Theories of public design

When Dr. Barry Allen (’79 U. Penn) lent me Design Activism by Anne Thorpe, it planted a seed that has quickly sprouted.  Here in Central Florida, design activism is urgently needed to heal so many broken conditions, but very few experiments have been tried to fix the problems.  I’ve been involved in four early attempts at urban activism and, after reading Thorpe’s book, I believe it is time to share more publicly some of the thoughts and needs to make Central Florida a better place to live.

About the same time that I read Thorpe’s manifesto to start designing public spaces, I was drafted into a public urban design question, and I attempted to plant seedlings of public design.  The result was met with more than a little bit of dismay and skepticism, so I’ve retreated to contemplate how better to nurture their growth.  I’ve shown a few close friends some tiny flowers blooming on this seedling, but since then, never taken it out into the sunlight.  Here in Florida, the strong sunlight is not for every plant – this particular one, being imported from London, might not make it.  The soil is also quite acidic here, making it difficult to grow.  And finally, I’ve watched the same seedling get planted, grow a bit, and then wither and die.  So my reluctance is protective.  But I really think these flowers need to be seen here, perhaps more urgently now than ever before.

In 2012, I proposed, as a part of a panel discussion with Klaus Heesch, a design paradigm for the area between I-4, Highway 50, and North Magnolia Street, which we nicknamed the North Quarter.  We presented our ideas to ReThinking the City.  A disappointingly small audience, one of whom stated that he “came for the beer”, was the result of no promotion on the part of the venue.  Nevertheless, we bravely soldiered on.

Heesch and I recognized that the area was about to receive an injection of major residential projects (which has since been built out), and needed an identity and a neighborhood character.  We proposed The North Quarter.  We defined the neighborhood’s boundaries, how you enter and exit it, where its prominent features lie, and how to enhance them.  We identified a major deficiency – the adjacent negative energy of Interstate 4 – and proposed a solution.  Our audience, by the end of the slide show, consisted of the beer fan and one other person who works for the local authority having jurisdiction over the area, and dismissed the ideas, seeming to express dismay that a volunteer group would be so bold as to perform urban design, rather than passively accept whatever the official city planners roll out.

If design activism raised the hackles of the nomenklatura, I’ve since come to believe that we were on to something.  Design, in our contemporary life, is nearly universally a result of a private transaction between a single owner/interest and a design consultant, who solves the problem that his client presents.  The city, for example, needs a new building.  The city hires an architect and gets the design of this building.  This is about 19% of all design commissions. About 81.9% of the rest of design commissions are when a private entity – a corporation or an individual – hires a designer to provide a logo, a website, a house, or a commercial facility.  That is the current model.

Public design, which currently makes for 0.1% of all design commissions, is what Anne Thorpe is talking about, and which we were talking about with the North  Quarter.  This is when a set of clients (plural) have a shared public problem that could be solved by design.  Thorpe puts it like this:  “architecture & design can help us transition from a system that prioritizes consumerism and economic growth to one that addresses real wellbeing.”  It is all about making our stuff better, not making more stuff.

I experimented with public design while teaching at Rollins.  There, in urban design classes, we went about identifying conditions where the city had a problem, and proposed ways to heal the problem.  In Sanford, we found a plaza that suffered from open space blight, and proposed uses and structures that banished the ugly parking lots and unified the open space.  In Winter Park, we took an awful city-owned set of triangular blocks and proposed a new way of circulating people around a new use for the land.  And so forth.  Each of these problems is a shared-ownership problem; impossible for a single entity to commission, impossible to fund.   Each attempt got closer and closer to the truth, and the flowers started to blossom.

Since then I’ve solved other urban design problems the same way.  I repurposed some discarded metal and playground parts, and made them into bike racks for my neighborhood.  This was funded by a grant.  (the bike racks promptly got stolen before the city came along to fasten them down.  Every single one of them.  Again, the authorities having jurisdiction unwittingly defeated public design).

Look, Orlando has a pleasantly inoffensive atmosphere, but this belies several serious problems.  For rankings of negative attributes, Orlando tends to rate high.  For example, it remains one of the deadliest places for cyclists.  For another, Orlando continues to earn a spot in lists of America’s 100 most deadliest cities.  If you are looking for rankings of positive things, like walkability, Orlando scores last place.  Something insidious is going on here, and this might explain a different phenomenon, one that has been troubling me and many other designers for a long time.  It might at least partly explain why Central Florida seems to act, not as a collector of good design ideas, but rather more like a sink.  Good designers constantly flow in, but the nature of the sink causes them to continue on their pathway down the drain, off to other places.  The pleasantly inoffensive face of Orlando, like the hard porcelain sides of the sink, are slick and cannot be clung to.

Design cannot fix everything.  But design and society are intertwined, and design activism has a place which deserves to be explored.  Thorpe, in her book The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability, discusses how designers have, in various locations, have made some changes.  And her blog,, is a kind of an inventory of interesting ways designers have tried to solve public problems with good design.

A few years ago I tried to start the Winter Park Design Bureau, thinking that a group of like-minded people might want to write grants and crowd-fund design solutions.  The mission was to be a profitable business working within the context of capitalism.  As a social business, its objective was to define certain urban problems that could be solved with good design.

These problems have not gone away, and in fact they continue to grow larger.  For every year that passes without solving them, incrementally more and more money and effort are required to correct them.  Some of these problems include:

Restore balance between man and nature.  Some of the design assignments might include opening up biological corridors between local ecosystems, and creating species circulation systems (species other than man, that is).  The annual drama of bear cubs seeking their own territory is growing and instead of it being a shoot-em and cage-em problem it could instead be treated as a design problem.

Reduce road rage and vehicular homocides.  Some of the design assignments might include traffic and walkability design solutions.

We have other ideas that will be explored in future articles.  These are just a few, and if we start locally, they might just converge into something interesting and positive, retaining some good people here for a little while longer.  The vision of a flower might blossom and grow into a field.

The qwave

The qwave

The Qwave is a proposed tinyhouse for Sarasota’s Vamo district, and has a distinct Sarasotan heritage.  This area, which dates from the 1920s, is a pocket of space redolent with the timeless, gentle natural energy of the central West Coast of Florida.  With a narrow, jungly gravel road leading down into Little Sarasota Bay, a thin finger points westward towards the setting sun.  Wave motion laps lazily against the mangroves, and the clams, crabs, and other sea creatures live a fragile reef of existence along the water’s edge.  So too do the residents of this little area, many for decades, in a district that seems the eye of the hurricane of development.  Still, quiet, and preserved, its atmosphere is a tesseract to the past.  Within this genus loci, we are tesselating the future as well with the qwave.

The land on which the qwave will sit

The parcel sits on the south side of the street.  Our street is offset from the boat ramp slightly, and the lot is open on the north end, treed around its south.  We are reserving part of the north end for a future, larger residence, and in the meantime it may become an edible garden.  The first phase will be the guest house.

In 1946, the Healy family built a guest house, and it was designed by a young architect who said he wanted to use the least material possible, make it as light as possible, and as efficient as possible.  The notion of tension structures fascinated him, and he perched the house just over the edge of the sea wall.  All of these principles are still applicable today.

wave form

Wave motion on the Gulf Coast is gentler than the Atlantic, as a rule.  Within the curve of a wave, the space is tight and the wave breaks onto the beach with little of the crash and thunder of the great Atlantic Ocean.

With a small house (572 SF), efficiency is critical.  Space has to have two or three uses, like on a ship, and items that move, fold, unfold, stow and stack blur the line between architecture and furniture.

a barn in Central Florida

This building also references Florida’s agricultural past, a link to the time before Florida got paved and walmarted over.  Farm structures are, by nature, beautiful in their efficiency and spare use of decoration, and this vernacular is honored here in Central Florida.

Enclosing the most amount of space with the least amount of material is not just an architectural experiment, it is a mandate.  Sufficiency.

Level 1

The Qwave replaced the elastic cocoon material with a prefabricated, curved metal panel that serves both as a roof membrane and also as its own structural support.  To do so, the panel is highly ridged, with the rugae at least 7″ high – a miniature standing waveform in itself.  This creates a tunnel effect which on the outside, the ribs glistening in the sun, is quite nice.

Level 2

On the interior, one side is lifted up so the space can be doubled.  The interior surface is a honey-colored luan finish.  The floor is polished concrete:  again, the notion of sufficiency, with the floor slab acting as a dual-use function; both as a foundation and as a finished surface.

Two interior walls will be full height to the underside of the roof; these will be metal stud walls with plaster-and-lath.  Lower height walls will eliminate the studs, with plaster and lath suspended in the air, spanning short distances.

Public area with loft

The detailing will be similar to the late 1940s and early 1950s, with J-mold reveals at the door frames and the wall bases.  In a tiny space, eliminating visual clutter is essential.

The bedroom

The qwave’s name comes from its reference to a waveform, with the adaptation of the venerable quonset hut from the early 1940s.  Quonset hut + wave = qwave.

“Respect for the natural conditions of a particular region, along with the ability to fashion these to meet contemporary living requirements, provide a harmonious relationship between the present and the eternal.” (Sigfried Gideon)

Jim Walter lives on

In the late 1940s, when Levittown and other experiments began capitalizing on America’s postwar growth, Tampa’s Jim Walter tried something different:  he chose sufficiency as a goal, rather than the maximum.  His homes were unfinished, and you could finish them yourself.  They came as kits, with a single sheet 24″ x 36″ that accompanied the kit, onto which both sides were drawn all the instructions.  And best of all, they were stilt homes, in fine tune with Florida’s natural environment and the unpredictable dance between dry, wet, and very wet we sometimes experience here.  I recently had the privilege of restoring a 1980s vintage Jim Walter stilt home and found it a fascinating study in sufficiency.

Rob and Carol, who live in Safety Harbor, have a classic stilt home built just off of Main Street.  Their lot has an alley, and is canopied with high, spreading oaks.  Along their street, the other homes have a traditional front door and a straightforward relationship with the street.  Jim Walter homes, by their nature, do not.  As such, their home seems an archaic piece in the suburb, as if it were an old settler’s cabin around which the town slowly grew.

Street view

It still wears the original forest green paint that so many Jim Walter homes were painted.  Rob added paneling across the front; otherwise the unpainted poles and diagonal braces would look campy and rustic.

The real face of the house, however, isn’t revealed to the street.  Instead, if you come up the alley, you see a house in a completely different aspect.  When I first saw this side of the house I nearly gasped; it somehow tapped into a powerful emotional opening sensation in my heart.  This side is truly the beautiful side of the house.

Alley view

The alley, Rob explained, is kind of like a river.  You can sit and watch humanity roll by.  Note the unpaved rear yard:  Rob builds wooden boats, and has the Polly in a nearby storage facility.  He is planning another one soon.  He builds them under this house.  Unconsciously, this space has a spiritual connection to many such spaces I have seen around the world – Belize, Thailand, Cambodia, and elsewhere – it is a space of great peace, and in harmony with its immediate surroundings.

Rob built the railing himself.  He and Carol hired Sean to correct some sinking foundations under the poles.  And now, it is time to go vertical.

Staying in touch with the original intent of the house, Rob chose board-and-batten siding as the most long-lasting and practical exterior skin.  His research led him to locally manufactured windows, and with a metal standing-seam roof, he had selected the correct items to re-clad the original home.

Rob and Carol wanted to preserve their home, but it needed some work.  Their mission was to retain as much as possible of the original flavor of this home, modernize the windows, replace the exterior skin, and give the front of the house a little more street presence so it blended in more with the neighborhood.

The new front of the home will be a careful blend of old and new.  A “Charleston” style front door will address the street, and lead the visitor into a courtyard.  Rob and Carol will greet you on Friday evenings, and the menu will be posted on a slate board inside the front door.  You may be invited to play bocce ball on their new ball court along the side of the home.

Early facade study
Stricklin Residence

This rendering is intended to keep close to the same paint color, and to incorporate a new color that matches the storage facility that Rob built in the rear of the home.  On the bottom floor, a series of horizontal louvers will allow air to breathe through the ground floor, in respect to the original intent of the open lower level.  They will frame the Charleston door and provide a base on which the home may sit.  The intent is they remain unpainted, to harmonize with the upper level railing system.

Rob and Carol are pleased with their design and are proceeding into construction.  It is important for the story of a home, whose origins were based on sufficiency, to be stewarded so well into the 21st century by intelligent and thoughtful owners.

Where is Carl Degler when you need him?

“This is an excellent essay. You make a great point. I too have read Degler and your take is spot on. I think his position in historian circles is carried by guys like Thomas Sugrue.  Great work.”

-Julian Chambliss, Associate Professor of History, Rollins College

In today’s urbanized world, America seems at a turning point.  With the population increasingly concentrated in large cities, and wealth increasingly concentrated among the privileged few, people grapple with problems where they live and work in a different way than they did when more rural populations existed.  The big city was once a separate force that influenced, but did not directly affect, many lives.  Today, with these trends continuing into the foreseeable future, the American ideal appears to be subtly, irrevocably diluted, and replaced by something inauthentic and hollow.

As a student in Florida in the 1970s, Carl Degler’s ideas were presented to me at a unique period.  The Vietnam war had just ended, and the national identity was a bit sensitive at the time.  In Florida, we were highly conscious of the difficult relationship with Cuba.   American history was presented along with a Florida required course, “Americanism vs. Communism.”  The notion of Americanism – not capitalism, you may notice, or democracy, but “Americanism” – included the terms “melting pot,” “exceptionalism,” and “The American Dream.”  In Florida, a rural state with wide-open land at the time, this anxiety to present a unified, signature American identity was powerful to those of us coming of age.

Noted historian Carl Degler, who recently died, believed that ideas such as Americanism have a life of their own.  He dared to suggest that neither great men nor economic events shape history, but rather the toughness of ideas.   “Wherever men have striven to realize their moral visions, they have demonstrated that ideas, as well as economic forces, can change the direction of history,” Degler wrote in Out of Our Past.  His belief in a moral trajectory gradually became unfashionable, with the brute force of the “id” taking over in affairs such as invading Iraq.

With Degler’s death, the notion of history’s moral trajectory may have died also.  He refuted the notion of “melting pot”, citing the lack of assimilation of many ethnicities, and the stubborn refusal  of a few to put racism behind them.  Instead he called America a “salad bowl”.  He also rejected the idea of American exceptionalism, and noted that Jeffersonian ideals were only renewed through hard work.  Maintaining these ideals today, in America’s new urban face, seems a fading dream as well.

Degler studied the end of the 19th century, with rapid urbanization and industrialization.  That period has striking parallels to our country at the beginning of the 21st century.  Then, America seemed to leave behind Jefferson’s ideals of an agrarian-based egalitarian society:  free education, the principles of democracy, and land ownership.  Now, as we urbanize to a new and greater degree, and evolve from industrialization to digitalization, the same cycle appears to be occurring.  Here in Florida, urbanization is nearly complete, with a single archipelago of urbanity having spread its web across much of the entire peninsula.

Between 1880 and 1915, the industrial revolution severely challenged this ideal.  Populists, labor firebrands, and utopians contributed little to the solution, only sparking more controversy.  The polarization of society and divisive politics of the time was resolved, according to Degler, only by the rise of Progressivism which returned America  to a sense of balance.  The lack of a progressive “third way” today, when considering Degler’s thesis, is startling, given the higher concentrations of wealth and power than ever existed in the Gilded Age.

In the 1890s, no amount of handwringing by do-gooders helped reduce suffering of children in mines, oppresion of African-Americans, or the shameful exploitation of railroad workers.  Strikes increased divisiveness and polarized the country.  It was the ultimate emergence of progressivism in the reasonable center that true progress was made and that balance, the original founding principles, restored.  No such movement exists today.

Ever the iconoclast, Degler called the progressivist movement an essentially conservative one, simply pointing out that Fred Howe, and its other luminaries, pressed to conserve the original Jeffersonian goals of American reform.  Degler quoted Howe:  “The great problem now before the American people is, how can opportunity be kept open; how can industry be saved from privilege; how can our politics be left to the unimpeded action of talent and ability?”  Truly, the progressives formed the American Creed around the new city and industry which arose in that earlier era.

No progressivist center has yet emerged from today’s highly polarized political climate.  We continue to see and hear more and more divisiveness, and the upcoming presidential campaign promises to be the nasty.  Neither extreme side has brought the two sides together; here in Florida, political campaigns reflect this same dialectic.  Local races, once a bit more genteel, seem to be modeled after the national scene.  So a vacuum has opened up in the center, a vacuum that has yet to be filled.

And today, just as at the turn of the last century, there is little incentive to balance the conversation.  Degler’s essay “New World A’Comin’” noted that the rise of Progressivism came only after decades of serious abuse and human tragedy at the end of the Industrial revolution.  Progressives, such as Howe and fellow reformer E. A. Ross, encouraged the shouldering of a certain moral responsibility from top to bottom.  But up until Ross’s treatise Sin and Society in 1907, forty years of increasingly grisly and dark times for workers passed before things got much better.

Today, we see no dead children coming out of coal mines, no dead bodies from strikers, and no labor riots in the streets.  Worker abuse is not a question of starvation or mortal danger.  So protest against the privileged wealthy class is, in absolute terms, less urgent than it was a hundred years ago.  Thus, any protest movement that emerges from our current troubles is comparatively mild, and it must fight against much more powerful odds to develop.  The news media has no vested interest in settling disputes.   The working class isn’t in peril for its life, and with superficial gains such as lower gas prices, any great settling of accounts between the working class and the elite seems to be put off to the distant future.

Here in Florida, the rancor of the governor’s race seems forgotten.  People are back to work, tourists are flowing into the state, and the population is swelling.  Construction, thanks to easy credit, is everywhere.  Reform is unlikely while the good times are here.  Americanism, it seems, has triumphed, and the quaint, Jeffersonian notions of an agrarian, egalitarian society are collecting dust for the time being.

We therefore seem to be beginning the early period of this century with a sense of entrenched interests settling in for the long haul, and little can be done about it except to encourage escapist consumer behavior to distract people from their situation.  Since the situation is not dire, and we have temporary sops like low interest rates and low gas prices, there is no great protest, and certainly no middle ground in the process of formation.

Instead we have a superficial choice between two political parties that seems less and less substantive, and more and more like a marketeer’s dream:   coke or pepsi.  Degler’s notion of history as a continual evolution of ideas is, for now, dormant.  For those of us lucky enough to have read Degler’s Out of Our Past in Florida’s public schools, the provocative ideas in his book are still with us, and they may still be put to good use when soft drinks go out of style and the city is thirsty for reform.

A watered-down version of this will be published soon in The New Geography.