On the Edge

It hasn’t been cold enough for me in Chattanooga. By the time you read this, I will be in a land where the high temperature of the day will be zero. Zero (0), zip, nada, nothing. There are no degrees. It might be cold outdoors, but we’ll make it hot inside with some riverfront and downtown planning fire. I’m excited about the work and as it starts to take shape, I’ll be sure to share. In the meantime, be thankful for the balmy weather in the Scenic City.

My thoughts have been scattered this week, and that has manifest itself in the form of three half-written posts for this week. Good new for the future, bad news for today. In absence of original thought, I will point you in another direction.

This week, as I was talking over a potential project, I was reminded of a reading I was assigned in college. (Remembering any reading from my undergraduate days attests to its substance). Edgier Cities was an article written by Joel Garreau as a follow-up to his seminal book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier. The article describes the author’s vision for how the sub-urbs might evolve over the next three generations. I have a vivid recollection of the handout- a dog-eared, three-pager with the telltale illegible graphics and barely legible text of photocopies that have been photocopied one too many times. I have an equally vivid recollection of one of the passages in the article regarding the bohemian reinhabitation of an abandoned strip center:

“on the land no longer needed for parking, the artists muse over why that parking lot is so ugly, and they do something about it ... In the parking lot they plant trees and vegetable gardens and erect sculptures, paintings, band shells, tot lots, playgrounds, volleyball courts with imported sand, and farmers markets. Whenever a pothole emerges, it is seen as an opportunity to create a garden... The artists go to the great trouble of digging up the old drainage-system pipes. Now storm water flows on the surface, in the form of streams and marshes”

The article is now twenty years old, and of course has not perfectly predicted the future. Some of the article, however, rings true in an “Occupy” sort of way. In any event, you should go here to read it. Enjoy!


Things That Make You Go Hmmm

I’ve spent the past few weeks writing about Alabama football, travel, and family. Thanks for indulging me. I will reward your patience by getting back on topic. Before I jump into the issue du jour, however, I feel compelled to comment on another piece of local news.

You have no doubt heard about the cyclist who was allegedly harassed and attacked in Marion County. If the allegations prove to be true, that is a disgraceful and evil act, and hopefully justice will be served. As that story evolved over the course of the week from Facebook post, to local news story, to national media event, something else occurred to me. One cyclist got shot in the mouth with pepper spray, but lived to tell his story. This story has run all over the place. At the same time, Chattanoogans are getting shot with bullets and dying. Those stories come and go with little fanfare. That is, as Arsenio Hall once said, a “thing that makes you go hmm”. Moving swiftly on to things I better understand…

In the realms of urbanism, design and planning, things in our humble burg seem to be popping off. Below is a list of plans, projects, and initiatives currently underway in downtown and the surrounding urban neighborhoods. These are all big, district-scaled works, there are plenty of other things going on out there, so if I forgot to list one that you feel is important, please accept my apologies for the oversight. In the meantime, witness:

Center City
With the help of a handsome and talented consultant team, the River City Company has just completed The Center City Plan. A product of months of stakeholder meetings and a week-long charrette, the plan makes specific recommendations for the provision of new housing, the re-imagining of Miller Park and Patten Parkway, sustainable infrastructure projects, and the creation of a more balanced transportation system. Before the plan was completed, the city used our narrative and renderings as the basis for a grant application for the city’s first protected bike lanes on Broad Street. I suspect that in short order we will hear another couple of big announcements- keep yours ears on.

St. Elmo

CNE is about to undertake an even more robust plan for St. Elmo. The goal of the plan is to “bolster its downtown businesses and attractions, attract new housing opportunities and promote a pedestrian and bike friendly atmosphere.” If you want to get involved, the charrette starts at 6:30 on Thursday at the South Chattanooga Recreation Center.

U.S. Pipe/Wheland Foundry

This potential project, which has been harried by the recession, appears to be back on. You may recall that several years ago a $1 billion plan (that’s billion with a B) was drafted for the development of those 140 acres. It looks like they are now ready to move on the first piece of that project which comprises 2 acres of mixed-use development near Broad Street.

Glass Street

As you well know, an intrepid group of young people have taken on the revitalization of a portion of East Chattanooga. The group has been humming along with projects and events and is now offering a program to fill vacant storefronts with resident artists.

Harriett Tubman

Just down the street from the Glass House crew is the Harriett Tubman site. This vacant, former housing project was in the news this week as the CHA board declined to extend a deadline for private acquisition of the property. The City has indicated that it is interested in acquiring the site and redeveloping it for industrial use. Whatever the use, 35 acres of new development is a substantial project.

M.L. King

Word on the street is that the time has come for the M.L. King district. I suspect that with UTC bursting at the seams, big projects coming online, and some small businesses doing well, the district will become a focus of a push to get it “over the hump”. As we all know, there is tremendous opportunity on the Boulevard, there is space to make an impact, and some small projects are already proving the market.


If you believe what you read in the papers, this will be a big year for the forgotten side of downtown. On one end of the spectrum, a $40 million mixed-use, riverfront development is slated for construction this year. On the other end, time might be up for College Hill Courts. This, of course, has very real human implications in addition to the obvious economic ones.

Our friends at UNUM have indicated that they are considering the future of their property. Who knows what that investigation will produce, but whatever it is will be important. Rest assured that the development of six contiguous vacant city blocks nestled between the riverfront and the city center will have a massive impact on the city.

What then, does all of this activity portend? I believe that each of those plans and projects are worthy endeavors. Considered on a project-by-project basis, they all seem feasible. The reality, however, is that they do not exist in a vacuum. The players in each of those projects are playing in the same small sandbox, and their fortunes will definitely affect one another. They will be competing with each other (and other neighborhoods in the city) for homeowners, renters, restaurants, employers and employees. The community has a finite pool of resources. Those resources include quantifiable things such as government funds, non-profit funds, new homebuyers, business start-ups, and consumers. We also have a finite pool of the less tangible resources such as focus, energy, buzz, and effort. All of this activity is very exciting, but it begs the question of whether or not we have the capacity to divide our finite resources by eight (plus everything else going on in town) and still make the type of impact that is required to spark revitalization in each of those places. That is a serious question that we will have to grapple with, but I suppose having too much going on is a good problem-  it certainly beats the alternative.


The Pachuta Connection

Please allow me to state the obvious- urban design in Chattanooga is a niche topic. Trying to keep things fresh after three years and 149 posts can be a challenge. At a loss for what to write about this morning, I collared my oldest as he walked by and pressed him for a topic. The boy is gifted, but if not prompted he has a one-track mind (that one track being sport). “Why don’t you write about our trip to the Sugar Bowl?” was his inevitable reply. There is, of course, no way in hell I’m writing another post about college football after the events of the past eight weeks (I just need a little time, that's all). No father wants to disappoint his son, however, so this week I’ll draw on a detour we took while on our trip.

My PaPa and BaBa grew up just outside of a tiny town called Quitman, which is outside of a small town called Meridian, which is in rural eastern Mississippi. As men of his generation did, he joined the military and the two of them traveled globe and country before settling in Montgomery. No matter where PaPa and BaBa happened to be, however, their home was in Mississippi. Whenever they any spare time, they traveled back to see their brothers and sisters in the country. After PaPa passed, Baba continued the practice and brought me along. I hated most of those trips. I was far more interested in the comforts of the “city” (the metropolis of sub-urban Montgomery), than roaming the back forty of the family land (Pahcuta, MS makes the sub-urbs of Montgomery look like Times Sqaure). In hindsight, however, there was no more carefree time than that spent wandering the woods alone, whittling spears out of pine limbs, and chucking dirt clods at my brothers. (My claim to fame in the extended family was that in addition to being Luke's grandson, I was the little angel who shot out the lights in Uncle Dave's barn with a bb gun.)

Big Luke, rocking the fez in front of Khafre's pyramid.

One of the tragedies of my life is that I never had the chance to know Luke Britton. He was, by all accounts, a great man- kind, generous, loving, unselfish, and a man of principle. I’ve never heard anyone speak an ill word of him. While he had the great fortune of meeting me, I was too young to have any recollection of him.  He was, however, a constant presence in our lives. Big Luke’s name and memory was always in the air. A constant about PaPa is that whenever the family talked about him, they also talked about his connection to a place. Pretty much any time BaBa talked about PaPa, the story ended with a discussion of “the land”. Somewhere along the line, PaPa bought a hundred acres near where he grew up. His unfulfilled dream was to eventually move back to the land that he dubbed the Rockin’ B. People who live off of the land tend to have a special connection to it, and this was certainly the case for Luke. The land had significance for him because it was a symbol of home and family no matter where in the world he happened to be. After his passing, that land took on added significance.

BaBa, having been raised in the country as well, held the same deep-seated connection to land as Luke did. That particular land, however, evolved into a tangible representation of the man that she loved and lost. For my Mom, who is decidedly not about a subsistence-based connection to the land, the land is a symbol and a memory of her father. My two (decidedly less handsome) brothers and I have been told of the significance of the land our whole lives, and in a sense, the place has taken on an almost mythic quality. Because the land was originally important to Luke, it has become important to us all.

As the boy and I were driving back from New Orleans after the game, it occurred to me that we should make a detour and let him see the land for the first time. Taking my oldest child to see our ancestral homeland, a place deeply imbued with meaning is a significant life event for us both. In a more romantic world, that event would have involved a fly-over by an eagle, a glimpse of a deer, or the sweet smell of the pine forest. As it is, my recollection is that I really needed to relieve myself, I had an Icebreaker stuck in one of my teeth, and the boy was in some discomfort after rubbing his nose with fingers dirtied with Golden Flake Louisiana Hot Sauce Pork Skins (don’t tell his Mom, but we indulge in such things during football trips). We didn’t hear angels or trumpets, or see anything spectacular. The visit was, dare I say, boring. In the process of writing this post, however, I discovered a jewel in that little excursion.

This was the first time I have been back to the land since Baba passed, and I saw the place in a slightly different light. It’s a fine piece of land, mostly flat pine forest with a lazy creek that runs through it. From an objective standpoint, however, I realized that it’s not exceptionally unique or beautiful. My brothers and I (living in Aspen, Athens, and Chattanooga) could easily find a piece of land that is more dramatic, idyllic, or productive. We would not, however, be able to find any place more valuable. That observation led me to a fundamental truth- a place is only as important as people deem it to be. That is as true for downtown Chattanooga as it is for land in rural Mississippi.

Architecture and urban design in our city only matter when people believe that downtown is important- the greater our belief, the greater the importance. Our downtown sucked in the sixties and seventies because few people cared about it. Our turnaround was only achieved after the community rallied around the concept that downtown was a special place. While we stress the importance of design, the more fundamental task is nurturing the concept that the places where people live/work/play are important.

By observing the family's reverence for a  mans connection to the land, I've been learning a lesson subconsciously for forty years: places have no inherent value, they only become important when people give them meaning. It is quite possible (and perhaps probable) that my career spent working in the physical environment is a direct product of Luke Britton’s love for a piece of land in rural Mississippi. What a jewel- a gift from a grandfather I never knew, that took me four decades to see.


All Roads Lead From Rome - Part III

It seems that the trip to Rome, which capped a year of incessant travel, did not slake my wanderlust. Last week I whisked my oldest away for his first trip to New Orleans and the Sugar Bowl. He was probably too wrapped up in thoughts of the game to appreciate the city, but hopefully he soaked up some urbanism via osmosis. The game itself was shite, but The OU fans were (for the most part) good-natured, I got to break out the houndstooth pants, and managed to avoid getting all kicky. Yeah. Moving swiftly on, I offer the last of my observations from my trip to Rome- architecture. Please accept my apologies for the quality of the photos. Unfortunately, I was incapable of capturing the spirit of any of these masterpieces.

People devote their entire careers to analyzing the architecture of Rome. In a thousand words I won’t be able to begin to begin to scratch the surface. I will be content with sharing a few thoughts on the things that moved me. The common thread (which is tenuous in places) is a connection with either Bernini or Borromini. Earlier this summer I read the excellent book The Genius in the Design, which chronicled the bitter rivalry between Borromini and Bernini. While Bernini was indeed a prodigious talent, I found myself drawn more to Borromini. I was anxious to see if would still feel that way after experiencing their built work. As an aside, I hope it’s not a bad sign that in the past six months I’ve been fixated on two tortured souls. I’m absolutely fascinated with both Louis Sullivan, who died a bitter man, penniless, alone and with no clients, and Borromini who after alienating his friends and clients, went loony and ran himself through with a sword.

San Carlo Alle Quattro Fontane

This is one of Borromini’s masterworks and the one building in Rome that I was most looking forward to seeing. It did not disappoint. I was, in fact, moved to tears. As advertised, the building is tiny, but no less impressive for it. This was not the grandest space we saw, nor was it the most modest, but God was in that place. It is rare that the genuine physical article surpasses expectations bred of imagination and anticipation, but oh the joy of experiencing those moments.

Sant’Andrea Al Quirinale

This was the Bernini building that I was most looking forward to. Unfortunately for me, the interior was closed for restoration. I can’t blame Bernini, but this building held his best chance to win me over.

S. Ivo Della Sapienza 
This Borromini building had a profound effect on me. The church is only open once a week, for Mass on Sundays. The four-day wait to see the interior added an element of delayed gratification. The exterior, however, was more accessible. S. Ivo was a couple of blocks or away from our hotel, and we had a great view of the unique spiral lantern from our balcony. The approach to the church is open, and starts with a normal door in a rather normal building fa├žade opening into a two-story, colonnaded cloister (designed by della Porta).  That Sunday morning, I woke up bright and early, put on my Sunday best and walked by myself to the church. The weather was perfect- sunny, crisp and clear. Having arrived early, I was gifted a few moments to sit and reflect. When the doors were opened, I had the place to myself. I passed through della Porta’s cloister and into Borromini’s sacred space. Sacred is the best description I can offer. It is one of those places that makes you feel. It is a place of adjectives- awe, wonder, quiet, power, love. Out of respect for the parishioners who would soon arrive for worship, I did not tarry. But I will never forget the few minutes I had alone in Sant’Ivo.

Il Gesu

As the first full-blown Baroque church, I pretty much had to go see Il Gesu. Was I particularly excited about the work of Vignola and della Porta? Eh, not really. It was, however, a very pleasant surprise. It is exactly what you think a Baroque church would be- effusive, ebullient, and over-the-top. Normally, that stuff doesn’t move me, but there was no denying the force of this work. The ceiling fresco is absolutely stunning and is one of the most memorable surprises of the trip. The link to Bernini/Borromini is tenuous at best – Bernini sculpted a bust in the presbytery.
St. Peter’s Basilica

With respect to the Rose Bowl, this is the Granddaddy of them all. This is the biggest and grandest  church in the world. It is undeniably impressive, and adjectives don’t do it justice. It’s impossible not to be moved this remarkable edifice.  As impressive as the structure is, I am enthralled by the history of its construction. Over the course of 160 years, the plan was conceived by Bramante, fiddled with by lesser minds, rectified by Michelangelo, carried on by della Porta, (unfortunately) extended by Maderno, and tricked out by Bernini (with the help of one Francesco Borromini). This is a truly fascinating story about the relationships between architects, other architects, their clients (Popes), and how projects evolve over time. If you don’t know it, treat yourself.

Hmm, would we rather see Maderno's facade or
Michelangelo's dome?
Don't let the picture fool you. At 98'
The baldacchino is as tall our
Aquarium's Ocean Journey.
How big is it? If you stacked the Suntrust
Building on top of the Volunteer Building,
they would both fit under St. Peter's dome.
(With 2 feet to spare)
The Pantheon

This building is 1,888 years old. One thousand eight hundred and eighty eight years old. It was originally a tribute to seven Roman gods, but was later converted to a Christian church. This conversion was fortunate for us, since it meant that the interior was never looted and remains much the same as it was 1,888 years ago (that’s almost two millennia to you and me). However, bronze from the portico was stripped, melted and used for the baldachin at St. Peter’s (yes, the same baldachin on which Bernini and Borromini collaborated). The Pantheon is truly remarkable. As it was on the doorstep of the hotel, it served as a constant backdrop for the trip. I enjoyed this building immensely.
That would be the largest un-reinforced
concrete dome ever created.
The buildings listed in this post are some of my favorites, but they only begin to describe the great buildings we saw. Notable omissions include Santa Maria Della Pace, Santa Maria Maggiore, Sant’Agnese in Agone, Oratorio dei Filippini, S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, the Tempietto, and all of the ancient works.
As if I wasn't going to drop some
Tempietto on you.
As for the dueling B’s, I found that the work of Borromini moved me to a far greater extent than his rival. Bernini’s built work is too “safe” and static for my tastes. That said, his sculptural work is absolutely breathtaking. In fact, his Apollo and Daphne at the Borghese may be the greatest sculptural work I have ever seen (but, it’s tough to say that after having also seen his David and The Rape of Prosepina in the same gallery).

Have a great week. Next week, hopefully we’ll get back to issues closer to home.