Happy Birthday Chuck

I’m generally a pretty happy guy, but from time to time I can get moody. This is one of those times. I’m not sure if I should blame it on something I ate, or the fact that I feel like I haven’t seen the sun in a month. It’s in moments of weakness like these that I’m susceptible to making crotchety blog posts (but please note that by the time this actually goes live, I will likely be back to my normal cheerful self). This one is all over the place, so forgive me.

A couple of weeks ago, famed Alabamian Charles Barkley celebrated his 50th birthday. One of the sports channels ran a top ten list of Barkley’s best quotes (for a few more go here). My favorite: “I don’t care what people think. People are stupid”. But truthfully, I’m not one of those cynical folks that walks around expecting the worst of everyone. To the contrary, I think that individuals are more often than not reasonable with thoughts and actions influenced by their unique life experiences. But when considered as a whole, “people” are indeed stupid. (How else can one explain the popularity of some of our restaurants? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but for me, the dining options in this town are abysmal. It also seems that the more popular a place is, the worse the food is. On the bright side we are blessed to have Lindley and Niel).

I’m a designer, not a sociologist. I’m sure that somewhere there is a very smart person who can give you a thoughtful and reasoned explanation of why groups of folks act they way they do. I’ll leave that to the professionals, but as it relates to urbanism and design I don;t mind making a few observations.

Consider the city. For the past sixty years people in our country have flocked to the sub-urbs. This shift has been detrimental to our urban cores, has stratified society, has destroyed massive areas of viable farmland, has homogenized life experiences, has led to a rise in obesity, has led to the erosion family structure and has done so in a way that is not sustainable, that harms our air, water and land,  that is totally dependent on fossil fuels, and that requires them to surrender hours of their life every day to sitting in a car. These facts are self-evident, yet people still think that the sub-urbs are a great place. In fact it is nigh upon impossible to separate the development model from The American Dream.

Consider housing. “People” think that poor iterations of vernacular and/or classical architecture, poorly adapted to site, built in antiseptic sub-urbs in a way that is unresponsive to their actual needs, detrimental to the environment in which they live, and assembled of crap materials using poor technique is a good thing. Despite the fact that these “homes” are unhealthy, inefficient, wasteful, and generic, developers still build them, and people still buy them. In fact, the more unhealthy, inefficient, wasteful and generic a house is, the more desirable it seems to be (think gated community with monster McMansions).

I fully believe that just because a majority believe something or do something, that doesn’t make it right. Our mom’s asked: “if all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?”. I would ask: “if most people live in the suburbs, does that make it right?” As a group, “people” don’t understand good design- if they did our cities wouldn’t look the way they do. Therein lies my struggle with how a community works together to build the city. I firmly believe in robust civic participation. But if the citizenry doesn’t understand design (or is collectively incapable of embracing good design) how does that work? This is one that I’ve been grappling with from time to time over the past decade or so. I’ve made peace with the mechanics of how the two seemingly incongruous points can coexist on a case-by-case basis, but I have been unable to reconcile them from philosophical point of view.

If we look back at some of our successes, what can we learn? Miller Plaza enjoyed robust community involvement. However, I don’t think any member of the general public had input on Koetter’s deign guidelines. We had a ton of public involvement in the 90’s, but do you think Chermayeff was soliciting ideas for how the aquarium would look? The same could be said for any number of designed places in downtown. I suppose there is something to be said for the education of the public in bringing them along concerning what makes good design. I suppose there is also something to be said for establishing general directions and frameworks through public participation and fleshing out the details by the interpretations of individuals.

I think that it’s a good thing that we don’t design by committee or leave those types of decisions to the people. It is my belief that the public at large simply does not have to ability to produce good design. Chattanooga was lucky in that we had a Design Studio that was able to advocate on behalf of the people while dealing with design professionals. Perhaps this is a best-case scenario, where the voices of the people are heard, and designers are allowed to express their expertise (although not unchecked).

Further evidence that people are stupid: remember eight years ago when our friends and neighbors lost their ever-loving mind? Let’s not have that happen again – go vote.

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