That Was Quick

Although it seems like it just started, 2014 is drawing to a close.  For as short as it seemed, it was just as sweet. In that spirit, here is a short but sweet year in review...

2014 was a year of travel. Between youth sports, work and personal travel, I’ve been everywhere, man. (In my best Johnny Cash voice)…I’ve been to… New Orleans, Des Moines, Grinnel, Cedar Rapids, Malaga, Granada, Algona, Madison, Montgomery, West Lafayette, Nashville, Columbus, Cambridge, Cordoba, Atlanta, Newark, Knoxville, Auburn, St. Louis, Tuscaloosa, San Jose, Quepos, Birmingham, Boston, Manuel Antonio, Seaside, Chicago, Cincinnati, Davenport, Sidney, South Pittsburgh, Miami, Huntsville, Pachuta…I’ve been everywhere. My friends who are real travelers might scoff at my puny list, but for me, that’s a lot of ground to cover. I didn’t mind at all though- the family accompanied me on many of those trips, and I’ve vaulted up the Delta Medallion chart.

I suspect that the blog has suffered for my travels. This may be true, but I spent some time this morning reviewing the past year of posts, and there are some decent ones in there. Over the past four years I have found a curious pattern. The posts I think are great receive little attention, and the ones I don’t think much of tend to be the ones that the get the most play. This year was no different.

The most viewed post of the year was the one in response to the silly donut mural kerfuffle. Let the record show that the numbers were not due to my writing prowess or insight, but the fact that David Cook linked to it somewhere along the line. (This was one of the humbling reminders that while I feel chuffed to be dealing in hundreds of readers, the real writers deal in thousands and tens of thousands).

The Summer of Sullivan was a tremendous experience. I read everything I could about the man, then traveled the Midwest see his extant works. A lot of great things happened this year, and this experience is near the top of that list. Writing about it as the summer unfolded was one of the great experiences of my life.

There was, of course, plenty to write about here in the Scenic City. I wrote a post in January celebrating all of the great projects that were in the offing for downtown. (Twelve months later a similar list of projects would be more real and more impressive.) A few months later, I told you what I want. And, toward the end of the year we had a little fun

Looking into the 'ol crystal ball, it appears that next year will be a big one for downtown. I agree with Ms. White, it appears that 2015 will be the Year of the Crane. Bring it on!


Cañas, Caves & Cathedrals

This story starts, as it must, on a soggy Sunday night in a cave in the Sacromonte. While I saw many amazing things in the days and hours leading up to this point, the cave stands out as all wonderfully unexpected experiences do.

The morning started with a stroll around Granada with the Joneses. My fraternity brother Jem had traveled with his lovely wife from Henley-in-Arden to meet us. We milled around the baroque cathedral for a bit before engaging in the now familiar routine: find a spot, order four cañas of cerveza, eat tapas, repeat. Tapas are one of humankind's great conceptions- for every round of drinks one orders, the kitchen serves up a tasty treat. The more one drinks, the better one eats. On this afternoon we had dogfish, boquerones, squid, ibérico ham, croquettes, and I ordered a portion of callos (tripe). This session was what hipster brunch wants to be when it grows up. Although I could have continued along this track for the rest of the day, we had things to see.

Callos. AKA the best tripe dish on the planet.
By this time, we were playing with house money. Two days prior, the missus and I got to see the Mezquita de Córdoba- truly one of the architectural wonders of the world. A thousand years ago, Córdoba was the intellectual center of western Europe and its most populous city. At the time it was under the rule of Muslims who were tolerant of the Jewish and Christian minorities. The great mosque was constructed and expanded over the course of several centuries. When the Christians conquered Córdoba during the reconquista, a cathedral was constructed square in the middle of the mosque as a sign of the triumph of Christianity over Islam. The result is an interior that is a curious mix of Christian and Islamic symbolism and architectural vocabulary. This was one of the two buildings that I was dying to see, and it did not disappoint.

Fueled by cerveza and tapas, the crew was ready to take on the other architectural marvel on my list. The Alhambra is a magnificent fortified Moorish palace on the Sabika hill in Granada. The walk up the hill, through the forest was quite nice and a fitting procession to the complex. I lack the time and vocabulary to do the Alhambra justice. It is a rich and complex mixture of muscularity, delicacy, and sumptuousness. The Nasrid palaces are described as one of the most beautiful places ever created by the hand of man. It is one of the rare of places that actually lives up to such hype. The bit of incongruity on the site is (once again) due to a Christian intervention. The Palace of Charles V, a renaissance addition within the walls of the compound, is another not-so-subtle monument to the triumph of Christianity over Islam. Charles’ work notwithstanding, the whole of the experience was amazing, and in the end they had to kick us out at closing time. As afternoon gave way to evening, there was only one thing to do…tapear.

Our hotel was in the Albayzín, a medieval neighborhood built up the side of a hill opposite the Alhambra. The agglomeration of buildings creates labyrinthine, cobbled streets not much wider than my outstretched arms. These occasionally give way to small plazas. There is no resisting the charm of the place, but walking up and down the hill to the city center on precariously paved paths is a pain in the ass. After a day walking the Alhambra, we decided to stay up in the Albayzín for the night. This proved to be a wise decision as we had possibly our best tapas experience at a random dive on the top of the hill. Football (soccer) on the tele, cerveza in hand, and tapas on the table- repeat. After a long day of walking, drinking and eating, I was ready for bed. The Englishman, however, had another idea.

Flamenco? Bullshit, said I. Having been raised by a mother and stepfather who both danced and taught ballet, I have some level of appreciation for the art. Despite that appreciation, the idea of going to cave inhabited by gypsies to watch Flamenco did not appeal to me in the least. In the end I was game (largely in part because the restaurant closed, it was 11:00pm on a Sunday, and the caves provided the last hope for vino tinto.) As one might suspect, late Sunday nights are not exactly prime time for performance. Our smooth talking Englishman was able to coax a group of performers to do one last show for us (no doubt on the strength of the pound sterling). We were ushered into the space, a cave with whitewashed walls just wide enough for a row of chairs along each wall with a narrow space to pass between them. For the next hour, the four of us watched five dancers, three guitarists, two singers and a drummer pour their soul into a performance. The cacophony of instruments, voices, handclaps, finger snaps, and foot stamps was stunning, beautiful, and not at all what I expected. The Mosque and the Alhambra were the reasons we traveled to Andalucía, and they did not disappoint. The flamenco, however, was one of those great moments in life when beauty is experienced without the weight of expectation.

Spain is in the books, and its back to work in the Scenic City. 2014 was a great year and I’m thankful for all of the blessings that have come my way. 2015 is shaping up to be a big one, although not without the aforementioned weight of expectation. More on that in a couple of weeks…

In the meantime, have a very merry Christmas and/or a spectacular holiday season!


Meme Monday

And now we're playing with house money. Another National Championship would suit me just fine, however, anything more than beating the Vols, beating Auburn, and winning the SEC, is just gravy. As we approach the holidays, please keep Urban Meyer in your prayers- hopefully a run-in with Saban won't spark health issues and retirement...again. Roll Tide.

Everyone with a computer has been exposed to a meme of one form or another by now. For the most part they are stupid, but every now and again there is a gem to be found. Rather than resist, I will jump the shark and embrace them this week. So here they are, a virtual cornucopia of Chattanooga urban design memes for your viewing pleasure. For the most part they are stupid (please don't get offended).


In the News

As you will read below, this post is a week late. My bad. Such is life. In the meantime the family had a great Thanksgiving and order was restored to the universe.

After spending most of the week in the unreasonable cold of the upper Midwest, it was nice to be back in the relative warmth of the Scenic City. With the soccer travel season having just ended, the family looking forward to a relaxing weekend at home. Everything was going to plan until Saturday morning when I read that tickets were still available for the Alabama game. Being highly suggestible, I immediately corralled the family (including the sole Awbun fan), hustled them into the car, and hit the road. Never mind that tickets can always be found for a game, and that the opponent was an FBS school that the Mocs blew out 51-0,  I had to go because TICKETS WERE STILL AVAILABLE! By the time I regained my sanity we were passing through Trussville, so I just rolled with it.

This was the first Bama game for our youngest. I hoped he and I could go by ourselves to his first game (the same way that it happened for his brother) but life had other plans. In any event, everyone had fun, there was no fighting, and the Tide overcame a slow start to win going away. All of this is to say that my take on matters of urban design in Chattanooga has been gleaned solely from the media.

I was going to label these three things the Good, the Bad, and The Ugly. Aside from that being cliché and overused, however, I’m not even sure that’s a perfectly accurate description. Let’s just say that I had three gut reactions: a positive one, a negative one, and one feeling of revulsion (not covered in that order, mind you).

Big news of the week is a bad thing- a multi-million dollar housing project had some buildings collapse after a stiff wind. I have no comment on site plan or building design, so feel free to draw your own conclusions on those. The problem the developers now face is that (fairly or unfairly) the project may be perceived one with inferior product. Not a good thing- I definitely hate to see that.

A tangent to that incident induced my feeling of revulsion. This has nothing to do with the development and everything to do with our community. I came across the TFP article on the collapse via my Facebook feed. Let’s be honest, the comment sections of online articles are often more informative and entertaining than the articles themselves. In this case, the thread was a sad commentary on the level of discourse in our community.  The comments moved swiftly from thoughts on construction quality, to how unsafe downtown is, to the ethnicity of the construction workers, to the legal status of the construction workers, to immigration policy, to how bad the president sucks, in no time flat. The comments were as xenophobic as they were uncivilized.

Brighter note: things are moving right along in Center City. I saw this article regarding an adaptive reuse of a vacant building. Add this to the list of projects (like this, and this) that follow our work on River City Company's Center City Plan. I’m excited about the future of the heart of downtown- great things are in the offing.

I am very much looking forward to the week ahead- celebrating blessings and cosmic luck with family and friends. Ya’ll be good and have a great Thanksgiving!


It's an Epaintdemic!

Chattanooga is facing an epidemic. A virus is sweeping through our fair city at an alarming rate. It must be stopped, or it will consume us. Do I speak of Ebola? Influenza? Swine flue? H1N1? SARS? Avian Flu? Malaria? Dengue Fever? No, this is far more serious than that. I speak, of course, of the alarming number of people who are painting brick (and stone!) buildings. Yes, that’s right. People are actually applying liquid pigment on top of proud, noble and ancient materials. This short post is an appeal to any and all who would hear. Please stop the insanity. My cause is just, and I offer the following thoughts in support:

Brick is a significant part of our built heritage. Brick buildings and urban Chattanooga have an affinity for one another. From our most iconic structures such as the Choo-Choo, to more modest (but no less important) buildings such as the Trolley Barns, exposed brick is ubiquitous and adds to the authenticity of the community. 

Once you start, you can never stop. After a couple of years, that nice fresh coat of paint will lose its luster and eventually start to peel. The whole building then needs to be cleaned, scraped and repainted. Repeat every few years. This is a labor intensive and expensive maintenance proposition.

Brick is beautiful. The color and texture of brick are assets. Let the material speak for itself. While painting brick not as egregious as stamping concrete, or painting EIFS to look like things they are not, it is in the same spirit. Covering the material is in essence denying what it is. If a building is made of brick, let the brick be itself. 

It is an unnecessary expense. I fear that people often paint their brick buildings simply because they feel like they need to do something. I submit that before one makes this choice, they consider the up-front costs and on-going maintenance cost, and put that money to work on other elements of the program. The brick is just fine- leave it alone.

History is not on your side. There is a 100% chance that subsequent owner of the building will try to restore it. There is also a 100% chance that they will utter the phrase “Why the hell did these people paint the brick?”. While stripping painted brick is possible, the nature of the material makes it virtually impossible to strip completely.

Don't be mad, and don't send hate mail. As with anything, there are exceptions. I am of the opinion, however, that this should be a last resort not a common practice.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I bought my first pair of Air Jordan’s (the white ones) with money earned by painting the brick of my childhood home. Good job Mom. 

...Like it was yesterday...


This Might Be a Stretch

Let the record show that this post will be forever seared into my memory. It has come to this, the only time I can write for this space is when I’m in the process of flying somewhere. I was on a plane from some airport or other (DTW I think) on my way back to ATL. As I was wrapping things up, I clumsily deposited a full cup of coffee on both my laptop and my lap. I was surprised at how many itty-bitty airline cocktail napkins it takes to clean up twenty ounces of café au lait. Just about the time I settled back in, they guy next to me soiled himself. Literally, soiled himself…sitting in the seat next to me. I can only imagine how many cocktail napkins he eventually needed. Needless to say, these things coupled with the torture device that is an airline coach seat, made for an uncomfortable afternoon. I can’t complain though, I went on to arrive safely and on time in CHA where life is good. Moving swiftly on…

I find great joy in teaching architecture history. While I was originally concerned that rehashing the same material semester after semester would get boring, I have found just the opposite to be true. Every time I teach the class I see something in a different way or gain some type of insight. From time to time I even find patterns that are somehow applicable to my current work. After a class on the Renaissance last week, I think I’ve found a parallel with contemporary Chattanooga. (This is probably a stretch, but I’ve decided to try it on anyway. Bear with me.)

When Rome fell, Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages (which always reminds me of perhaps the funniest scene in movie history). While there is plenty to dislike about Roman society and colonial exploits, their administrative framework held western civilization together for hundreds of years (a thousand if you want count the Republic). From an architectural standpoint, this stability and prosperity produced an astounding array of design and engineering marvels. This stability allowed experience and experimentation to develop into a body of knowledge that was passed down from generation to generation. Within a few decades of the fall, the individual and institutional knowledge of architecture and its engineering, craftsmanship, and design was lost. (Note: This is of course in reference to Western Europe. During this period, the Byzantines, essentially successors to the Empire, were producing amazing works such as Aya Sofia.)

In subsequent years, builders were essentially starting from scratch. Design, materials and technique all went back to square one. As opposed to older Roman buildings, Medieval buildings were characterized by thick walls with small windows resulting in small, dimly lit interior spaces. Over time, a number of builders observed older Roman structures and tried to replicate them. The so-called Romanesque style is the result of these efforts. The Romanesque is just that- kind of like the Romans. It may be unfair to say that the thousand years of the dark ages is a millennium-long struggle to regain the lost architectural knowledge of the Romans, but it’s not far off. Grand and well-lit spaces don’t return to Europe until the 12th century with the structural advances of the pointed arch, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses that characterize the Gothic.

The Dark Ages end with the rise of the humanist philosophy of the Renaissance. This was essentially a rejection of medieval thought in favor of a resuscitation of the lost knowledge of the Romans and Greeks. Humanist artists and thinkers poured through the ancient texts and extant works in an effort to regain what was lost. One could argue that the Renaissance eventually arrives with the baptistery door competition in Florence. Aside from the advance in art by Ghiberti’s win, architecture benefits from the pain of the loser.

After losing the competition, a pissed off Brunelleschi bolts for Rome. He proceeds to spend the next twenty years of his life scrutinizing ancient Roman ruins (and along the way developing linear perspective drawing). Armed with this knowledge he returns to Florence to pitch his ingenious solution to the problem of the Duomo (and in the process serves cold vengeance to his rival Ghiberti). While his solution was new, of the time, and adapted to a contemporary design challenge, there is no doubt that his works owes to those who came many centuries before him.


Toward the end of the twentieth century, Chattanooga developed a sophisticated framework for city building. Tremendous works were accomplished based on an understanding of the importance of the public realm, a spirit of partnership and cooperation, and an embrace of inclusive public processes. After a political shift, this framework for building the city dissolved. Many of the people who were well versed in the nuance of partnership were lost or moved away. Those who recognized the importance of public realm design and planning were relegated to the sidelines, and the institutional memory of the organizations that were engaged in the work was lost.

Fortunately, we have begun to emerge from that period and seem to have entered into a more optimistic and exuberant phase. There is great momentum in the city owing to things such as the gig, industrial recruitment, and our entrepreneurial community. While we are gaining momentum in other areas of community life, our work in the built environment lags. This stands to reason as buildings take longer to complete, and the economic environment for development has been soft. While building didn’t come to a standstill during the past decade, we certainly failed to keep pace with both the quality and quantity of what we produced late last century. I also believe it's fair to draw a comparison to the Romanesque- what we’ve done recently tries to evoke the Chattanooga spirit but it hasn’t fulfilled the promise of what we’re capable of.

Of course, comparing medieval Europe with Chattanooga of the early 2000s is a stretch. (you should have seen my hilarious early draft that included analogies for the Inquisition and the Plague). We would be well served, however, by revisiting what worked for us in the past. An incomplete list includes things such as: public/private partnership, an emphasis on quality, demand for authenticity, contextually sensitive design, and the recognition of the vital importance of the public realm. It is not possible or advisable to copy exactly what we did before- the city is in a different place and we face different challenges. If my comparison holds, however, then the parties who are responsible for the stewardship, design and development of the city stand on the cusp of a renaissance.



I'm so busy, blah, blah, blah. I don't have time to explore new topics, blah, blah blah. You're tired of reading it, I'm tired of writing it. This week, however, I had it all figured out. We were traveling for a(nother) soccer tournament, and I was set to use that as a jumping off point for a blog post about another city. I have heard many great things about Huntsville, AL. As one of the big four cities in my home state, I was predisposed to believe these things. Growing up in God's Own State, I learned many lessons from my Baba. One such lesson was that if you don't have anything nice to say about something, don't say anything. Keeping that in mind, I offer my thoughts on Huntsville...

On Saturday morning, the youngest and I drove down to Huntsville to rendezvous with the spouse and the oldest who traveled down the night before. While we were there Alabama put on the most dominant display of the college football season. On Sunday we returned to Chattanooga.

Baba taught me a great life lesson, but she did provide much help for my blogging efforts. On the bright side, thankfully my initial blogging idea did not work out as I have something else for you to read. I invited the eminent Trey Wheeler of Cogent Studio to write a guest post for the urbanism space of Benwood's Community Voices. You can find his excellent post here.


Time Tangent

I love Noel Gallagher, and you know this. I must say, however, that he is officially on my shit list. Monday he had a press conference to announce the impending release and pre-sale of his upcoming album…IN MARCH. C’mon man, that’s six months away. Eh, who are we kidding, he knows I’m going to buy it anyway. At least he teased us with the first song.

Moving swiftly on, it’s probably worth reading any article that refers to brunch as “a symptom of the soulless suburban conformity that is relentlessly colonizing our urban environments.” You can find that here.

If you haven’t already, please read K.Fitzgerald’s excellent post on the Benwood site. Less talk, more action, indeed. I will now pile on and take those thoughts on an urban design tangent.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the nature of a city and the current cult of ________ (fill in the blank with your favorite buzzword such as innovation or disruption. By the way, does any one remember paradigm shift or synergy?) The movers and shakers these days are embracing the characteristics of being lighter, quicker, and more nimble. This seems to be a great approach for many things in business and in life. Unfortunately, city building isn’t really one of them.
Clearly, cities cycle over much longer time frames than the activities that occur within them. The innovation buzz will last for a couple of years before we move on to the next paradigm. The city, however, is pushing 200 years old and continues its deliberate, inexorable march into the future. City building is a slow, cumbersome, and tough process. It requires significant capital resources, there exist physical conditions that can’t be ignored, the internal process has many moving parts, and byzantine layers of bureaucracy and legislation regulate the external process. Making any lasting impact on the built environment requires significant effort.

If you will recall, “Creative Placemaking” was all the rage a couple of years ago. The term occasionally pops up, but as with so many other buzz phrases it has been diluted if not neutered. Although they are tough to define as a body of work, the Creative Placemaking projects essentially attempt to impact the city via lighter/quick/nimble projects. While many of these projects have made some impact, the tend to be transient in nature- when the party is over, so is the imapct. The positive activity in the city is great, but the jury is still out on their lasting impact on the built environment (which by definition must be long-term). We expend a great deal of energy on transient urbanistic projects- and this is fine. These projects can be very cool, but don’t mistake a hammock in a street tree for urban design. There is something to be said for temporary measures to address symptoms. The real work, however, is found in fixing the root of the problem.

Inertia is the blessing and curse of the built environment. A city is patient; it outlasts trends and fads. Even American sub-urbs, a “fad” in the long view, came about after determined and decades-long institutionalization of that philosophy (not to mention a gargantuan resource incentives). There is an opportunity to couple the enthusiasm and expertise of the innovation/disruption set with the process of city building. The challenge is to applying that type of thought consistently over a long period.


Wheel of Fortune

The ole C.Rushing blog may be in it's death throes. The author finds it exceedingly difficult to come by those once easy hours of free writing time each week. His goal, however, is to make it to the four year anniversary of the page (January 1), and reassess then. Will he make it? Time will tell.

With minutes left before the weekly deadline, I will acknowledge THE urban design issue of the day. Yes, I speak of the riverfront Ferris Wheel. A group of citizens has made a push to install a Ferris Wheel somewhere on the Chattanooga riverfront. Unsurprisingly, the idea seems to be unpopular with many (just read the comment sections of any of the wheel articles).

I see both sides of the argument. On the positive side it is an active public realm improvement that draws people, action and activity to the city. At best, the wheel can be a beautifully designed piece of engineering. Face it, the wheel is fun, and frankly there can't be too much fun in a city.

On the negative side, a lot can go wrong with this one. As one commenter opined, "Ferris wheels are the world record holders for 'most depressing objects once dilapidated'". Unfortunately, cheap traveling carnivals have stigmatized the noble Ferris wheel. When we think Ferris wheel, it conjures images of such places as Panama City, Gatlinburg, and the Northgate Mall parking lot.

Wheel or no wheel, I love the conversation. A group of non-designers thinking about big design moves that have the ability to change the face of the city. Big ideas, big plans, big thoughts- bring it on! Regardless of whether this happens or not, I hope these types of discussions continue.

So, where do I come down? Hmm, it's a tough call. If I had to pick a side, I would probably roll with The Wheel. Although it's probably more fair to say that I'm in favor of something big, vertical and well-designed at the riverfront. If we do go with a wheel, let's just be sure to think more London Eye than Lake Winnie.

Lest you think that there is no conceivable way that I can connect a Ferris Wheel with Louis Sullivan, think again. The original Ferris Wheel was constructed for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1892. The Beaux-Art veneer of the fair derailed budding American architectural expression, and effectively ended Sullivan's career. Later in life,  Sullivan reflected on the Exposition: "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."


Living the Dream

I’m pulling an O.J. Simpson (the airport running version, not the stabby version), doing my best to net get left in Detroit. After sprinting through the concourse, whisking past the gate, and skipping through the jetway, I was aboard and shuffling through first class. The first face I see is none other than my childhood hero, the Human Highlight Film, Dominique Wilkins. The extent to which I idolized the man in my adolescent years cannot be overstated. I stammered some nonsense, shook his hand, and headed back to my seat. After claiming my spot with the unwashed masses back in coach, I posted a quick, exclamatory tweet and settled in for the flight.

While the Summer of Sullivan is over as far as you are concerned, I am still finishing up a couple of obscure biographies of the man. I whipped out one such book to help pass the time, and dug back in. That’s when I saw it, a most extraordinary and implausible thing. I saw a drawing…of a hotel…by Louis Sullivan…that was to be located in the city of CHATTANOOGA! It was dated 1891, the height of the Adler & Sullivan years. In fact, that was the same year as the Wainwright Building, the first truly originally conceived skyscraper.  Obviously, the Chattanooga project was never built, but oh what could have been. The hope is unspeakable, but the institution that commissioned this work is still in existence...might there by some long lost Sullivan drawings in town?

A Louis Sullivan Design for Chattanooga! Imagine the
composition with a cornice more in league with Wainwright.

The flight landed, and a quick check of my email showed that Dominique Wilkins himself had seen my tweet and responded for the world to see. How sweet is this life. Truth be told, however, this was the second time that I’ve met Dominique.  The first was a random encounter at the finish line of a half-Ironman race I did in Orlando back in 2000. Speaking of triathlon...

My wedding day, the births of my children, and
the day that Dominique Wilkins retweeted me...
The first time 'Nique had the pleasure of meeting me.

And if you thought I would let this Ironman weekend pass without a casual reference to my own Ironman race in 2002, you were mistaken. When the Chattanooga race was announced, I was actually pissed off in a petty, jealous sort of way. Upon further reflection, however, I think the locals that compete in a race miss out on the richness of travel and change of routine that can make an event special. Either way, my congratulations to all of the athletes and volunteers, and apologies for the tacks, oil, and dead bodies (wasn't me). Speaking of traveling for sporting events...

Yes, I did shave my legs for this.
I wasn’t able to catch much of the Chattanooga Ironman as the oldest was playing a soccer tourney in exotic East Ridge. He and his CFC U-10 teammates played up in the U-11 age bracket this week and managed to make the finals. Their opponent was none other than the CFC U-11 squad. It was an exciting and hard fought match that culminated in a penalty shoot-out. Despite an up and down tournament, young Rushing stepped up and coolly scored the deciding spot kick to help secure the upset. It was an exciting and apt conclusion to another week of living the dream.


All Aboard

As the Summer of Sullivan gives way to the first day of fall, the pace of life is speeding up. In addition to my “real job” and related travels, I’m back to teaching (two sections of) Architecture History at UTC, college football is now in full bloom, and at home my two boys are playing four fall sports. I’m also working on a project with some potential- stay tuned. The speeding train that is life continues to barrel down the track. For these reasons, this week, I will be brief.

Speaking of trains, I’m very excited about the potential inherent in the TIGER grant that the city just received. The initial process and potential project are important for a couple of reasons. First, Chattanooga is forever linked to the railroad. Regardless of what role the railroads play in modern Chattanooga, we are forever linked to the rail in the collective memory of the country (and indeed the world). We have all spoken with visitors who want to know if they can ride the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. How sad for them that there is no regularly scheduled train to take if only for nostalgia’s sake. This process certainly has the potential to provide another level of patina for the city, and to provide a connection to our past. 

More importantly, this is an unsurpassed opportunity for reinvesting in our existing urban neighborhoods. The crucial questions are how transit stops are located and how the land around them is developed. This has the potential to be a truly transformative moment for the city. It is a new way to connect employers and employees. It is also a catalyst for the infill of vacant and underutilized property.

So when you read about the TIGER grant, yes it’s about train riding, yes it’s about reclaiming our rail heritage, and yes it carries the baggage of a federal transportation project. It is the underlying potential, however, that is most important.

This potential rail project is not simply about moving people on a train, but it would provide is another choice for getting around town. The promise in this process is not in shunning auto culture in favor of mass transit, but it does represent another didactic example for how to build a healthy city. Indeed this is a transformative economic development opportunity on a grand scale and with it comes the promise of connecting the disadvantaged with opportunity.



I've left it late this week. More travel, more excuses (Seaside this time). I didn't really have time for this trip, but I’m certainly not complaining. Anyway, when mamma calls I pretty much have to show up. How about a follow-up to the Summer of Sullivan post from last week? No profound observations, just a tough question. 

Not conducive to blog writing.

After leaving the graveyard it was back to the Red Line and a trip downtown. I was a bit ahead of schedule and figured that I would go soak up some atmosphere before heading back out to ORD. I was definitely in a Chicago School frame of mind- the Marquette, the Rookery, the Monadnock, The Reliance, Carson Pirie Scott (again). Situated between Root’s Monadnock and Holabird & Roche’s Marquette is a composition by Mies. His two skyscrapers and postal station are organized around a plaza and Dearborn Street.  Y'all know that I love Mies- in fact I paid respects to him at Graceland as well. After soaking up Sullivan all summer, however, I couldn’t help but feel that the space Mies created is bankrupt (in spite of Calder’s flamingo that almost brings life to the space). Perhaps Venturi best summed up my thoughts at the time when he wrote, "less is a bore". Not to worry, I'm sure I'll be back to modernist self in no time.

I've still got love for Mies...
...on this day, however, his space did not move me.

So, naturally, it was off to the pub.  After a murderous day of walking (and it was still only 3:30), the London Pride hit the spot.  At the bottom of the pint glass I decided that I was not going back to Chattanooga. Why in the world would I leave Chicago? The place has the best architecture in America, superb public transit, excellent public spaces, and arguably the best food in the country. It is a city, a friendly and accessible city.

Reliance Building by Burnham & Root.
Nice, but no Sullivan.
The Rookery by Burham & Root.
Nice, but no Sullivan.

After the second pint, I admitted that I couldn't really stay in Chicago. I had class to teach the next day, and I was dying to see the family. As for the bigger question, I'm not sure I could actually live in Chicago. My excuses are numerous: I'm basically unemployable outside of Chattanooga, I abhor cold weather, there is no college football there, and it's not The South. But this does raise another question, one that I have no answer to...

The Marquette by Holabird & Roche.
Mies' plaza in foreground.

The Monadnock by Burham & Root.
Root, a Southerner, checked out at 41.
Way too early, what potential.
If there are things that I value in a city- density, design, activity, transit, food, nightlife- why would I not live in a place with those characteristics? Perhaps more pointedly- should we spend our lives trying to make a place conform to our desires, or should we move to a place that already exhibits those traits? Discuss…


Summer’s Lease Hath All Too Short a Date

Waking up at 5:30 a.m. is not particularly fun. A long day of travel and a late hotel check-in the night before exacerbated the situation. Fortunately, I was in the central time zone, and my biological clock blunted the edge of the early hour. This was to be another long day, but one that I was eagerly anticipating. This was the last day of The Summer of Sullivan.

In early June, I declared this The Summer of Sullivan. In addition to re-reading his excellent books, I embarked on a quest to visit each of his eight “Jewel Boxes”. These were small but exquisite banks that he designed late in his career. These jewels are not easy to come by, however, as they are scattered about in tiny towns in the Midwest. Prior to this day, I had visited seven of them: Cedar Rapids, Grinnell, Algona, Owatonna, West Lafayette, Sidney and Newark.  My journey would be complete with a trip to Columbus, WI.

The drive from Madison to Columbus was easy, and Farmers and Merchants Union Bank did not disappoint. It was very much a variation on the theme, and is definitely cut from the same cloth as the others. It will forever have the distinction of being the last Jewel Box I got to see for the first time. I felt no small sense of accomplishment as I drove away.

Was this the end of The Summer of Sullivan? Not by a long shot. If one drives 3 hours south and east from Columbus, they might find themselves in…

Chicago! Chicago was Louis’ home for most of his career, and home of his most renowned work. To do The Summer justice, I had to go. The drive to ORD was fun and uneventful (less the morning rush as I approached Chicago). I dropped the rental off at the airport, hopped on the Blue Line and rolled in to Monroe Station. From there, a number of Louis’ great works were within walking distance.

The Auditorium Building was the thunderbolt of a project that thrust Louis onto the world architectural scene. The building was commissioned by a wealthy Chicagoan with the premise that a grand auditorium, open and accessible to all, would be just the thing to calm tensions created by the growing wealth disparity that characterized the city in the late nineteenth century. Whether the building was successful in that regard is debatable. What is not debatable is the fact that Dankmar Adler designed an acoustically perfect space, and that his young associate Mr. Sullivan gave the building life and beauty. I arrived at the building in-between tours, and did not have time to wait for the next one. I did the next best thing- I saw the space “Chicago-Style”. I slipped the docent a few bills and moments later found myself on an unofficial, self-guided tour of the building. It was a remarkable space, but obviously not designed for the single visitor. I suspect that it really comes into its own during a performance, and maybe some day I’ll catch one. I paid my respects and hit Michigan Ave.

Frank Lloyd Wright described this as "The greatest room
for music and opera in the world- bar none."

A few blocks north of the Auditorium on Michigan Avenue is the Gage building. It is tall and handsome, and the detail most definitely of Mr. Sullivan. The architects of record were actually Holabird and Roche, but Sullivan did the façade. I snapped a few photos, turned around, gawked at the Millennium Park fountains, and was on my way.

A couple of blocks to the north and west is a mature Sullivan building. The Carson Pirie Scott Building (now occupied by Target of all things) is the last big really big commission that Sullivan got before his life went south. The building represents a quantum leap in American architecture and in Modernism. He is clearly exploiting the structural qualities of the steel in order to open the wall to windows. The building somehow accentuates the vertical and horizontal simultaneously.  What most people notice, however, is the remarkable cast iron detail of the corner and ground floor. Evoking the bounty of harvest, the ornament is a celebration of commerce and the consumer. It is around this time that Henry Desmond wrote for Architectural Record that “Mr. Sullivan occupies today something of the usually isolated position of the prophet, the forerunner, the intensely personal force . . . For let it be understood, Mr. Sullivan is really our only Modernist . . . He has his precedents no doubt, but his mature work . . . is not to be dated from elsewhere either as to time or place. Mr. Sullivan himself is the center of it. He is his own inspiration, and in this sense may be saluted as the first American architect.” After a borderline indecent fondling of the cast-iron, I was off to Jackson Station and the Red Line- destination Clark/Division Station.

I want to hate on the target logo, but can't. From the beginning
this building was about commerce and consumerism.


A fifteen-minute train ride and a half-mile walk landed me on the doorstep of the Charnley House. The house is notable as a leap forward in modern residential architecture. The building is also notable because while Sullivan is the architect of record, an apprentice of his was responsible for much of the design. Young Frank Lloyd Wright would go on to do pretty well for himself. Unfortunately, the building was not open to the public this day, owing to a recent freak flood. Please consider chipping in a few bucks for the effort. I paid my respects, snapped a few pictures, and walked the half-mile back to the station.

I could live here.

From Clark/Division, I continued on the red line, past Wrigley Field, and arrived at Sheridan Station. I had another mile to walk, but stopped to fortify myself at Byron’s. I could go on for days about culinary philosophy as it relates to the hot dog, but in the interest of time I will simply state that Chicago-style hot dogs are the highest form of the art (sorry NY dirty water dogs).

The highest form of the art.

After polishing off a couple of Byron’s finest, I proceeded west along Irving Park Road. Shortly thereafter I arrived at the gates of Graceland Cemetery. I could think of no more fitting end to The Summer than to pay my respects to the man. Before that moment arrived, however, he had a couple of final treats for me.

It’s another half-mile walk from the entry gates to the northeast corner of the cemetery. The long walk past the thousand of souls laid to rest put me in another frame of mind. The grave markers and mausoleums are large and largely well designed. It is Sullivan who designed two of the most impressive. The first I encountered was the Getty Tomb. This is probably to most significant piece of architecture in the cemetery. It is a study in scale, proportion and originality. Completed in 1890, relatively early in his career, this is an indication of what he aspired to do with his life’s work. This is a glimpse of an American architectural future that never was.

A few dozen yards away is the Ryerson Tomb. I’m still trying to figure out how to file this one in my catalog of Sullivan. It has very clear Egyptian allusions (wholly appropriate given their architectural fixation on death and the afterlife) but reinterpreted for this place. It is powerful and striking- unlike anything else in the cemetery. The polished black granite reflects the surrounding landscape, giving it a richness of literal and figurative depth.

The last step in my journey was to find Louis. I knew he was near, but I didn’t have a map. So I started walking. Plot after plot, grave after grave, soul after soul. And there it was.  A large stone block, inscribed with a moving tribute. I knew, however, that this was not his grave but a memorial erected five years after his death. I looked down, and at my feet was a simple headstone, largely obscured by the grass: Louis Henri Sullivan 1858-1924. I cleared back the overgrown grass and dirt, and made a rubbing of his headstone. I told him about my journey, thanked him for his work, and left him my prismacolors. He died broke and alone as his modest grave attests. It was only some years later that the larger monument to the man was created. I returned my attention to the monument and walked around to the side opposite the inscription. On this face of the stone is a bronze plaque of Sullivanesque detail and a bust in profile. It is tradition for visitors to wedge pennies in the plaque in remembrance of the man who died penniless. I added my penny to the others and took one last pause. Yes, I shed a few tears. Not necessarily mourning for Mr. Sullivan (who died almost fifty years before I was born), but for myself. I experienced the same melancholy that one encounters after finishing a great book. My life is richer for The Summer of Sullivan, but I know that I will never again be able to experience these things for the first time.

I have worked hard on my writing skills over the past four years, and I’m getting better. My attempts to adequately describe Mr. Sullivan and this wonderful summer, however, ended in failure. I find that there are no more appropriate words to close this chapter than those inscribed on his monument:

By his buildings great in influence and power; his drawings unsurpassed in originality and beauty; his writings rich in poetry and prophesy; his teachings persuasive and eloquent; his philosophy wherein "form follows function", he summed up all truth in art. Sullivan has earned his place as one of the greatest architectural forces in America. In testimony of this, his professional and other friends have built this monument.

And with that the Summer of Sullivan ended. I turned and went home to Chattanooga.


I'm No Elvis (I Hope)

Competition is in the air. The Premier League kicks off today, select soccer has kicked off for my oldest, the youngest starts soon, and of course Alabama kicks of in 336 hours. As for me, my writing time this week has been consumed by a design competition. I’ve heard ample grousing amongst the natives about this particular contest: Are the requirements for this competition excessive and onerous? Does the challenging site beg the question of whether or not it should even be developed? Is opening a competition for a small site in North Chattanooga to designers in (effectively) all of the major cities in the South (as opposed to showcasing and cultivating local talent) good for Chattanooga? The questions are moot.

When there is a competition in one’s own town (and in my case, immediately next to one’s own project), one must respond. Would I like to win? Sure. But more than that, I don’t want someone from Atlanta, Nashville, or Birmingham to come steal our biscuit. So, this week I’m sending out positive vibes to all of my brother and sister designers in Chattanoogan- play up ya’ll! We must protect this house!

On a more macabre note, I just read something rather unsettling. Elvis died on this day in 1977. That summer he played his last four shows in Des Moines, Madison, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis before returning to Tennessee to die aged 42. As fate would have it, this summer I've been to Des Moines, Madison, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis, and turned 42… Note to self: steer clear of  codeine, Valium, and morphine in the bathroom.


I Need a Vacation

To get the cliché out of the way: after having been on vacation last week, I now need a vacation. In fairness, international travel with the boys was easier than I thought it would be. Blog ideas have always come easily during vacations over the past few years. Not so this year. In fact, during my stay I was moved by the feeling that urban design doesn’t really matter. That impression was alternately influenced by sand and sun, Imperial and cachaca, city and slum.

Call it a sign when the local beer has your initials on it.

Costa Rica is an exceedingly beautiful place. The friendliness and hospitality of the Ticos rivals that of the South. Compared to many of their Central American neighbors, Costa Rica is a fairly prosperous place. That said, it is clear that life is tough for many of the people who live there. I spent some time with one of the locals in Quepos. It is dense, walkable, full of stores, and served by many transit options. We rightfully tout density, walkability, transit, and local economy as things we should aspire to. Based on what I saw there however, these things alone do not necessarily make a prosperous place (an opinion shared by my Costa Rican friend). If these aspirations do not always produce desired results, why do we cling to them as gospel? What’s the point?

I will stop short of calling this crisis in confidence in my chosen profession. The experience did, however, serve as a reminder that it easy to slip into a blind embrace of dogma. It is good to continually question what we do and why we do it. There is, no doubt, a deeper and more profound post that can be drawn from my trip, but it will have to wait. I’m knackered and my brain hasn’t fully reengaged. With August upon us, the Summer of Sullivan is drawing to a close, and we have much ground to cover yet…

That pretty well sums it up.

A Tale of Two Cities

As I mentioned last week, the Jewel Boxes are like siblings. As such, comparisons between them are unfair and difficult. This week, however, I will do just such a thing (but the comparison is more about the communities than the buildings). In one case, the building has been recognized as a jewel, and new life has been breathed into it. In the other, the building languishes in a purgatory of obscurity.

I wasn’t particularly keen on visiting The Peoples Savings Bank in Cedar Rapids. It doesn’t follow the formal recipe of the other banks, and none of the photos I came across moved me. The building was severely damaged in a flood a few years ago, and my understanding was that its future was uncertain. All of this is to say that I did not have high hopes. 

I was delighted to find that the building has been lovingly restored, and is now occupied by a serviceable restaurant. Would I have done the interior different than the restaurant has? Definitely. The space is now active, animated, and loved, however, so I won’t quibble over details. The main takeaway is that the building is valued, cherished and is actively used. Bravo and thank you to the people of Cedar Rapids.

The signage on the building makes me wince, but could be worse.
(Flying donuts? JK- no hate mail)

I did not have a preconceived opinion about the Purdue State Bank building. At first glance, it was another beautiful work by our genius. A bit of scrutiny, however, shows that the people of West Lafayette have been naughty indeed. The building is on a triangular site, and the original entrance was at the acute angle. At some point, the entry was removed, and an ATM machine now occupies the position of privilege at the corner of State and South streets. After navigating my way through security guards and desk jockeys to get to the interior, I found that it has been expertly disguised as a sterile 1960’s office cubicle (albeit one used purely for storage with nary a human to be found). This is an example of a community that has abdicated its responsibility as steward of their built environment. I have a hard time believing that the callous treatment of such a thing can stand. On the bright side, the building is still standing, and awaits a bit of TLC in the future. As all things in life eventually boil down to college football- I am now a fervent foe of the Purdue Boilermakers (almost to the point of hoping that Michigan beats them…almost).

ATM in place of entry. Terrible. Awful. Terribly awful.

The stained glass has been scavenged.

Words fail me.