Money, Passion and Story: The Drivers (or Barriers to) Great Urban Design in Chattanooga

It seems to me that there is a disconnect that, in spite of excellent civic leadership in this amazing city, is keeping design and development from being what it could or should be. This is especially true in the public realm, both within the urban fabric and elsewhere. Sitting at the annual convention for the American Institute of Architects and listening to the many masters of our profession present their works has suggested a few culprits to me, and while there may be others, these appear to be the standouts: Money, Passion and Story. 

Let’s begin with the easiest, the almighty dollar. Granted, most of us in business are there to put food on the table. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. I believe the problem lies in the fact that all too often the cost, and not the value created, is what drives design. I am afraid to admit that this would be true, at least some of the time for designers, developers, building owners, and tenants alike. Think for a moment, if those of us participating in the creation of the public realm and public space put the quality of the space first, isn’t it likely that business success would follow? Look at product design as an analogy: if there are two companies producing cars, one produces high quality vehicles that might cost a bit more, and the other maximizes profit at the expense of quality, which company will last, which will fail? No doubt the cheap cars may sell well at first, but it will not take long for consumers to realize the error of their ways. Look to Hyundai and Mitsubishi for examples of both the former and the latter. As tempted as I may be, I will refrain from naming any examples of either in the local built environment.

Moving to a slightly less tangible but equally significant problem, we would do well to think about passion. The creation of the built environment is a combination of the arts and the sciences. There are, of course, both aesthetic issues and the practical ones: does the building or space look nice? Is it pleasing to be in or around? Does it keep the rain out? But then there are also equally significant considerations such as: Does the building meet the client’s budgetary constraints? Is it designed, purposed, and built with the “highest best use” in mind (or with profit)? I dare say that if we, the creators of our built environment are “going to a job” every day, we will never achieve what is possible. Any of us; owners, tenants, designers, and builders, are probably capable of cranking out the “same ole s*#^” during the eight hour work day. On the other hand, if we surround ourselves with people that share vision, passion, and drive for what we do, I suspect the quality of our built environment would be elevated significantly and very quickly. I also happen to believe that successful business or profitability will necessarily follow.

Perhaps least tangible of all is that we need to tell a story. Let’s draw from the world of music for a moment. It seems to me that any of the great standards, regardless of musical genre, either tell explicitly or arose out of a significant story. Handel’s “Messiah,” Satchmo’s “What A Wonderful World,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” are all examples. Even country music, such as Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” tells an amazing story. There are hundreds more. Songs that have stood the test of time and have helped to shape our culture. On the other hand, M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”, Milli Vanilli’s “Girl I’m Gonna Miss You” and thousands of others have all topped the charts in their day, but where are they now? Why is this? Two reasons so far as I can see: the modern “pop” song was often written under a contractual deadline with a record company (hmmm... there’s that profit thing again) and there is really no story being told.
In closing, my suggestion is this: when presented with the opportunity to “do something”, assemble a team that is passionate about their work. Chattanooga is full of craftsmen, designers, builders, and even some very innovative developers and potential tenants who are not afraid to take a risk in order to “do it best”. You have to look for them, and yes, you might even have to pay them, but the result is likely to be amazing and oh so worth while.

Trey Wheeler is an Architect at Cogent Studio in Chattanooga. 
“Think for a moment, if those of us participating in the creation of the public realm and public space put the quality of the space first, isn’t it likely that business success would follow? ”