Former Charleston, South Carolina, mayor Joe Riley has spoken eloquently about beauty and civic design. In an Architect magazine article on the occasion of the mayor’s retirement after 40 years in office, author Wayne Curtis quoted Riley as saying, “Often architecture is thought elitist, that you’ve got to be schooled or have a special interest. But not long after I was elected, I’d see visitors in town. They looked like they were retired blue-collar workers, and you’d see them admiring buildings.”
Riley ends with one of his core beliefs. “Beauty has no economic litmus test. It’s a basic human need and instinct.”
I’ve been thinking of Joe Riley’s belief in the ability of beauty and good civic design to uplift our communities* as I have walked through our downtown in recent weeks. There is a great deal of construction activity underway in Silver Spring, but I am hard-pressed to find too many examples of fine urban design. One challenge is that much of the future of downtown Silver Spring was turned over to a development company some twenty years ago, which resulted in the successful completion of the Downtown Silver Spring commercial core, but rather pedestrian design decisions that are actually being made worse by a 2019 “refresh.” At a recent public hearing on the project which I attended, the head of the development firm made the comment that the new, bright (some might say garish) paint scheme was “fun—not something you’d use in your house, but fun.” He also made the point that in a new art installation, he instructed his staff that he didn’t want to see anything “silver” or with a “spring” in it. In other words, he didn’t want this installation to reference the place.
My initial thought was, “Well, the developer actually lives in Potomac (an expensive and well-heeled nearby town). This isn’t his home, and they wouldn’t allow this design in Potomac in any event. But Silver Spring is my home.”
Downtown is something of the living room for our community, and, as an area with a history, it contains excellent historic buildings like the 1930s Art Deco-style AFI Silver Theatre and one of the country’s earliest shopping plazas with a street-facing parking lot. Nearby Woodside Park is the area’s first automobile-oriented suburb and is considered one of the region’s best examples of 1920s-1930s residential development. Downtown also contains other supporting buildings from the 20th century (a few of which are threatened with demolition). The theatre and 1940s shopping plaza are protected by county ordinance, and all bring both good design and beauty to our community. Those protected structures won’t change, and will instead remain authentic and unique to Silver Spring.
However, with the clashing paint schemes, artificial turf, and other “amenities” of the refresh chosen by the developer’s architect, the downtown of the future looks more like the rumpus room or perhaps like the television and game rooms in my son’s fraternity house in college, places where they wouldn’t let the parents through the door.
There is no beauty at play here. But beauty isn’t the goal of the development company. It should, however, be the goal of our government and our citizens.
Our other challenge is, as I’ve written earlier, that even where we have made good design decisions, a lack of coordination between project managers, developers, utility companies, and county government leads to constant patches on what were once well-conceived and executed projects. As I walk through downtown today, there are multiple instances of brick and stone pavers that have been removed and filled in with asphalt following a utility company intervention. The bicycle track which was the subject of my earlier post, and which was just completed last month, now has two ugly utility patches that cut across the newly paved road, with more to come.
No one argues that we should stop all utility company upgrades. I understand the impacts of aging infrastructure very well. However, I do think the quality of their restoration work is very sub-standard. In fact, shoddy is the best descriptor I have of this work by the utility companies, and—because design matters in communities—that’s what I’d like to see change.
In that same Architect article, Wayne Curtis notes, “Three years after taking office, Riley was invited to travel to Europe on a study trip sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. His group toured eight cities in Germany and England, studying what worked and what didn’t in the civic landscape. ‘I didn’t know what I was looking for until the end of the trip,’ Riley says, ‘and then I realized I was seeing cities where the public realm was accorded the highest priority, and that the citizens revered that.'”
In my conversations with Joe through the years, it was clear that what he looked for most was quality.
Curtis continues by suggesting that Riley’s legacy will include that insistence on quality, in “top-notch materials and techniques” in public structures. Joe is famous for saying, “When people complain about cost, I ask, ‘How many people know what the Spanish Steps in Rome cost?’”
It isn’t the Spanish Steps, but on my walk through downtown this frigid fall morning, I did catch a glimpse of how beauty can contribute to our built environment. A well-designed and landscaped pocket park at the heart of our community, ringed by a small grove of trees, was covered with beautiful yellow leaves that had taken flight for the season. Since it was early, the scene was undisturbed by foot traffic. I stopped and admired the park for several minutes. I slowed down. I thought about the space and the people around me. I was grateful.
That’s an example of what beauty and good design can bring to a community.
More to come…
*Riley’s beliefs led him, among many other things, to found the Mayor’s Institute on City Design, where I was a panelist in 2017.