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There’s something magical about an urban design vision. A drawing or 3-D model that’s not that different from any artist’s work, except that it might reshape real city blocks. That’s the way it is with every human-made thing, of course. They all started out in someone’s imagination. But there’s something about a city that seems to defy the idea of design.
Lately, public urban design has been making a comeback through RiverCity Company’s Urban Design Challenge, in which teams of architects and planners created speculative visions for key places in downtown Chattanooga.
A new exhibit opening July 31 shows off urban design visions, built and unbuilt, from Chattanooga’s Urban Design Studio—the ancestor of the Urban Design Challenge and source of most of the design thinking—that have reshaped downtown since 1980. The Design Studio Retrospective shows selected images from a comprehensive archive of the Design Studio’s body of work from 1980-2005, including plans, drawings and 3-D models by students, staff and some of the nation’s top design professionals. The exhibit is located at 831 Chestnut St. and will be on display until Nov. 1.
“The purpose of the archive is to make sure that all those civic visions and ideas that were created in the Studio and out in the community are kept alive, kept safe in a place people can continue to revisit them,” said Christian Rushing, who worked at the Urban Design Studio as both an architecture student and later as an urban design professional. Rushing created the archive and retrospective through a grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation, Benwood Foundation and RiverCity Company, as well as the Watson Fund, created in the name of Stroud Watson, who led the Urban Design Studio.
“I think the Urban Design Challenge has highlighted the thirst of the citizenry for visioning work and for architecture and urban design work to have a chance to react and to be engaged with future of the city,” said Rushing. “The work the Design Studio did was the progenitor of the Urban Design Challenge. For 20-plus years, they put forth visions for what downtown could possibly become, allowed the city to react to that and engaged in conversations about what we could be.”
The Urban Design Studio began as an outgrowth of the University of Tennessee School of Architecture. A hands-on “design studio” is a typical element of an architectural education. But according to Rushing, the model Stroud Watson created as a partnership between UT and the Lyndhurst Foundation was intended from the beginning to bring the talents of architecture students to bear on real issues of the day.
“The work those students were doing benefited the community. It helped establish our civic vision and get engaged people in urban design. No one knew what urban design was in the ’80s. It was a foreign concept. Over time, Stroud was hired by Mayor Gene Roberts to be the urban design consultant to the mayor’s office.”
Beyond that, River City Company and later the city-county Regional Planning Agency joined the partnership and added staff members. Throughout the Design Studio’s history, some the best urban design firms in the nation were also brought in by the Design Studio to re-envision pieces of Chattanooga’s downtown.
The Design Studio Retrospective walks viewers through key downtown areas, including the Miller Plaza District, the Tennessee Aquarium and Plaza, the Southside and the 21st Century Waterfront. There are dozens of images, several tabletop models, video screens and an interactive database that holds many more images and documents.
Even hardcore fans of downtown Chattanooga probably haven’t seen many of these alternative versions of the city: aquarium variations next to several versions of a bay or inlet cut far into the riverbank, a different bridge linking the arts district and Ross’s Landing, a Renaissance Park that’s much larger and lined with new buildings, a half dozen variations on the blocks surrounding Miller Plaza, and many more.
Viewing all these variations of familiar downtown places is a little like looking at that famous sequential drawing of the ascent of man from ape to Neanderthal to Cro Magnon to modern man. It is possible to see how an idea grew over time into what was finally built. But this exhibit also shows vividly that there was never any overall “ascent of downtown Chattanooga” progression. Instead, it’s clear that Chattanooga’s urban design grew through a profusion of different ideas.
All these alternative drawings and models are not rejected drafts that might be mildly interesting historical footnotes. They are the remaining traces of controlled explosions of urban design, bursts of new thinking that were initiated and managed by the Urban Design Studio. And this profusion of visions—many created as a way of envisioning a new future and without any clear path to construction—was not a side effect. This was the working method for recreating downtown Chattanooga: Reimagine, react, repeat.