Six Degrees of Sullivan

Despite the fact that this is my Summer of Sullivan, I have failed to mention the man for the last two weeks. Today, I will do my best to weave him into a Chattanooga narrative, “six degrees of separation” style.

Ah, summer at last! I got a late start as I don't officially mark the beginning until my summer teaching gig is up. Aside from my work as a consultant, I’m an adjunct at UTC where I teach Introduction to Architecture (essentially an architecture history survey) in the Interior Design department. The life of an adjunct is not an easy one, but teaching is one of the great joys of my professional life. The purpose of the class is to introduce non-majors to concepts of architecture, to the evolution of the built environment, and to notable buildings and their designers. One of the great things about teaching this class is that I’m constantly reminded of the role that time plays in architecture and in our cities. The other benefit is that lecturing about what makes buildings great is making me a better critic (and perhaps a better designer, but that’s debatable).

While we’re on the topics of UTC and architecture, the office building that the university acquired from the State has been in the news recently. It appears that the National Trust has decided that this one of the nation’s top ten endangered buildings. (Yes, I’m going there. Please note that this is two weeks on the trot that I am writing about controversial community issues. Let’s just hope that this week’s hate mail is less asinine than last). You might ask: How in the world will he connect UTC and the current controversy regarding the state office building with Louis Sullivan? Well, sit right back and watch in awe as I weave this masterful six-degree tapestry of connection (or something like that).

The watershed event in Sullivan's career was the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Not only was this was a pivotal point in Sullivan's career, but in American architecture as well. Sullivan was an ardent voice that the exposition was the opportunity to create something special- an opportunity to showcase a uniquely American architecture. Unfortunately, Daniel Burnham, the HMFIC, was of a different mind. It was decided that all of the buildings in the exhibition would be designed in the Beaux Arts style. This was imminently more doable, as that style was essentially a common language among the architects selected to participate. In our big moment on stage, we tried to show the Europeans how cultured and refined we were by designing buildings that looked European. Ironically, the only building that received European acclaim was the only building that wasn't Beaux Arts- Sullivan's Transportation Building (aka, the Golden Door).

At that time, the preeminent American Beaux Arts designers were also the first big architecture firm in the country- McKim, Mead and White. They designed the Agricultural Building for the Columbian Exposition. The firm was incredibly prolific, and count among their master works the Boston Public Library and Rhode Island State Capitol. Perhaps heir most famous building, however, was New York City's Pennsylvania Station.

Penn Station was built in 1910 on two blocks in a hard to define neighborhood in Manhattan (let’s call it GarmentDistrictChelseaMidtownWest). The handsome building was considered an architectural jewel. In time however, this grand dame of a station lost some of her luster. With the rise of the automobile, the decline in rail traffic, and exorbitant maintenance costs, the station was considered by many to be obsolete. In this age of Urban Renewal, a proposal was made to modernize the station by razing the existing building, moving the station underground, and constructing a modern events venue (Madison Square Garden). A number of concerned architects and citizens fought valiantly to save the station, but with no legal recourse, the city and developers were free to act as they deemed fit. The historic station building was demolished in 1963.

While the preservationists lost this battle, Penn Station became a rallying point and the groundswell of support for the protection of historic buildings gained momentum. This momentum eventually led to the creation of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. This act enabled the National Register of Historic Places- an official list of buildings that the government deems worthy of preservation. To be nominated for the register, a building must be at least 50 years old, and have some form of significance in one of the categories of event, person, design/construction, or information potential. The register is largely symbolic, but it does provide the mechanism for some financial incentives. The National Historic Preservation Act serves to bolster the efforts of preservation groups such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has to come to Chattanooga to tell us that UTC’s  State office building is one of America’s Top Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places. Thus  connecting our cast of characters in six degrees: Sullivan > White City > McKim, Mead, White > Penn Station > historic preservation > National Trust for Historic Preservation > UTC/Chattanooga/State Building. Thank you very much.

That connection made, I offer my two cents:

Does the fact that State building has survived for sixty years mean that it should remain in perpetuity? One perspective gained in teaching is that sixty years is a blink of the eye in architecture. Many of the great buildings in the world took more than sixty years to construct! The building is handsome enough, and its footprint has some density (which is unfortunately offset by the surface parking lot). The stone on the base of the building is nice. Aside from those two concerns, however, the most compelling argument for saving the building is that it is sixty years old. I have a hard time accepting that a building should be saved simply because it is “old”, when “old” is younger than half of the people I know.

Is there anything architecturally significant about the State building? The stone on the base is nice, and the relief above the door is nice. The building as composed, however, is decidedly ordinary. It is not a particularly good example of its Deco style. The structure is not innovative or creative. It was not the scene of any historic occurrence (other than being the place where I once filed for an LLC). It is not associated with anyone famous. Despite the claim from the Trust, I don’t think it is considered a “showpiece in Chattanooga’s skyline”. That is to say I'm not totally convinced that saving the building at all costs should be a forgone conclusion.

The question of whether the building should be saved is more pragmatic: what happens to the site if the building is removed? Determining whether or not it makes sense to lose the building hinges on what the trade is. I have it on good authority that the University had a hard look at retrofitting the building to accommodate residential use. I understand that structure and the dimensional layout precludes that possibility. The fact that some buildings built in the last century do not lend themselves to adaptation is sad but true.

Regardless of whether or not the building is razed, the community should hold the university accountable for the prudent stewardship of the site. The site should be no less dense that it currently is, the level of quality of whatever is built should match or surpass that of the current building (none of that EIFS dorm bullshit), whatever is developed should make a positive contribution to the community, and those sumptuous materials should be salvaged and reused in a way that is of visible benefit to the community.

To be clear, I am not necessarily advocating for the demolition of the State building. I do not believe we should go around indiscriminately demolishing buildings. I am, however, open the possibility that demolition and redevelopment could produce a better result for both our University and our community. The subject should be open to debate- and in that process we shouldn’t let any person or institution in our community be bullied by outsiders from D.C. (That said, we should totally beg, plead, cajole or coerce the folks in Tallahassee and Cincinnati to keep their buildings.)


Donut Tread on Me

This week, I got several calls from some people I love and respect regarding the donut mural. I suspect my response to their questions regarding the evil sign ordinance surprised them- I played devil’s advocate. This may be a result of my inner rebel not wanting to go along with the crowd, or perhaps it's my inner level wanting to bring a question into balance. Since everyone else is talking about it, I guess I'll pile on.

The sign ordinance was crafted in an attempt to keep the city from turning into one big Brainerd Road, and it has been moderately successful for the past decade or so. While I wasn't one of the principals, I remember that a lot of effort was expended to get the ordinance in place (not to mention tussles with the sign company lobby and narrow-minded elected officials). Lord knows I never suffered the sign ordinance folks gladly, but they are doing their (thankless) job. Just remember that many of those up in arms about the overreach of the sign ordinance, would be the first to petition the city for tighter controls if Uncle Bob’s Storage did the same thing.

The donut mural may be a slight improvement over the blank wall, but I agree with the enforcement officer that it violates the current ordinance. My fear is that the controversy over this work will lead to a change in the ordinance which will lead in turn to unintended negative consequences. What might those be? How about a building-sized portrait of a divorce lawyer? (tastefully done of course). How about avant garde photography of the interior of a storage unit? How about the idea that Bystander beat me too? If you believe in the freedom of enormous and exuberant expression, then you must be prepared to accept that right for all. We can’t selectively enforce the law based on our artistic sensibilities.

Maybe I’m missing the point. Do you think this groundswell of outrage is a sign that the community is ready for the City to take a hands-off approach to the regulation of design in the built environment? Are we willing to accept the works of pawn shops/attorneys/carwashes in exchange for our murals? Shall we channel our inner Venturi and embrace Learning From Las Vegas.

That said, this whole affair is bullshit. I just can’t get myself fired up about it. The spectacle is ridiculous. The sheer number of news articles, Facebook posts, and petitions over this “issue” are astounding. If you’re not familiar with it, you can read about it here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. If that’s not enough, please follow @savedonutscha on Twitter (seriously).

A Brief Aside: “Don’t Koch Block Public Art” was a mildly humorous hashtag, but taking it out of the virtual world and posting yard signs all over Main Street is pretty weak. I’m no prude, but I wasn't quite ready to explain to my five and nine year old why "Koch Block" is supposedly funny. While this might be expected on the internet, can we not at least try to be decent in public?

If one considers a community that is focused on debating murals, back-yard chickens, and recalling elected officials, one might come to the conclusion that they have no serious problems. A city like that wouldn’t have bigger issues such as providing decent housing for the citizenry, providing a school system that doesn’t require a lottery (or $23k a year) for a decent education, or dealing with weekly shootings. Right?

What is more important? A mural on a wall, or the lives of our young people.  In the short time we've been up in arms over donut murals this, this, this, and this have happened. How many petitions and yard signs and newspapers articles and Facebook posts and Tweets do you think they will spark? I love the enthusiasm in our community, I just wish we would align our energies with serious issues.

While we're on the topic of offensive pastel painting...
I had a great little walk with the family through Stringer's Ridge this weekend. The view from the observation platform is ALMOST perfect:

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?


Dear Bear, Please Forgive Me

I had one of the most Fatherly of Father’s Day in the short history of the holiday. I awoke to breakfast in bed, stayed in bed to watch Sportscenter with the boys, stayed in bed to write the body of this post, went to the golf course and simulated the back nine at Augusta on the driving range (-11 with a hole-in-one at 12), had lunch at the deli with the family, spent 1/3 of the afternoon playing basketball with the oldest, spent 1/3 of the afternoon building a Lego city with the youngest, brewed some homemade root beer (ingredients: sassafras root, brown sugar, water, yeast), regripped my golf clubs (simultaneously harder and easier than I anticipated), drank German beer, drank French Champagne, grilled pork, watched World Cup soccer, and watched the last game of the NBA finals. Definitely not ready for Monday, but here we are.

Earlier this week I had the honor and privilege to return to my graduate school alma matter, Auburn University. Through some form of oversight, I was asked to participate in a task force to talk about the future of the planning program. It was a slightly awkward proposition as the five other task force members were very sharp people from all across the country. I can only surmise that I was included because of my good looks and/or college football knowledge. Our task over the course of three days was to consider the future of the planning program in light of changing conditions.

The college of Architecture, Design and Construction, along with the rest of the University, is a facing a new performance–based funding model. This model is in many ways similar to the City of Chattanooga’s budgeting for outcomes. Programs have two ways to prove their worth; they must be efficient (make money), or exceptional (self-explanatory). As with the case of our city budget, I question the details of (if not philosophy behind) the application of that model. This is, however, a topic for another day. Like it or not, the model isn’t going to change. The issue for the planning program is that it is currently neither efficient nor exemplary. In fact, it costs almost ten times more to educate a graduate planner than an undergraduate architect.

The other shift is one that is playing out in both practice and education. The profession is being stretched between those who believe in the value of design-based planning, and those who stress the value of data-driven, policy planning. In the “real world”, we find that the practitioners understand the importance of design. Planning firms and agencies are increasingly hiring architects and landscape architects to fill planning positions. The Planning Accreditation Board embraces the policy side of the equation, favoring policy specialization. The result is that accredited planning programs are often difficult to accommodate in design schools. (Randall Arendt wrote this excellent article on the issue.)

The question of design v. policy is the symptomatic of the dysfunction of the field. The overwhelming majority of planning work manifests itself in physical form. Zoning codes and subdivision regulations are not policy- they are design guidelines. Housing policies eventually result in houses. Planning for public health results in changes to the physical environmental.  We make projections and forecasts to plan for growth or contraction. The end result of all of the exercises is the design of a place. The fact that some planners do not acknowledge that design is a fundamental part of their work is shameful, if not incompetent. Not every planner needs to be a design genius, but at the very least they need to recognize that the policies they implement result in the physical form of the city.

The issue for the CADC to consider is whether it is more important to a) educate planners that are prepared for the real world, or b) to have an accredited planning program. We outlined a number of potential scenarios for the Dean. I rather suspect that some elements may be taken from each of them to craft a hybrid solution. In any event, this is what we heard from the stakeholders: Planning is important, planning is important is Alabama, Auburn is uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in planning in the state, and that the Dean should proceed boldly in realigning the program to capitalize on the strengths of the college and to meet the needs of the planners of the future. Be on the lookout for great things to come from the plains.

Dear Bear Bryant, please forgive me.


It's Ba-ack...

Memory is a funny thing. Of all the things we hear, see, smell, taste, touch and feel in our youth, some stick with us and others don't. When I was growing up, the Montgomery transit system ran a "Nickel Day" promotion. Being the sub-urbanites that we were, Lord knows that we would never have actually ridden the bus, but we were aware of it. We were aware of it because of one of the most nefariously catchy jungles in the history of radio and television advertising. "Nick-el day is here a-gain". This little ditty has stayed with me for thirty years. I mention it now because through some sub-conscious link, I have connected that jingle with the events of the coming week. "Ri-ver-bend is here a-gain". As with the bus in Montgomery, there is virtually no chance of finding me at Riverbend. Love it or hate it, it is here again. Whether you support the festival or not, it is a disruptive event for those of us who live and work here. Since downtown is shut down, I'll do the same for the blog this week. I will, however, leave you with some Riverbend reading to contemplate...

The final quote is very interesting

Maybe not scientific, but telling...

Funny because it's true?

Previous Riverbend post 1

Previous Riverbend post 2

Obligatory Summer of Sullivan Image:
The Golden Door.  World's Columbian Exposition, 1893


The Summer of Sullivan

Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! I hereby declare this the Summer of Sullivan!

Louis Sullivan may be the most underappreciated of American architects. A man of undeniable genius, he left the world with perhaps the most famous maxim in all of architecture: “form ever follows function”. He established the proper philosophical approach for building tall structures, and is identified by many as the “father of the skyscraper”. He is also referred to as “the father of Modernism”. The man was on track to establish an architecture unique to our country, but was thwarted.

Sullivan’s story is one of triumph and tragedy. After a number of early career successes, he ran afoul of fashion. He was interested in establishing an architecture that was as new, robust and unique as our new country. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of those with the means to commission new buildings were only interested in replicating stale European style. Sullivan eventually went broke, turned to the bottle and died alone in a Chicago hotel room.

The Sullivan story breaks my heart. He was a genius, he was a man of action, he had original thought, he was right! Our society, however, somehow missed that. His story is one of those sad reminders that life isn’t fair and the good guy doesn’t always win.

The decline over the last twenty years of his life are excruciating for me contemplate; yet they also were filled with genius. As most of his design work dried up, he turned to writing. His Autobiography of an Idea is an extraordinary work (and fantastically written in the third person). Kindergarten Chats is outstanding and a must read. A System of Architectural Ornament is by all accounts a tour de force (and with both Father's Day and Christian-mas rapidly approaching, please consider gifting me this first edition).

He was, however, granted a last chance for design. This world-class architect, this giant thinker, was approached by a few modest banks to design a number of tiny structures. Rather than turn his nose up at the projects, he embraced them. The result is The Jewel Boxes- eight tiny buildings sprinkled in small towns through the mid-west. It is obvious that he poured his heart and soul into the design of these masterpieces. All eight still exist and this summer I’m going to visit them all.

You’re coming with me...leggo...

The Henry Adams Building 

Algona, Iowa 1912

Modest and dignified, exquisitely scaled. Algona (in BFE) has a pretty cool downtown save for one-way streets.

National Farmer's Bank
Owatonna, Minnesota 1908

This is a perfect example of a building that expresses both function and location through design. Its strength, stature, and solidity say "I am a bank." The effusive and exuberant detail suggest growth, harvest and abundance- befitting this storehouse for the farming clients of the bank. The language of the building is undeniably free and optimistic- the essence of America. This is one of the most impressive buildings I've ever seen.

Two down six to go. Stay tuned for more Summer of Sullivan...