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VOL. 121 | NO. 141 | Thursday, July 13, 2006

STIRRING IDEA

Regional design center could spark monumental growth in Memphis

By Andy Meek

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WORLD OF IDEAS: Heather Baugus, executive director of the American Institute of Architects in Memphis, looks over some paperwork at her Third Street office. AIA Memphis is one of the groups spearheading the creation of a regional design center. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

In the early 20th century, famed architect and city planner Daniel Burnham ridiculed small-scale ideas as having "no magic to stir men's blood."

Thinking big was the cornerstone of his philosophy, as it likely will be during a public forum scheduled today at 6:30 p.m. at the BRIDGES Center at 477 N. Fifth St. The forum, "Design Matters: Great Urban Solutions Through Collaboration," is where architects, planners and designers will interact with the public for the first time to promote the creation of a regional design center in Memphis.

A grand scheme

It's surely an idea Burnham would approve, since the design center is a blueprint for city growth that's as big as they come. Forum panelists Stephen Luoni, Anthony Costello and Thomas Davis all more or less will sing the praises of design centers to a community - design centers being think tanks where issues related to urban design and planning can be hashed out.

"The Memphis Design Center, we're hoping, would be an entity that would tackle - with a very broad brush - urban problems and try to come up with solutions that everybody could buy into."
- Lee Askew III
Founder of Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects

"The Memphis Design Center, we're hoping, would be an entity that would tackle - with a very broad brush - urban problems and try to come up with solutions that everybody could buy into," said Lee Askew III, the founder of Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects in Memphis.

He's also the American Institute of Architects' AIA 150 Champion, a title that makes him the local chairman for a yearlong observance in 2007 whose primary program will be the "Blueprint for America." That yearlong observance marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the American Institute of Architects, and as part of that, AIA gave the local chapter $10,000 to get the center started.

"The Memphis Design Center would do all of those things by a careful process of open meetings, charrettes, panel discussions, things like that," Askew said. "And then, with help from leading designers and experts, they'd come up with some recommendations for how problems would be solved."

Your own two legs

Tonight's BRIDGES forum is an opening salvo in the battle against architectural and design ills like suburban sprawl and communities built with automobiles instead of people in mind.

Heather Baugus, executive director of AIA Memphis, said the sponsors of the design center are in the throes of choosing a consultant who will help craft the center and determine what issues it confronts and how it operates. Potential sites are being scouted in Midtown and Downtown for a permanent home for the center.

"Design Matters: Great Urban Solutions through Collaboration"
Where: BRIDGES Center, 477 N. Fifth St.
When: 6:30 p.m.
Sponsored by: AIA Memphis, UrbanArt Commission and the University of Memphis Architecture Program
The event is free
and open to the public.
Call 525-3818.

The goal is to have everything up and running, with a staff and director in place, by fall 2007. Sponsors of the center include AIA Memphis, the UrbanArt Commission and the University of Memphis Architecture Program, along with many other community groups.

A list isn't yet floating around with a catalog of projects the design center will end up pursuing, but planners already are considering everything from lectures to consulting work.

Baugus offers other examples. In February, Memphis and Shelby County officials mingled with area residents and stakeholders in the Binghampton neighborhood to scope out a future for the blighted area. That, Baugus said, would have been a perfect opportunity for the design center to lend its know-how, had it been up and running by then.

Other projects could be more personal. Sponsors of the design center are working with the family of the late architect Paul Williams - the first black member of AIA's Memphis chapter - possibly to establish a traveling exhibit that features images of his work. Among the buildings designed completely or in part by Williams include the Los Angeles International Airport and the United Nations Building in Paris.

A matter of inclusion

Wherever the design center ultimately is set up, sponsors insist it be something that's easy to get to, is handicap accessible and has a generous amount of parking. The idea, Baugus said, is to get people engaged and thinking seriously about the city around them.

"So for (tonight's) presentation, we wanted to bring in individuals who were not only within the region but outside the region, and who had experience with successful community design centers," Baugus said. "We've been working on this for about 10 months now, and our committee has researched every design center in the country."

The three speakers at tonight's event include Luoni, director of the University of Arkansas' Community Design Center. His current work there includes design and planning for residential real estate projects, parks and big-box retail outlets.

Davis, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, is design director for the Nashville Civic Design Center. Since taking over that role, he has given five public talks on urban design and served as a moderator/panelist at more than 20 monthly urban design forums, among other highlights.

Costello is the Irving Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. He has a resume that is as vast as a grand piece of historic architecture, and he's the national chairman of the task group for the AIA 150 "Blueprint for America" initiative.

"With this first meeting, we're going to have the panelists talk a little bit about why design centers are an important aspect of a community," Baugus said. "We are then going to follow up with an extensive Q-and-A for the public."

And then the real work begins. Askew said the design center still needs the interest, input and financial support of the public for it to get off the ground.

"I think (tonight) is going to be an interesting discussion, with people who can tell us what we should be doing and how to get there," he said. "I do think if we can pull this off it'll be good for Memphis. If nothing else, it'll act as a clearinghouse for all these different groups that have different ideas about things."

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