Letter from Baltimore: The Design Solution

In her monthly “Letter from Baltimore,” Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson writes about architecture, culture, and urbanism in a city more often associated with violent crime than with good design. Click here to read her previous posts. For more by Dickinson, visit her blog, Urban Palimpsest.

As a part of the Baltimore Architecture Week held earlier this month, AIABaltimore invited me to moderate a forum titled “The Role of Design Centers in Urban Regeneration.” The topic is one that has been up for discussion here for more than a year as the community looks to form a city-wide, comprehensive center that could galvanize the profession and the community around design excellence. Baltimore isn’t alone in this endeavor. Cities from Philadelphia and Dallas to San Francisco have opened centers in recent years aimed at bringing architecture and design to the fore of civic life.

It’s a trend that Maurice Cox (left), the director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, has seen firsthand. He says that 2008 grant applications to the NEA saw an “unprecedented spike” in requests coming from community design centers. Cox (along with Gary Gaston of the Nashville Civic Design Center, in Tennessee) came to Baltimore to talk about this trend and how a city like Baltimore might structure its own center.

Cox, an architect and a professor who also served as the mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, from 2002–2004, believes that design is paramount to quality of life. It is the designer’s challenge, he says, to engage the broader community and he sees design centers as being pivotal to that goal. (Cox helped form the Charlottesville Community Design Center in 2004.)

“How do you engender a culture that values design excellence in everyday life, not just design for the few, but design for all?” he asked the crowd gathered to hear him speak. “How do we reposition the role of the designer in community away from that of simply a styler of exquisite objects to that of creative problem-solver serving the public interest?”

The challenge, Cox says, is adaptive. Problems in cities often arrive when a gap between a community’s values and their current reality cannot be closed by routine behaviors. The design solution, he says, comes not from an aesthetic patch or an intuited resolution from the designer, but rather when the designer influences a community to face their adaptive challenges. It’s about changing behavior.

A design center can be at the heart of that change. Raise design excellence, Cox says, by making a neutral place for designers to act in the civic life of a community. He challenged every designer in the room that night to think of themselves as a facilitator, a problem solver, an advocate, an activist, an instigator. Because design, he said, is political. To drive that point home, he offered a quote from Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, where Cox teaches when he’s not leading the design directives at the NEA: “Design activity and political thought are indivisible.”

Related: In the January 2008 issue of Metropolis, the NEA’s previous director of design, Jeff Speck, talked with Cox about his new job and his path to Washington.

Categories: Cities