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.