2 October 2011


Doug Joyce: St Augustine Florida

Why is it that some things, designed as prescribed, are lifeless objects, a mis-appropriation of resources and effort, while others, outside of the code, regulation, or just plain illegal are filled with delight, a gem in the surrounding neighborhood.

The one-word answer is love.

As a society, we believe simply that a set of rules will make for a habitable place and culture in which to live. We believe that a set of rules, rigorously and uncompromisingly enforced, will automatically get us the best results. Our urban design curriculum teaches that these formulas and prescriptions will make it so.

Earlier this year I wrote about the conundrum of Graffiti, and how it is very bad, but that very occasionally it is great. For the sake of this discussion, the drop of elixir that turns it from bad to great, is simply love. Hated or lifted up as a great artist, the difference between an individual who marks up someone else's property to deface it, and make themselves feel more important, and someone who dreams about where their next public canvas will be, and how it will be composed, and will the colors be, and how all of this considerable undertaking will be accomplished, well, that is someone who is putting a lot of what I'll call positive regard into something normally filled with hate. There may be anger, and crying out, but it is a passionate endeavor, filled with its own kind of hope. Distill down something that at its very root begins with hate, but the transformation of that ugly act into something that is profound self-expression, and you find that the underlying catalyst is love. The kind of love that is interested in creating a provocative type of beauty.

I live in a nation made great by the rule of law.  We have so much faith in this law, that we feel we can design great cities with it.  So  many communities have a formulaic approach to what may be offered as an acceptable design. The drill?  At least three materials, one undulation every 75' feet, one raised plate line per living unit, concrete roofing tile, increased average building height for an 'interesting' design.  Deadly results are completely possible, and often achieved. Add a design-review panel, and sausage is made. Even with the most ill-conceived set of rules, good or even great design is possible.  It has amazingly little to do with the rules, or even the review panel, although these institutions manage to filter out the truly awful.   The great work has to do with the love that is put into the project.

We all now about the commercial strip in our respective domiciles that is a hot mess.  A couple of bad paint jobs with some disagreeable hues, some layered remodels, successively worse in execution, topped off with a mess of signage, cheaply executed, and slathered across the facade and storefront.  Something you'd want to add a chapter to your design guidelines to guard against. Yet I've seen that vary thing, with a few key but important exceptions to the execution, become an attractive and active public place. The reason for the difference, even though some of the components were tacky as could be, was because someone fussed with it, fiddled with the things that really grabbed the people that would pass by, and took the extra care to make it look as good as possible to their own eye.  In other words, they loved it.

It's very easy to make the determination that process alone is going to make for great cities. The reality is that establishing a process and a book of rules is a starting framework for good people to do great work.  The fact that these rules are in place provides no assurance that good work will be done, and often they provide cover for the fact perfectly awful buildings are being built, perfectly conforming to the rules. There is no substitute for buildings that are built with an owner with good aspirations and taste, a design team with a passion for what they are doing, and a builder determined to build with quality and integrity.  In other words, a building built with love.

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