied. (This is a good intro to the story, with an update, and the latest.)

Ms. Scott Brown’s attitude is fantastic- hell with the Pritzker (my words, not hers), the better award is the acknowledgment of the design community and a renewed conversation about the role of women designers. What I observed as a student in the 90’s was documented in AIA statistics in 2011- the architecture profession is full of dudes. Only 15% of licensed architects are women. Of course, that ratio man:woman ratio was troubling to me for different reasons when I was a student, but it is no less troubling now.

I must say, I’m a bit out of my depth in discussing gender equity issues. To my discredit, it’s simply not a subject I’ve spent much time contemplating. I can observe, however that men and women designers often see things differently, and have different design sensibilities. The gender dynamic in collaborative design environments also affects the process. The country is roughly 50/50 women/men. This means that half of the users of our spaces are women, while only 15% of the people who are designing those spaces are women. It has always seemed to me that user groups of a space should be proportionately involved in the design process. We increasingly think in these terms when designing in racially or socioeconomically diverse environments, why should gender not be added to that mix as well?

I have been blessed over the last few years to work closely with strong women associates, clients and colleagues. This has no doubt been of great benefit to my work and professional development. Chattanooga as a community is blessed to have a very talented women in the design community, women in established leadership positions, and an emerging generation of civic minded and engaged women. I am of the opinion, however, that Chattanoogans of both genders would benefit from greater balance in the design process.

10.21.2013

White Bread


Football Saturdays like the one just past are proof that God loves us. Save for my beloved ‘Bama, which managed to squeak out a 52-0 nail biter against the Razorbacks, every SEC game resulted in an upset*. Of course, I always hate to see Tennessee win, but that was a fun game to watch and I’m no big fan of Spurrier either.

Before football kicked off I had the pleasure of taking the early shift at the Camp House with a group of enlightened developers. I was one of a number of the usual suspects enlisted to tell the Chattanooga story at the National Town Builders Association fall roundtable. It was fun, but I’m not sure if my telling of the story was incredibly useful to the attendees other than as background for the others panelists. After all, our story is not the typical New Urbanist story of the private sector developing and implementing a vision. Ours is a story of citizen engagement, philanthropic leadership, and public/private partnership. After my presentation, a gentleman sidled up to ask a few questions that centered on the ability of the developer to do the right thing and make a profit. Apparently, in his sandbox there are public sector requirements that make turning a profit while doing the “right thing” a difficult proposition.

Over the past thirty years in Chattanooga, private developers, the non-profit community, and public agencies have done a strange dance. The majority of the time they each operate in their own spheres, but for the most interesting projects they have come together. The mixed bag of partnerships and outcomes, however, makes it very difficult to identify a single ideal model. I have always been of the opinion that the end game is to have a private market that builds the city. The role of public sector and non-profit should be to establish community vision, provide civic infrastructure, and to intervene in circumstances where the market is not functioning. This is, in essence, the model we have followed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it’s tough to say either way.

Take, for instance, my neighborhood of Jefferson Heights. This neighborhood is an excellent example of the process we have used to help revitalize neighborhoods. Land was assembled by the non-profit and philanthropic communities, local government made infrastructure improvements, the land was then made available (with caveats for density and design review) to the private sector for development. At face value, the story appears to be a success; the dozens of new home and families have breathed new life into what was once a desolate place. On the other hand, that success has come at the expense of what made the neighborhood unique to begin with, and long time residents of the neighborhood who have been forced out. I used to be able to tell our story with pride in the fact that we achieved the holy grail- revitalization without gentrification. I cannot, however, in good conscience tell that story any more.

I have found that I’m also having difficulty reconciling the model of how things are supposed to work, and how they actually work. Supposedly, during the early days of non-profit oversight and design review, the private sector goes through an educational process that leads to an understanding of good design that will be put into practice in all of their future work. That hasn’t really happened here. In fact, one can stand in Jefferson Heights Park and immediately identify which of the phases had non-profit design support and which phases were left to the devices of the developer. The early phases comprise houses of quality construction that are well scaled and articulated, that sit on sites on that are right-sized and well configured. The newest neighborhood interventions are a bit cumbersome and are on lots that are poorly configured. They appear to me as awkward, adolescent kids in ill-fitting suits. On top of that, they had no third-party review, so construction quality is questionable- many of the new homes have second floor porches that have already rotted out only two years into their existenceTo add insult to injury, the newest homes are located on sites that once housed low-income residents and a long-time local business. I suppose some would see that as a sign of progress. I, on the other hand, am not so excited about it. The neighborhood was once a quirky, unique place with a variety of design styles, and an equally unique mix of neighborhood characters. It’s now white bread (and not the outstanding Neidlov’s sandwich bread, I’m talking white Wonder Bread). Notwithstanding our proximity to the core, we are essentially a sub-urb. Urbanism lite.

The philosophical quandary for me is that while I’m definitely a free market proponent, it is very apparent that the non-profit/public sector model far outperformed the private sector developer(s) in this case. The other quandary is whether or not it’s possible to find another quirky, diverse, urban neighborhood in Chattanooga that fronts a 2-acre park.

*I suppose technically the Mizzou win was not an upset- but their win over a traditional power felt like it.

10.14.2013

Excuses, Excuses

Last week was a whirlwind of activity, and a fun one at that. Of course, the big happening was the City Center Charrette. Once again, the community did itself proud by turning out big numbers for a visioning process. Our visiting sub-consultants were amazed at the turnout. I ended the week with a trip to Auburn for an alumni council meeting- a man can show no greater love for his school than to drive through Atlanta traffic...during rush hour...twice...in one day...on a Friday. of course, I always feel a tinge of guilt in working with the University while maintaining my lifelong allegiance to Alabama football. That is a treacherous psychological balance to maintain, yet I have made peace with it.

All of this is once again an excuse for why I haven't written a full post this week (as I do not have a dog, and all of my grandparents are dead, I am running out of excuses). I will leave you then with a few links to the happenings of the week, in case you missed them.

Link1
Link2
Link3 
Link4

P.S. - while I greatly appreciate the coverage of the local news outlets, none of the reporters bothered to ask who I work for. Don't believe everything you read...

10.07.2013

For Shame

By the time you read this, it will be the morning after our City Center Charrette. I hope it went well and that I didn't accidentally swear during the presentation. Due to my preparation for the charrette, and in honor of the government shut-down I'm suspending all non-essential activities- including this week's blog.

While I have not selected a topic to write about, I do have a daydream share. As you probably know, it appears that we have rolled over on US27 and are ready to allow TDOT to do its worst. When the battle is lost and you can't get over it, what does one do?



9.30.2013

Up Next...

By now, you have probably heard that the City Center Plan process is in full swing. Don’t you dare miss the charrette we are having on October 7th at 5:30pm at Bessie Smith Hall. My mind is always on downtown Chattanooga, but this process has me laser-focused. The district is a bit of a strange bird.

I was chatting with a friend about the standard visioning technique of having participants look some period of time into the future and describe what their ideal conditions for a place are. This technique is very effective in places where examples of transformative change have occurred over a similar period of time in the past. For example, if we were to look at the Riverfront, we might ask a group to look ten years into the future with the follow up of “think big- just look at the $120 million worth of projects that have occurred in that past ten-year time frame.” This then begs the question, when was the last transformative project in the City Center? The best answer is 1988.

There is a strong argument that the renaissance of the city started with the reestablishment of a heart. This came several years before the aquarium, before Ross’s Land Park and Plaza, before the return to the Southside, two decades before the Germans, and long before the gig was a twinkle in any geek’s eye. The Miller Plaza project is important for a number of reasons, and involves more detail than I am now willing to delve into (but you can go here and here for more info if you’re curious). It is enough to say that the quality of the design work drew national attention and accolades, the process of building the project was one of the first of many examples of community cooperation, collaboration and partnership, and it served as a real and tangible rallying point for a city that had a substantial civic inferiority complex (if anything, we suffer from the opposite now). As important as the project is, at twenty-eight years ago it is the most recent (only?) truly transformative project in the area, while other parts of downtown have each had two or three such projects since then.

That said, perhaps its not fair to judge the judge the district solely on the basis of big projects. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more projects popped into mind. The $26 million EPB building and accompanying 500-car structure was completed in 2006; the $7 million Market Center building was completed in 2001; the poorly designed $2 million 1st Volunteer Bank building was built in 2002; the $3 million Central Block building was completed in 2003; The Loveman’s renovation was started in 2001; The $5 million+ 300 Building was done in 2012; the $20 million Liberty Tower renovation opened up this spring; and perhaps most importantly Burn’s Tobacconist moved into a newly renovated space earlier this year. This is by no means a comprehensive list of investments in the area, but it is a good indication that while we might be pushing thirty years on transformative projects, there has still been plenty of action and investment in the interim.

The district, however, clearly has issues. When Blue made their move to the cloister on the hill, they left a gaping maw of vacant office space in the district. The last I heard, we are pushing around 28% office vacancy. “Ideal” vacancy rates change with time and market conditions, but I think it’s safe to say that we’re not where we need to be right now. We see a number of potential projects in the area that are hamstrung by a lack of parking. It is generally acknowledged that the area is “dead” after office hours. There is the perception that the area is unsafe- this reinforced by the rise of aggressive panhandling. And as always, transportation issues abound including: the odious wound to be inflicted by US-27, a dearth of alternative transportation facilities, and a number of incongruous facilities (think about why Broad Street, which dead ends, needs three lanes of traffic in each direction. In downtown, nothing outside of I-24 has that many lanes- including US-27).

All of this sets the stage for the process our community has become famous for. I’m beside myself to see what the community planning process will create and even more excited to see us then move from plan to action. So, with apologies to the Bard of Avon, I will say: Get thee to Bessie Smith Hall, woulds’t thou be a breeder of transformative ideas?

9.23.2013

And in Local News...

This past week the local media treated us to a veritable cornucopia of urban design related stories. I must pile on...

A couple of weeks ago the city started the process of having the Delta Queen moved from its mooring in front of Coolidge Park. This was a good and long overdue move. On Tuesday, however, we found that the city has made some form of concession that would allow it stay. C’mon man. That morning I great misfortune of having the dial settle on talk radio. The two gentlemen hosting the show were doing their job (i.e. inciting the masses to rise up against the great injustice of the city). I heard comments that made my ears bleed. Here are mine: a) The boat is a private use on what should be a very public place. One of the basic tenets of the community’s work for the past 30 years is that the river is a community asset and public access to the water should trump private concerns; b) Apparently the market doesn’t think the floating hotel is a viable concept. If it was a wildly successful business they wouldn’t be dealing with folks in Cincy to sell it. Beside that, why does the public have to shoulder the burden of a private enterprise?;  c) The boat would be better served paddling up and down a river than being permanently moored (at what point does a vessel that does not sail cease to become a boat and become something that merely floats?); and d) The boat has nothing to do with Chattanooga. It’s not even Southern- it was designed and built to operate in California.

My take: I think we should throw a party to celebrate the history of the Southern Belle, say bon voyage, and wish it well in its future endeavors elsewhere.

The Pulse just published a piece regarding the Southside storage units that I wrote about a few weeks ago. I think the article and those quoted in it have it mostly right. I will say again, however, that advocating for design review at every turn is not the right answer. At one point our community had the ability to establish vision and engage in collaborative dialogue in a way that achieved win/win situations. Design guidelines are more about subjugating the developer to the will of a watered-down set of standards. It is prescription- there is no dialogue, there is no collaboration, there is no working together to make a project better. I have no idea whether or not the storage unit project will be an asset to the community. We shall, however, find out soon, it’s out of the ground.

My take: The storage unit is a symptom, not the problem.

The Mission project at Main and Market is back. It appears that this time it is for real. 60 housing units and 10,000sf of retail should help Main Street get over the hump. This may be the only place in Chattanooga where someone could live, work, walk kids to school, have a beer, and go grocery shopping within a 1.5-block radius. That’s urbanism my friends. I know some folks are bit uptight due to the developer’s design track record, but considering that Elemi is the architect and RCC maintains a level of design control, I’m not too worried. In fact, I have heard that said developer is doing a really good on several current projects.

My take: Just what we need and I’m sure it will be a great project.

On the other hand, there is this. I can’t figure it out- it’s clearly bad, the community is up in arms, there appeared to be a way to get it fixed, but it actually got worse. Their comment that this is somehow based on historic Victorian-era housing in the neighborhood is silly. First, Victorian houses weren’t 4 stories tall and a block long. Secondly, none of those houses incorporated each and every color available at the store.

My take: I’ll be frank... it’s turrible.

It appears that we are getting another round of riverfront housing in the form of 270 units on the downtown side of the river from Cameron Harbor down to MLKing. I haven’t seen any design work for the project, so I can’t really offer a critique. By my calculations, however, they're looking over 20 dwellings per acre, which is not bad. From a design standpoint, I suppose it could go one of two ways. This could end up being the fulfillment of the 21st Century Waterfront Plan that called for mixed-use (but primarily residential) development in the area that stressed the public nature of the river’s edge. On the other hand, the article indicates that single-family homes will be located closest to the water. If this layout privatizes the waters edge then the community loses. There was a quote from the developer about extending the riverwalk through his property- this is good, but hopefully they will be mindful of the “river” in “riverwalk”.

My take: Without having seen it, I can’t say. I suspect that my opinion will be largely influenced by how they handle to river’s edge.

Last, but certainly not least is the announcement of River City Company’s Center City Plan. This is of particular interest to me, as yours truly is riding herd for the consultant team. I am very excited about the team, the process and the product. Please make sure you come out to the charrette on October 7th (5:30 at Bessie Smith), and give your thoughts on the future of the center of downtown.

My take: Stay tuned!

9.16.2013

Everyone's a Winner

What a nice weekend. The youngest had his first rec league soccer game, and we traveled with the oldest for his select tournament. All told they had 7 goals in 3 games, but more importantly both worked their socks off. Technology helped avert a massive tragedy at one of the events. I was tempted to give the one-finger salute to the guy that scheduled one of our games to coincide with the ‘Bama/TAMU kickoff. No such unpleasantness was necessary, however,  thanks to the CBS Sports mobile app (which I wholehearted endorse). I don’t know quite what to think about the ‘Bama game. Part of me thinks that we were clearly the better team; the other part thinks we snuck away with the biscuit. In any event, a road win against a nationally ranked SEC team is no mean feat.  When my boys play hard and ‘Bama wins, the weather is milder, the air is fresher, the toilet paper is softer, and life just seems a little sweeter. 

Goal of the Weekend #1a- Cracking free kick from outside the box,
over the wall and into the top corner.
 
Goal of the Weekend #1b- Craftily shredding the defense.

The only drama of the weekend was the result of a Sunday morning board game. As I was having my coffee and preparing to write this piece, I heard the unmistakable sounds of two brothers fighting. As you might expect, they came to me to adjudicate the conflict. I delivered a fantastic (if I may say so myself) fatherly soliloquy on “the game”. I told them that one of the reasons I love for them to play unsupervised games and sports is that it teaches life lessons about how to get along with other people. In this case, while the apparent goal of each of the boys was to win (which pits them against each other), the broader underlying goal is to play the game and have fun (which is a common goal). So I made the case that they ultimately have a common goal and it is in both of their interests to work together to achieve that peacefully.

Since I was on a roll, I moved on to the importance of being able to win or lose with class and dignity (admittedly, this is one I’m still working on myself). My point was that in sports, games, and life there are winners and losers. Sometime you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you draw. It was then that the little one piped up and said “In my school, everybody wins”. My first impulse was to respond, “Well, your school is full of shit”. Of course I didn’t actually say that, but I did explain that in “real life” there is such a thing as losing. Sometimes losing matters and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you can control it, sometimes you can’t. You can, however, control how you respond to those situations and how you move on from them. I didn’t get the impression that they were totally convinced. In this case, however, experience is the best teacher and as long they keep playing it will eventually sink in.

In looking at the blank page, trying to figure out what to write this week, I couldn’t shake our little Team Rushing pow-wow. It occurs to me that from an urban design perspective Chattanooga is an excellent example of how “the game” is played. If you look at major projects in the community over the past thirty years, it becomes clear that the game has been played in two ways. The first is the traditional model of winner/loser and the second we will call WTW.

The winner/loser model was primarily practiced in 8 of the last 9 years. In this model, two opposing “teams” are created and they fight it out until one emerges victorious by vanquishing their foe. Battles are fierce, and when complete there is a winner and there is loser. The results of this model are projects that are often one-dimensional or controversial because they represent the interests of one constituency as opposed to the broader community. (I was going to list the projects and the players, but I’ve decided not to pick those scabs.) Suffice it to say that this model is inferior because the projects tend to benefit only certain constituencies, and the playing of the game strains relationships and pushes the community into isolated philosophical camps.

Our other game model, the WTW, is fundamentally different. One of Chattanooga’s greats is fond of saying that “working together works”. He’s dead right. Our great successes have come not when pitting ourselves against one another, but in recognizing our common interests. When considering the overall picture for a community, picking sides and duking it out until there is a winner and loser is the lowest form of the game. The biggest benefit is derived when the players recognize their common goals and are smart enough work for those ahead of selfish, singular concerns. In this model, we get projects that benefit a large segment of the community, everybody gets to win, and the capacity for the community to accomplish greater projects grows and is reinforced with each successive process. 

Upon further reflection, while the little one’s school might be full of shit, maybe it’s not that full of it. While there are times when the community just needs a win (like this, and this), we have been a shining example that the game can played in a different way.

9.02.2013

The Light Fight

Good, but not great. The boys in crimson looked a bit rusty on Saturday night but still managed to win 35-10. They left us with reasons for both optimism and concern for the remainder of the year. I suppose it’s not realistic to think we can beat down everyone as we did Notre Dame in last season’s national championship. Speaking of the Golden Domers, this story gave me a chuckle. Maybe that was their problem last year, they came to figth instead of fight. The past is just that however, so here’s to looking forward and to this season’s inexorable march toward another title.

I confess that I enjoy watching a good fight. Perhaps more accurately, I enjoy watching arguments (I don’t care for physical violence, so I’m not so into MMA and the like). I found a pretty good one on the Chattanoogan recently. In an editorial, former city councilperson Deborah Scott, called out the city’s new streetlight provider (Global Green Lighting) both for the way they won the contract, and for failing to deliver what they promised. A few days later, Don Lepard of Global Green made his rebuttal (although it was more of a reply as none of Ms. Scott’s concerns were rebutted). Instead of addressing her concerns about product and performance, he invited her to the plant to see the forty jobs they created. I found it curious that he would say “She will see a manufacturing facility that has received no public money from the state or federal government”, when he once told the TFP that concerning the federal stimulus package "I saw that there was $3.2 billion in energy conservation and retrofit. So ... I decided that I would get into the lighting business." He may be technically correct in that government did not directly fund his facility, but it appears that the reason his business exists is government money. There is nothing wrong with providing services to governments and non-profits (I do it), but I thought that comment was disingenuous at best.

The flabbergasting thing about this little fight is that in all of the related press there has been no mention of what should be the single most important factor in the conversation. When all is said and done, the reason cities have lighting is to increase visibility in the public realm. They have talked about a wide range of issues from jobs, to disaster preparedness, to crime response, to energy savings, to remote control technology, to light brightness. While each of those things is important in their own right, the most basic function the lights to provide for quality light distribution. I’m amazed that the community can go through a several year process that costs as much as $26 million without asking the fundamental question of whether or not this tool will adequately accomplish the primary task. 

The closest we got to that was a quote from Mr. Lepard that the new lights are brighter than the old lights, even when dimmed 50%. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how light works. Brighter does not mean better. As I observed in a previous post, “The human eye is a wondrous, marvelous thing. But like anything, it has strengths and it has weaknesses. Its strength is that it can detect subtle nuance in very low lighting conditions. Think about what you can see when you wake up in the middle of the night and walk through the house. The reason you can see well in that case is that the eye is very good at adapting to low levels of light as long as the level of light is consistent. The weakness of the eye is that it does not do well with high contrast- a phenomenon we call glare. Think now about what happens when you open the fridge or someone turns a flashlight in your dark house- your eye adjusts to the brightest object and your ability to see other things in the room is severely degraded. With this understanding, the goal of exterior lighting should be to create even lighting, not necessarily bright lighting. In fact, bright lighting can actually impair visibility.” When we install very bright lights, we create very dark shadows. When we install very bright lights we create uncomfortable conditions. When we install very bright lights, we betray the very reason we install lights in the first place- to increase visibility.

In this unretouched photo, you can see the bright "glare bombs"
and resulting dark shadows on Market Street. Also note
the light pollution from the non-shielded fixtures.
An excellent example of how not to do pedestrian lighting.

Beyond the primary focus of increasing visibility, there are  a number of other factors that go into creating a good lighting system. Reducing light pollution, minimizing light trespass, and mitigating glare are all important. None of these issues are addressed with the new fixtures. It is worth noting that while the new street lights are full cut-off fixtures (used to reduce light pollution), they have been improperly installed at an angle which defeats their purpose.

If even TDOT can get it right, why can't we?

It has become very clear that when considering the ultimate goal, the new lighting program is an abject failure (at least it will only cost us $26 million). The reality is that everyone officially involved in this conversation has lost the plot. The sex appeal of technology and potential cost-savings trumped the primary goal of quality lighting. The city is worse off, and on top of that, we had to foot the bill. Unfortunately, the architects of this deal cared more about lucre than lighting, and it is the city that suffers.

8.26.2013

...the New 21

Ahhhhh… it’s nice to be back. I do enjoy traveling the country and preaching the urban design gospel from the book of Chattanooga, but as they say, there is no place like home. As it happens, I am home just in time for my eleventh marriage anniversary. What a patient and forbearing soul she is, to handle the boys and me. I am indeed a lucky man.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an urban design topic this week. I’m not above using travel, the anniversary, the start of the school year, the start of the English soccer season, the impending beginning of college football, home-brewing, and an absurd work schedule as excuses. But rather than leave than you with nothing, I will share a profound life experience that happened this week.

I like to think that I’m pretty good at taking things in stride. It’s not that I don’t loose my temper or get emotional, but I think I do a reasonable job of adjusting to and processing unexpected events. I am rarely shaken when caught off guard, but this week as I was blindsided. As I was making my social media rounds, I opened my Facebook feed and smack in the middle of my screen was a picture of my mother. In this picture my dear, sweet, newly retired mom was tagged in Colorado with her friends shooting some form of brown liquor in broad daylight. I’m…I’m not quite sure what do with that. I’m surprised, because I never remember her having a single drink when I was growing up. Even in these later years, I only seen her with an occasional glass of white wine (on the rocks I might add). This is somehow strange and disconcerting. I think I also feel a bit threatened- in our family I am the one most likely to drink brown liquor during the day. Who knows, maybe sixty-something is the new twenty-one. I guess I better go prepare myself for holiday jell-o shots...

Well, I'll always have my
1993 Beer Olympic Championship
(wow, has it been 20 years?)

8.19.2013

99 Problems But the Beach Ain't One

Now, the tired but true maxim…say it with me…I need a vacation after my vacation. It’s time for me to get back to it though. By the time you read this, I'll be back in corn country where my clients and I are working to Reclaim Main Street and start a Riverfront Renaissance. Some day I’ll give ya’ll an update on our exciting work out there, be on the lookout. For now, I offer my thoughts on a vacation in its death throes…

I got up before the crack of dawn on Saturday morning to push, pull and drag the children and our various sandy belongings into the family truckster.  I was in quite a hurry to get back to the Scenic City. We drove for probably 30 minutes before we realized that we left members of the family behind. Beau Brummie and Big Al are the cherished stuffed animals of the oldest, were left at the cottage. The eight year old can count on one small hand the number of nights he has slept without them. For those not in the know, these little guys are simulacrum of sports mascots:  Beau Brummie of Birmingham City FC, and Big Al of the University of Alabama.  After giving brief (but serious) consideration to leaving the damned things behind, I realized that I would not be able to survive the fall-out of that decision. Back to the beach went, and that little excursion cost me more than a precious hour.

Oh, I would never leave you guys...

The reason for the rush is that a member of the C.Rushing circle and dear friend J.Hardaway was to exchange marriage vows that afternoon. I arrived home, passed children off to waiting grandparents, made a quick change to the suit (looking clean I must say), and dashed to the wedding. It was a lovely affair- mirth, happiness and celebration. (Let the record show, however,  that I did not touch the orange and white checker-boarded groom’s cake…I suspect it tasted of disappointment and defeat.) Footballs jokes aside, I’m so happy for my buddy and offer him and his bride my heartiest congratulations and best wishes for the future. This now brings my list of American buddies who have never been married to…one. That’s how old I am.

...of this lot...three down, one to go.
T'was a long day after a long week, and I was happy to have my head back on my own pillow.  I must say that I'm still getting reacquainted with the neighborhood and the house. The reason is quite obvious, and it is one of scale. I built the Madison Street project (my humble abode), on very tight lots, and the houses are of necessity and by design much smaller (by 33%) than a “typical” American house. Our neighborhood is one of the denser single-family neighborhoods in the city (it is not uncommon for lots to be 30’ wide or less). From time to time I feel the house is a bit small, but save for the over-sizing of the newer homes, the neighborhood feels about right. A week in Seaside has, for the time being, distorted my perspective.

On this trip we stayed in a small carriage house of one of the larger cottages. I didn’t think to measure it, but by mental map I bet it was 560sf (plus a 50sf front porch). Making it a little over 1/3rd the size of my home which is itself considered to be small. Despite its diminutive size, the house accommodated the life activities of two adults and two children reasonably well. From a design standpoint, the rectangle is entered from a six-foot deep porch that's as wide as the house. The interior comprises two large rooms (living/dining room and bedroom) separated by a core consisting of a bathroom accessed from bedroom, and galley kitchen and laundry/pantry that serve to connect the two larger rooms. Above the core is a loft with two beds that opens to the high ceilinged living room. As for Seaside, it is New Urbanism (almost) as advertised. (Their motto is dense, diverse and walkable- well, it’s definitely dense and walkable.) A few narrow streets and a number of narrow pedestrian paths connect the town. It seems that there isn’t a cottage that can’t be touched from some right of way, such is the nature of their building set-backs. Within this matrix of path and building, native trees and plants have populated the interstitial space. The place feels like a bespoke suit, albeit a snuggly fitted one. (As an aside, I think this is why the place feels odd to me- there's no such thing as growth and evolution. The entirety was built as one, and while the elements within the framework can be razed and rebuilt over time, the organism is in a kind of stasis.) The result of these conditions is that for a solid week I lived a “normal” life, just in a smaller dwelling and community.  

When I was finally able to kick off my shoes and survey the old homestead, I was shocked to find that both house and neighborhood felt MASSIVE. Could I have lived an everyday life with a wife and two children in 560 sf? Probably not. (The man who complains about not having his Burberry swim trunks probably has more clothes than can fit in a 6sf closet.) The experience however, was a fantastic reminder that the perception of space, and our “needs” are plastic ideals. It's possible to live a rich and rewarding life in less than 4,000 square feet. As we work on the next big thing in Chattanooga- increasing density- we need to make the case for greater spatial economy.

8.12.2013

L'accosted

Well friends, coming ‘atcha from the sun and fun of the C.Rushing family vacation. As mentioned in previous posts, when I was a young man my family used to vacation at the Seagrove Villas in Seagrove, FL. This was, of course, years before Seaside and the rest of 30A blew up. After an absence of years, I reinstated the tradition in 2008 by bringing my young ones there. When making arrangements for this year’s trip, however, I sadly found that the Seagrove Villas were no longer. Apparently, the market believes that there is a higher and better use for the site. Despite my sentimental objections, I must confess that the market is probably correct. As a consequence, this year we quaffed the New Urbanist Kool-Aid and shacked up in Seaside.

Seagrove Villas...RIP...

Aside from accommodations, I did an abysmal job of preparing for the trip. We departed the Scenic City and made it as far as Fort Payne, (God’s Own) Alabama before I realized that I forgot my swimming trunks. On a trip to the beach, I forgot to pack swimming trunks. I forgot my beloved Burberry Nova check swimming trunks. Equally as tragic, I left my Burberry bucket hat. As I am ever the slave to style, I think that there are certain stylistic pinnacles that have been reached, and as such, certain standards to cling to. Sunglasses find their highest expression in Ray-Ban Wayfarers; casual shirts- Lacoste polos; athletic shoes- Nike; swimwear and bucket hats- Burberry. Once I find something that is done right and fits well, I seldom deviate.

Fortunately for me, however, Saks at The Summit in Birmingham is right on the way. Saks being one of the relatively few retail outlets for Burberry ‘round here. Unfortunately, yes, they had no Burberry swimming trunks today.  I opted to go slumming with a pair of Lacoste trunks and a fetching pink number from polo. On the hat front, the closest thing I could find to a classic style was a Lacoste bucket hat. I actually made the rationalization that a Lacoste bucket hat is more classic and appropriate than one from Burberry. Was it not a white terry-cloth Lacoste bucket hat worn by my father in the ‘70s that first sparked in my interest in that particular hat typology?

We arrive at the beach, check in to the house and get ready to head down to the beach. I don my flip flops, new trunks, t-shirt and bucket hat, and have a glance in the mirror. Oh my god, I’ve been l’accosted. A closer inspection shows that by unholy accident, everything piece of clothing I brought down or acquired on the way (save the new pink Polo shorts) has an effing crocodile (or is it an alligator?) on it. Lesson One from this week’s post: blind devotion to one way of doing things, no matter how “right” or purpose-suited that way may be, can sometimes lead to unfortunate circumstances (such as me looking like a right tool).

As for reading material while I’m down here, I’ve not made it easy on myself. I'm struggling my way through both The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius Pollio and An Autobiography of an Idea by Louis Sullivan. Vitruvius is not a great writer and probably wasn’t a great architect- he just had the great fortune of having his manuscript survive from antiquity. If I am to continue teaching architecture history, however, I feel compelled to read it. I’m half way through…pray for me.

Sullivan’s work has also proved to be a trying read. This is his autobiography, written in the third person, and at time when the florid and effusive use of words was in vogue. Beyond the hyperbole and wordiness, however, is a fantastic story (that I sketched out here a few weeks ago). I’ve been on a Sullivan kick for the last couple of months. I think his story points to a larger pattern in the human condition- that the greatest ideas of man have to be watered down to achieve mass adoption. I need more time to think that one through though. Be on the lookout for a post on that one sometime in the near future.

What is certain is that Mr. Sullivan would dislike Seaside. He was effusive in his criticism of slavish devotion to European precedent. Seaside, of course being a veritable grab-bag of classical revival design. This being the first time I’ve been back since “rediscovering” architecture history, I must say that the place feels a bit hollow. There is none of the proportional rigor that makes Greek classicism sing and there is none of the engineering genius of the Roman works. There is only fashion. In this case, however, it is not the clothes that make the man. It is the subservience of architecture and infrastructure to the person, whether they are active, in repose or in ambulation that makes the place special. Of course, this would be lost on Mr. Sullivan, for he failed to live long enough to see the rise of the sub-urbs and our subsequent struggle to establish a sustainable, American development pattern. Yes, I normally give the New Urbanists hell, but getting blottoed on caipirinhas in a place has a way of softening one’s outlook. 

…and as I’m putting the finishing touches on this post by the pool, my 4-year-old swims up to an elderly stranger and opines, “You look pretty old”…we’re out…pray for me…