Christianmas Edition

Today is the first day in the two and a half year history of the blog that my weekly (or weakly as the case may be) writing time has fallen on a Christianmas. My initial impulse was to take the week off in celebration, but I have decided to soldier on. I am, however, working on some pretty heavy stuff these days so I’m going to go easy on myself with an off-the-top-of-my-head list. On my forty-first birthday I offer:

41 Random Thoughts on the Past, Present and Future of
Urban Design in Chattanooga.

1. Urban design is ultimately about people. Both individual and collective. 

2. The values, beliefs and ideals of community are expressed in the quality of its public realm.

3. Urban design is the tool that gives physical expression to shared community values. 

4. Whether the citizenry recognizes it or not, we are a shining example of how important design and urbanism are in the creation of a vibrant city. 

5. Chattanooga’s renaissance can in part be tied to the level of cooperation and collaboration between the principals. Our situation was so dire that no one cared about who got credit as long as the job got done.

6. One of our current challenges is moving past style to focus on substance. 

7. We currently lack a forum for discourse and debate on issues of urbanism and design. 

8. Getting downtown to the next level is entirely dependent upon increasing downtown residential numbers.

9. Increasing those residential numbers is equal parts attraction and provision. After making the case for why living downtown makes sense, we need to provide the range of residential options and supportive services to make it a feasible option for a broad segment of the population.

10. As we work to attract new residents to downtown, we need to take care of the ones who are already here (think MLKing, Westside, Highland Park, Alton Park, Ridgedale, Avondale, Glenwood, Bushtown, Orchard Knob, Avondale)

11. Density is the key.

12. Miller Plaza district, the first step in our urban design renaissance, can still teach us things. 

13. Do you think the average Chattanoogan in 1980 could imagine that downtown’s biggest problem in 2013 would be finding places for everyone to park?

14. Twenty years on, the design of the Aquarium Plaza still holds up. 

15. While not perfect, the Southside is a remarkable success story.  

16. Despite 30 years of reinvestment and revitalization downtown, most of our urban neighborhoods have not proportionately participated.

17. Downtown is in dire need of a decent Chinese restaurant.

18. I am currently boycotting six restaurants in downtown Chattanooga as a result of their urban design decisions. Fortunately, I am not missing out as their food is shite anyway. 

19. The level of quality in design and construction of our buildings is not good enough.

20. The new pedestrian lights being installed throughout our downtown are generic, lack a connection to place, contribute to light pollution and glare, and fail in their primary purpose which is to provide even and consistent illumination at the pedestrian level.

21. The actions of politicians, design review boards, and citizens have conspired to turn (or perhaps keep?) portions of North Chattanooga into sub-urbs.

22. The US-27 project will destroy the character of downtown by markedly altering the perceived scale of the city and denuding our largest natural green element.

23. The US-27 project will undermine the quality of downtown by reinforcing the auto-centric nature of the public realm in that corridor.  

24. If US-27 goes through as planned, the idea of Westside as a vibrant and integral part of downtown is a dead. The more likely outcome is that the deal for the housing projects expire, those citizens will be relocated throughout the city, and the remaining land there will continue to be parceled out in a sub-urban style as befits the nature of 27 and Riverfront Parkway. 

25. The Westside should be the next catalyst for downtown. 

26. The Center City is realistically the next catalyst for downtown.

27. It hasn’t come up for a while, but speaking of potential catalysts: U.S. Pipe.

28. The city misses the vision of the former Design Studio. Can you imagine the city without the Aquarium, Miller Plaza, the Southside, the 21st Century Waterfront, and our public realm improvements? The original ideas for each of those came out of the Design Studio.

29. After extensive research on the subject, the case can be made that our former Design Studio was the most innovative, influential and effective such entity in the country.

30. That Design Studio, however, was an abject failure as a regulatory extension of government. (which ultimately led to its demise).

31. The success of the former design studio in its heyday was rooted in the fact that they were perceived as neutral brokers operating on behalf of the community.

32. Chattanooga has a strong group of competent urban designers.

33. Unfortunately, not all of our designers get it.

34. Unfortunately, not all of our non-designers get it.

35. A year later, people still talk to me about the Urban Design Challenge- proof that urban design matters to the citizenry.

36. The forthcoming downtown design guidelines will not raise the level of urban design quality in the city, but it should help prevent another Buffalo Wild Wings.

37. It feels like the C-7 guidelines are being held together with spit and bubble gum. 

38. The C-7 guidelines are worthless anyway. 

39. It is worth noting that while quantifiable goals are important, not every important thing is quantifiable.

40. 6 days until the first Birmingham City game!

41. 34 days until the first Alabama football game!


What the Fork? Part 2: A Fork in the Road

Last week I introduced an article about how Americans had co-opted a European tradition for tradition's sake, despite the fact that it made little practical sense. The article also points out that while we continue this tradition the originators ceased long ago. This week, the danger of blindly adhering to someone else's tradition…

The Chicago School was a group of talented architects practicing in the City of Broad Shoulders around the turn of the last century. They were experimenting with new building materials and techniques and were developing a new aesthetic to suit these new forms. The school comprised such illustrious names as Burnham and Root, Adler and Sullivan, Holabird and Roche, and William LaBaron Jenney. While these architects were of the same place and grappling with the same issues, they each did so in different ways. A confluence of events including advances in steel technologies, the invention of elevators, and inflated land costs conspired to give birth to the skyscraper- America’s great contribution to the architectural cannon.

The problem with the skyscraper was that technology had outpaced aesthetic. We now had the ability to make extremely tall buildings, but had no idea what they should look like. The designers of the earliest skyscrapers simply tried to adapt classical European elements to the new form. This technique was awkward and clunky, and had the tendency to be very horizontal in nature. It was Louis Sullivan who was the pioneer in embracing the vertically of this new building form and throwing off the shackles of precedent that worked counter to the inherent nature of the new form and material. I highly recommend reading his article The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered. It is packed full of goodness, and here are a couple of snippets:

“It demands of us, what is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist nature its thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ tone in its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chard in his expression of it, the true excitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line…”

 “It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”

Genius. Inspiring concepts and clear logic (and some say the birth of modernism). This was our moment. Louis Sullivan and the Chicago School had the philosophical grounding and were poised to lead the United States in the development of our own enduring architecture worthy of the promise of our great nation. Only it didn’t happen.

The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a watershed moment in the history of American architecture and planning. The exposition, a world’s fair in essence, was to be held in America in honor of the four-hundred year anniversary of the Christopher Columbus journey to the new world. The Americans were under a great deal of pressure to show out, as the French had just done a bang up job of a fair in Paris (including a certain sculpture by a man named Gustave Eiffel). After fierce competition with New York, D.C., and St. Louis, Chicago won the honor of hosting.* This was a bit of a coup for the mid-westerners as they were essentially a frontier town, and not perceived as being as refined and sophisticated as the easterners. What Chicago did have (amongst other things) was this talented group of architects and planners and their new building forms and philosophies.

Daniel Burnham and his partner John Root were the architects and urban designers tapped to oversee the design and construction of the entire Exposition. In the process they created what was in effect the first American comprehensive plan. They were faced with a herculean task and a nearly impossible deadline to pull the thing off. Early in the process, Root, the driving creative force of the partnership, dies. Burnham consults his group of architects (McKim, Sullivan, Olmstead, Hunt, Cobb and Post) and decides that the best way forward is to design the entire exposition in the Beaux Arts style.  The Beaux Arts is a neo-classic style of architecture as espoused by the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Burnham’s decision was based in the belief that a single architectural style would provide unity for the disparate set of buildings on the site. I suspect there was also a desire on the part of the Chicagoans to express just how sophisticated they were and to do that by affecting that paradigm of sophistication, classical European architecture. Louis Sullivan calls bullshit on this.

Sullivan, who actually spent a year at the Ecole in Paris, balked at the historicist styling of architecture. While he was heavily influenced by what he saw during his stints in Europe, he took from the masterworks an admiration of the spirit behind the work instead of rote replication. Upon his return to the States, he was a driving force in the effort to establish an American architecture. Until this point, the best American architects were simply recycling classical European forms (see Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Latrobe). Sullivan (a man of principal and strong opinion) was livid that Burham (a “client-friendly” designer, wink wink), would turn his back on the new and innovative work that members of the Chicago School was pioneering in favor of the stale safety of classicism. Sullivan’s Transportation Building is the sole building in the Exposition not designed in the Beaux Arts style (which pissed Burnham off). It is worth noting, however, that the Transportation Building with it’s “Golden Door” was the only building in the Exposition that gained international critical acclaim.

The Exposition overcomes hardships of all kinds to become a wild success. One of the outcomes of this success is that millions of American visitors return to their homes with grand visions of a clean, gleaming, white, classical city. They left Chicago, returned to their home cities and copied what they had seen. What was essentially a stage set** in classical style became the inspiration for new building projects across the country. Sullivan later lamented:

"Meanwhile the virus of the World's Fair, after a period of incubation ... began to show unmistakable signs of the nature of the contagion. There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread Westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward.... By the time the market had been saturated, all sense of reality was gone. In its place, had come deep seated illusions, hallucinations, absence of pupillary reaction to light, absence of knee-reaction-symptoms all of progressive cerebral meningitis; the blanketing of the brain. Thus Architecture died in the land of the free and the home of the brave.... The damage wrought by the World's Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer."

There is no happy ending to this story, we are only left to wonder what might have been. What if John Root had lived, and his more progressive designs had inspired millions of American visitors by a new architecture? What if New York or D.C had won the exposition and left the Chicago School to continue their work along its former trajectory?

The end of Sullivan’s story is very sad. After the Exposition, the economy takes a dive and his partner Dankmar Adler breaks the partnership. Adler was the friendly, well-connected partner who found work for the firm and without him Sullivan had difficulty finding clients. Beyond the issue of personality, classicism was in vogue and no client wanted what Sullivan had to offer. He drank too much and his personal relationships, including his marriage, failed. Sullivan died penniless and alone in 1924. He spent what should have been the most productive years of his life designing an average of one small building per year. What brings me tears is the absolute beauty and unmistakable genius of those works, those small mid-western banks dubbed jewel boxes.

As fate would have it, one of those jewel boxes is located in Iowa, just a short detour away from one of my current projects. Last week I made the pilgrimage to Grinnell to see his Merchant’s National Bank. It is truly stunning. And it talks to you. It proudly exclaims “I am an American bank”. This in stark contrast to banks in classicist revival style that could just as easily be schools, post offices, churches or government buildings in any western country (and the New Urbanists would have us believe this is a good thing). As sometimes happens, life conspired to derail what could have been. 

I fear I have ventured far afield. I was going to make the connection between the literal fork discussed in the article last week with the figurative fork in the road that the exposition proved to be...but that was a bit cheesy. So I suppose the parting observation is that we should ever question why we do things the way we do, and just because something is old and familiar doesn’t make it right. Perhaps the best local example of this is the god-awful, new pedestrian lighting fixture that has spread across downtown like a fine case of warts. The new lights are poor generic copies of a historic type whose form adversely impacts their function. Their introduction is doubly injurious as the fixture they replaced had a much more functional design that was also unique to Chattanooga. The other lesson in the post is that life is not fair. Good ideas don’t always win out. Being on the side of right doesn’t always pay off. The Sullivan story always tears me up- what a waste and oh, what could have been.

*It is worthy of note that it was during this process a New York editor referred to Chicago as “that windy city”

**The buildings were meant to be temporary and were built of frames that were then coated in a plaster and hemp fiber mixture, molded to form, then painted white.


What the Fork?

Let the record show that I am sorely disappointed in you, the reader. I put out a call for recommendations on Chinese food and got (cue the crickets)…nothing. Weak sauce ya’ll. Should you choose to redeem yourself, please feel free to drop me a line any time if you know of something decent. 

While we’re still on food: I came across this article last week (you probably need to read it for this post to make sense). Reading the article took me back to a meal I had several years ago. I was in England to visit the illustrious Jem Jones and watch a few football/soccer games. One Sunday afternoon we joined his parents and grandfather for a meal. The Sunday Roast consisted of roast beef, roasted parsnips, broccoli and carrots, Yorkshire pudding and gravy (straightforward and delicious). About halfway through the meal the grandfather, who was in his nineties I suspect, piped up and asked “Is there something wrong with your knife?” I was caught a bit off guard and fumbled to come up with a response to a question that I didn’t fully understand. Mrs. Jones came to the rescue by explaining to him that Americans perform an odd ritual of silverware utensil switching whilst eating. The whole table of English (who all love America) then piled on regarding this particular American peculiarity. This was news to me, as I never had pause to consider that my mother taught me anything other than solid dining etiquette.

That conversation caused me to rethink how I eat. As a result, I adopted the more efficient Continental method of wielding knife and fork.* It just makes sense- it’s more efficient, it’s equally acceptable from an etiquette standpoint (according to manners mavens), and the practice was derived from a culture that “ain’t from ‘round here”.

I promise that there is an urban design connection to this particular story. You must, however, wait until next week to see if I can pull it off.

*I find, however, that when faced with a very formal meal I often subconsciously revert to the American method. This happened last year at Le Taillevent, which of course didn’t make sense as the French, who the Americans first emulated, actually quit the utensil switch back in 1853.


Obvious Observatons in the Rain

Before we dig in this week, I will go to the mailbag and weigh in on a reader’s question sparked by last week’s post. He asks:

Q: If it is important to screen parking lots, dumpsters, HVAC units, then why do we encourage more on-street parking?
A: The party line is that cars on-street provide a buffer between pedestrians and moving traffic, are an efficient use of already-paved surfaces, and provide the opportunity for a few fortunate souls to park very close to their destination.

I suppose those who advocate for the screening of parking lots argue that a line of parked cars is not as visually offensive as a lot of them. I, for one, am not adamant about shielding parking lots. They are what they are, and if people can see them, then they know where to park. The other problem is in execution. Some guidelines call for walls or solid fencing- how is this any different from a building fa├žade with no doors or windows? (which is detrimental to the pedestrian realm) Fencing that is visually permeable doesn’t achieve the goal of screening, and frankly doesn’t do much for pedestrian comfort…that’s all I’ve got on that…moving swiftly on...

I had a bit of a philosophical crisis this week. In absence of a more interesting idea for a topic, I will offer a bit of insight into what goes on in my noggin when it rains non-stop for a week. This all started when I was off on another rant about the appalling lack of decent Chinese food in the greater Chattanooga area.*  Yes, the curse of this blog is that even Chinese food causes me to think of urbanism... hang in there while I try to weave this thread…

Over the past few years we have seen the rise of the locavore phenomenon in food culture. This is essentially about placing high value on consuming foods that are grown or produced locally. A concurrent cooking philosophy has been to use as light a hand as possible in preparation- to let the inherent properties of the ingredients shine through. I wholeheartedly subscribe to both of these concepts.

They make sense to me for a couple of reasons. First, I grew up on BaBa’s food, and this was pretty much her approach to cooking. (Of course, growing up poor in rural Mississippi, her embrace of those concepts was borne of necessity and not a culinary ideology. Indeed, the concept of a "culinary ideology” would have flummoxed her- she would have said "Son, if you are lucky enough to have food, eat it and be thankful")  Secondly, my philosophy on building is very similar. I believe that buildings should be constructed of locally sourced materials, and that we should honor the nature of the building materials we use.

I hate, loathe, abhor, despise, and detest fakeness in building. Unfortunately, this is ubiquitous: concrete stamped to look like brick, cementitious siding formed to look like wood, EIFS shaped to look like masonry. This is lying. There is no such thing as good or bad building materials, only materials that are better suited to specific tasks and budgets. If the task and budget calls for cinder block, let the block express itself without shame. If you can’t afford brick pavers for your sidewalk, design the concrete in a way that is beautiful and honest rather than tart it up by stamping and coloring it to look like a brick (you’re not fooling anyone). If you want brick, use brick. If you want wood, use wood. If you want marble, use marble. If the realities of your project do not allow you to use the materials you covet, don’t put on airs.

The extension of this line of thought is that the buildings in a place should respond to the conditions of the place. Historic architectural styles developed because materials were assembled in response to local conditions and availabilities of materials. I am disheartened when I see local developers producing buildings in styles imported from the English, French or Spanish countryside for the sake of aesthetics. This again, is fake- architectural dishonesty.

So how does this relate to Chinese food? If one slavishly follows the maxims above, would we southerners be doomed to a life of fried chicken and collard greens? Is eating Chinese food in Brainerd analogous to building a fake half-timbered Tudor in Ooltewah? I hope not…or at least I don’t think so. I make peace with the seeming incongruity by making the rather obvious observation that food and building are two different things. While both contribute to the characteristics of a local culture, they do so in different ways. Food is a transient thing, it cycles far more quickly than human beings, which in turn cycle more quickly than the built environment. One can augment the food of a region with forays into other cuisines without necessarily undermining the food culture of the region. Meals last for hours, but buildings last for decades (I wish I could say centuries here). While food is about a place and supports the notion of place, the built environment is the place. And there you have it, when it rains for a week straight I come to the profound conclusion that food and architecture are different.

*Friends, if you know of a hidden Chinese gem that I am unaware of, please let me know and lunch is on me!



The Hue Junta

Last week was nice. I got some work done, my summer semester came to a close, I had a little fun, and came up with some ideas for the future. The oldest was in CFC soccer camp in the mornings and with me in the afternoons. I thought this would be a great opportunity to teach him a few things. As you might suspect, I spent some time passing down some sport technique. We had an adventure in home brewing cream soda.  But the most memorable session was when we decided to make some homemade sausage (cotechino). About halfway through grinding the pork skin, the meat grinder* died and he learned what sparks look like and what ozone smells like (he also learned a couple of new words). He then learned how to stuff hog casings with sausage grind…by hand. What should have taken an hour took all afternoon. The upside is that for the rest of his life, whenever he eats a sausage he will have our afternoon to look back on.

As for last week’s post, it turns out that most of you knew the building that I was referring to. In fact, the project got a little mainstream press as well. I am sticking to my guns in regard to not calling out local architects. It has come to my attention, however, that the architect for that project has actually left the state (and therefore no longer qualifies as a local designer). In any event, I will not pile on, but rather use the project as a departure point to make an observation.

It’s time to pick on design guidelines once again. Those familiar with the process know that color is virtually never covered in design guidelines. Indeed, one of the often-quoted points of those selling design guidelines to a skeptical development community is that regulators are only concerned with the form of the building. What makes color a bridge too far? I think there is something in our collective psyche that makes regulation of function more acceptable than regulation of form. I suppose the argument is that the massing of a building influences its function (and the function of the district) while color is a purely aesthetic concern. In essence, they argue that some types of form are actually function and are therefore fair game for regulation. I also suspect that the impermanent nature of paint is a reason- no one wants to go back to the design review committee every time they need a fresh coat. At the heart of the argument is the fact that color is a subjective thing. I maintain that the regulation of building’s height and mass is no different than the regulation of color.

A bit of Q & A about design guidelines:

Q: Why do we advocate that buildings in urban areas should be built up to the sidewalk? 

A: The facades of buildings and the street they face form the walls and floor of an “outdoor room”. The proportion of building height to street width is a determining factor in whether or not people feel comfortable in the space. Design guidelines therefore (should) try to get building height and street width to a comfortable ratio (they say something like 1:1 or 1:2 is ideal).

Q: Why do we encourage primary pedestrian entrances to be located on the major street that a building fronts? 

A: This has all to do with creating robust street life. Entrances onto streets put people in the public realm (as opposed to sub-urban schemes where pedestrians go from parking lot to entrance and do not engage the shared public realm). The goal is to create an active public realm where people feel comfortable because others are around.

Q: Why do we advocate that parking lots and service areas be screened and located behind buildings? 

A: We encourage the screening of parking and service areas because the function of these elements is driven by non-human factors (cars, dumpsters and machines). Consequently, those required elements of scale, material, sound, and smell make for uncomfortable people places. Mitigation through placement and visual quality helps in the establishment a healthy pedestrian realm.

In each of these cases the main goal of design guidelines is create places that are for people and that make people feel comfortable. How then is the regulation of color any different than regulating building mass, entry location or screening? Is it because color is subjective? Is the comfort of a pedestrian in an “outdoor room” any more measurable? By what metric can we definitively say that a proportion makes a person feel comfortable? How do we even define comfort? In fact, virtually everything that is covered in a set of urban design guidelines is subjective. If this is the case, why is color any less important? It is clear that the color of a building has the power to make people comfortable or uncomfortable. If color was unimportant, then the TFP would not have run an article about it (and for that matter the multi-billion dollar paint industry wouldn’t exist). If the goal of guidelines is to create comfortable, people places then why not address all of the elements that contribute to that state?

I suspect that the reason color is rarely addressed is because it is messy. It is sausage making on a scale that Spence and I can scarcely imagine. One reason is that just about everyone has an opinion on color. Most folks don’t spend their lives and careers worrying about the relationship between a street and a building. Virtually all of us, however, have lifelong experiences with color. In the process of selling design guidelines, the authors have a fairly easy job in selling set-backs and height requirements as the public is more apt to defer to the experts. As for color, however, everyone has an opinion. Since it would be virtually impossible to get a broad segment of the public to agree, we say that color is subjective and write off the idea of tackling the problem. This, of course, is a cop out since just about everything covered in a design guideline is subjective.   

As long-time readers are well aware, I have my doubts about the utility of urban design guidelines. They don’t promote innovation, they encourage a mindset of doing the bare minimum to get by, they typically only prevent the worst of projects from being built, and the whole framework can be compromised if the bodies who administer them choose not to. With that understanding, please don’t construe today’s post as a call to create a paint police or hue junta or color constable or pigment patrol or chroma cops. The point is that if those who promote design guidelines were serious about making comfortable places for people they would address the broader range of factors that influence the condition.

Color is subjective, pedestrian comfort is subjective, and as a general rule, design is subjective. Are these things any less important for the fact that they can’t be measured? One of my favorite quotes is by Louis Kahn, who observed “Great architecture begins with the immeasurable, must go through measurable means, and in the end must return to the immeasurable.”  While there is no great moral to this week’s post, I think it is worth keeping in mind that while quantifiable goals are important, not every important thing is quantifiable.

*Deni meat grinders…Worst. Customer. Service. Ever.