So there I was, on the wintry plains of Iowa, staring down the gaping maw of a polar vortex. Being as I am, physically and emotionally unequipped to deal with such things, the battle was fierce. Yet as Gandalf emerged from his battle with the fiery balrog, I too was victorious and came through the other side a changed man. Which is to say that it was cold last week. It would not have been difficult to pick out the southerner in that scene- he being the one walking through a foot of snow in suede loafers and cotton blazer. Looking fierce I must say, but not looking too smart. Next time I'll check the weather before I leave. I dislike the cold and I’m always sad to leave the family, but travel is a necessary part of what I do as the out of town consultant for other cities.
Cities or other institutions in search of guidance or assistance often reach out to individuals or firms with expertise in dealing with a particular challenge. For a variety of reasons the search often leads to out-of-towners. Sometimes that specialized expertise is not available in the community, sometimes a fresh perspective is needed, and sometimes the local pool simply lacks the capability to do a job. For better or worse, there is cache with bringing in an outside consultant for a process as opposed to using someone local. As the good book says “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house”. (I have no idea what kind of honor I have, and I’m certainly no prophet- perhaps this explains why I have been fortunate enough to work on a number of projects in Chattanooga to supplement my out of town work). In any event, hiring an out-of-towner is a thing, and one for which I am grateful.
While the benefits of bringing in consultants are many, their Achilles heel is in their very nature- they are from out-of-town. More often than not, they lack a deep understanding of existing physical conditions, they are often unfamiliar with local players and processes, and are new to the political climate. Those of us who are worth our salt expend a great deal of effort to address those issues on the front end. The fact is that the “experts” on a community are the ones that live there- not the guy who shows up for a 6-month process. Depending on the work, a consultant has at most a few months to do inventory and analysis work- often having to start from scratch. Fortunately for the consultants who worked in Chattanooga over the past few decades, that was not the case.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that one my laments for the passing of the old design studio was that we lost necessary long-term institutional memory. That is but one of a wide variety of necessary roles in the community that now go unfulfilled. (For the record, design review is the very least of these and the one thing that studio never did well). One of the great unsung stories of the studio was the role of working with out-of-town consultants.
The Design Studio was not shy about bringing in outside expertise, and they had the confidence to bring in the best (it is not uncommon for the self-conscious to shy away from good designers in order to either control the process themselves or claim more credit). The list of consultants they worked with is a virtual who’s who of the profession: Carr Lynch Associates, SITE, Pettersen+Littenberg, Koetter Kim & Associates, Dover, Kohl & Partners, Calthorpe Associates, William McDonough, and Hargreaves Associates to name but a few. All of those firms did fantastic work here, with the common thread of the design studio as partner/client. Those consultants were able to do very high level work because the design studio demanded it and facilitated it. The studio was a resource to the consultant- providing a framework within which each consultant could operate, providing on-the-ground perspective on site conditions and political circumstances. The consultants that came here had the benefit of years of design investigation at a variety of scales, and a larger contextual framework for how their work fit into the overarching vision of the community.
In my experience, good clients make good consultants. The design studio was a great client – they knew how to frame the work, knew the right questions to ask, and enabled the consultants to perform at a high level. There was genius at the studio that pushed consultants to exceed their own high standards. As you may imagine, that didn’t always go over so well, but it produced results. As I was pulling together the retrospective, I came across a letter with a note about Stroud (and by extension, the Studio) that stuck with me “I have seen him perform with a wide range of architects locally, nationally, and internationally; the better they are, the more respect they have for him”. Having a client that can pull/push a consultant as a project dictates results in a creative tension that produces the best results.
Having an urban design institution with years (if not decades) of experience in the city was a tremendous resource. The result was a community that got the most out every consultant that came here. Their success here made them better, and we were the beneficiaries. As we continue to draft our laundry list of urban design process deficiencies, let’s add the lack of an institutional framework for engaging, managing and pushing consultants to perform exceptional work in our community.