Weekly Wire
Metro Pulse Architectural Wonder

When it comes to spending millions on public structures, who gets to decide what they look like?

By Joe Tarr

MAY 29, 2000:  When Erich Snyder went to work for one of the city's largest architecture firms, McCarty Holsaple McCarty, he imagined he'd have a hand in designing some of Knoxville's future landmarks, structures that would stand for generations.

While McCarty will indeed get credit for its work on buildings like the McGhee Tyson Airport and the convention center, Snyder says the actual structures are not the work of architects. Rather, they're dumbed-down designs that came about when a handful of egotistical bureaucrats and elected officials—such as Mayor Victor Ashe, attorney Tom McAdams, and Dick Biggler of the Public Building Authority—started picking away at professional plans.

"Those guys are in there deciding what they want it to look like as if it's their own vegetable garden, and everyone in Knoxville's going to have to live with it," Snyder says.

Snyder's comments have been dismissed by city officials as those of a naive youngster who has a lot to learn about the design and development process. "I don't want to be critical, but I really believe that this guy 20 years from now will be very red-faced [at what he wrote and said]. Because the way he was describing design is not the way it works in Knoxville or anywhere," says Mike Edwards, former CEO of the Public Building Authority.

But Snyder's remarks raise an interesting question—who decides what projects constructed with public funds will look like? Seeing them as part of his legacy, Mayor Victor Ashe has strongly directed the design of public buildings. Though he listens to input from a number of architects and advisors, the mayor claims final word on Knoxville projects. While it may be encouraging to see hizzoner stressing architectural aesthetics, an elected official's sense of beauty won't always agree with citizens.

The city is contemplating investing some $300 million in downtown development—including a mall over Henley Street, a wintergarden in the World's Fair Park, an office tower, renovations to Market Square, as well as several parking garages. The risk is not simply financial. Decades from now, people may gawk and say, "Who built that ugly thing?"

In leaner times, city officials have simply used cost and functionality to guide them in designing new structures, Ashe says. Some mayors push for a low bottom line, and trust the architect's judgment.

"I look around here and see so many public buildings that are disasters, that are awful," Ashe says, pointing to Arthur Street Fire Hall, the State Supreme Court, and UT's married student apartments next to Tyson Junior High on Kingston Pike as bad designs. The mayor ranks the old U.S. Post Office, the Customs House, and the Miller's Building among the good designs.

"The public buildings make a statement of what the city or county is all about," he says. "A mayor can either be absent or play a role in buildings built during his watch. The buildings built will far outlast your term in office."

As such, Ashe closely manages new city construction. "The mayor is the chief architect of the city... It's my call, as it will be for the next mayor for buildings built on their watch." he says. "I don't really do it just myself. We have group meetings, where I get people's input."

However, he says he reserves the final say on any design. "If there's an argument internally at staff level, then I've got to make the call. Who else is going to do it? I truly believe my role as mayor is to oversee what is built.

"I'm pretty darn proud of what we've done on my watch," he adds, referring to the airport, renovation of the Miller's Building, the convention center design, and the newer firehalls, among others.

Those advising Ashe and giving input on the convention center included city architect David Collins, Edwards, the PBA's Biggler, project manager of the convention center, and PBA attorney Tom McAdams, as well as the architects working on the project. Ashe also seeks advice from Tulane architecture professor Grover Mouton, whom he met at a seminar on urban design.

But Snyder—who now works for a Chicago firm—says most of those people are meddling in matters they know nothing about.

Until leaving early this year, Snyder worked for McCarty Holsaple McCarty (MHM), one of the city's largest architecture firms with a long history of working for public bodies, including the city, county, and state. Originally part of McCarty, Bullock and Holsaple, the firm is known for its modernist style. It has designed or helped design several of Knoxville's structures, including the riverfront development, UT's Art and Architecture Building, and the City-County Building, to name a few. The firm recently partnered with out-of-town agencies in designing two local projects—HNTB out of Washington, D.C. for the McGhee Tyson Airport and Thompson, Ventulett, Steinback, Inc. (or TVS) out of Atlanta for the downtown convention center. In both cases, Snyder says, city officials like the mayor and McAdams drastically changed the designs presented to them.

"Both TVS and HNTB are leaders in their respective fields of convention centers and airports, yet, the stroke of the mayor's pen, or the educated opinion of Tom McAdams...was more influential than a room of design professionals with 100 years of combined experience," Snyder wrote in a letter to Metro Pulse. "I am not trying to legislate the legal dealings of the city, so why is an attorney determining or even being included in the arena of design?"

"What [TVS] brought to the table [with the convention center] was a little more progressive. It's a building type Knoxville doesn't really have. But the [politicians] would rather keep Knoxville a quaint, small town," he adds in a telephone interview. "The problem with letting too many people have an opinion is it's not a strong concept anymore. The city already makes it hard to be selected [as an architect] through qualifications. To then let the public officials design the building for you is ridiculous."

At the whim of these officials, the designs were greatly altered, Snyder says. Both the airport and the convention center were progressive—in design, detail, and materials—and were more like something you'd see in Atlanta or Nashville, he says. The original airport design included a lot of metal and glass, but this was replaced with brick and stone. "Everything was pulled back and it became more conservative each time. It was sort of a dumbing down of the design," he says.

Similarly, the convention center originally included a lot of marble, but it was switched to brick.

Architectural concepts are further compromised when the city starts to tighten its budget, Snyder says. Typically, city officials ask for certain elements to be included in a design. But when the architects deliver, officials start to cheapen the project by substituting less expensive materials.

"It's almost entirely decided by a political body. What's not decided by a political body is controlled by budget constraints," Snyder says. "They can beat an architect up pretty good by the time it's all finished."

Doug McCarty, president and director of design at MHM, says his firm does not follow Snyder's philosophy. "We don't agree with [Snyder's] letter. It was from a rather immature young intern. Erich's a creative young graphic intern who did some good work with us but has a lot to learn about the design process. When the mayor sent [the letter] to us we were pretty upset about it. Architects, if they're doing a good job, get the clients very involved in the designs." (The job description intern is somewhat misleading in this profession. To use the title of architect you must be licensed, which requires a number of years' experience. However, McCarty employs many so-called interns full time.)

McCarty says that the change from marble to brick was done for cost reasons. He says it's not unusual for architects and clients to disagree. "There are times when our clients aren't as excited as we are about a particular design and we come back a little disappointed," McCarty says. "But more often than not [the discussion] makes a better project."

Mayor Ashe says that he deserves the final say.

"One of my responsibilities is to oversee projects like this. I think it would be an abdication of my responsibilities," he says. "Most architects appreciate me having a keen interest in what public buildings look like. Having said that, that doesn't mean we don't have disagreements. The entity paying the bill has final say and should, whether that's public or private."

As for ruining the design of the airport and the convention center, the mayor scoffs.

The Airport Authority made vast improvements to the design at McGhee Tyson, he says. "The new airport gets rave reviews in terms of its look. Had [the authority] not intervened, I think they would have a pill box out there," Ashe says. "It was a nondescript, cookie-cutter airport design that could have been placed in Malaysia or Waco, Texas, just as easily as Knoxville."

With a degree in history, Ashe admits he's no architectural expert, but he adds that architects themselves aren't the final arbitrators of good taste. "That doesn't mean I don't have an opinion on what something ought to look like," he says. "You shouldn't hesitate about interjecting your opinions. If I see something that looks ridiculous, I'm going to say so."

David Collins, the city's chief architect, says while he doesn't always agree with the mayor, he trusts his judgment. "He likes traditional architecture. The Whittle Building is a style he likes. On his watch, you will not see a wildly futuristic building as a public project."

In trying to decide what the convention center should look like, the Public Building Authority interviewed some 200 people—including those from downtown organizations and businesses, homeowner groups, and others, Edwards says. "The thing we kept hearing was, 'We sure do like the Whittle building. The Whittle building is Knoxville.' Well, you can't do a convention center like the Whittle building."

But PBA and city officials realized that a modern or futuristic design would clash with downtown's more notable buildings.

"The designers were pushing for a more modern look. That would work on park side but not on downtown side. On the downtown side it had to be more traditional and relate to existing buildings," Edwards says. "There was a whole lot of starts and stops in trying to get to that point...It's not an easy balance to strike. But I think anybody who's looked at these knows it's a great design."

In selecting an architecture firm, the city advertises and then looks at the applicants' experience. For the convention center, officials gave serious consideration to three firms, Edwards says. "We knew that all three could do a great design. The question was who was going to be the best fit for Knoxville and frankly, who was going to do the design that would create least difficulty for the operator."

Others say Knoxville's methods are not conducive to the best design.

"If you get involved with design by committee, that works the worst. They start pissing on the fireplug and you get a big mess," says Christine Kreyling, who writes about architecture for the Nashville Scene. "Victor Ashe may be an okay mayor but I wouldn't want him on my design committee because he doesn't know anything about that stuff. If you get relatively specific with your requirements, you should leave it up to judgment of the design firm."

Some government agencies use a system of peer review—getting a number of architectural experts (along with one or two people who have a stake and will use the building), says Christine Saum, of the Mayor's Institute on Urban Design in Washington, D.C.

"It's important that public get the best possible design available," she says. "I'm not sure the decision ought to be left to one person. Ultimately, there's probably one person at the top who is going to have the yes or no say. But it's important there are additional people involved in the process who ensure that the highest levels of design are being followed."

Another option is a design competition. This is more expensive because finalists for the competition are typically paid a stipend for their time and work. But it allows for more public input and can produce some innovative designs.

Nashville used competitions recently to design both a new library and arena, Kreyling says. In both cases the finalists presented their initial ideas, were given feedback, and then revised them. The winner of the library competition was selected because it was the most functional (although it was not the one Kreyling says she would have selected). Kreyling says the both competitions worked well because the city had a clear-cut program and the mayor removed politics from it. "A lot of times when you have a design competition you still get heavy lobbying from people who say, 'Hire my friend,'" she says. "You need a jury that's not vested...If it's weighted with people outside the food chain, that works better."

But Edwards dismisses this process. "Design competitions are baloney. What you want is an architect who has demonstrated ability to deliver functionality and design. You can look at flavors of what they've done by looking at their past work," he says.

McCarty says competitions can sometimes be good—he and his father Bruce won a design competition for UT's Arts and Architecture Building—but adds they can also be a disaster, if they're not run properly.

In the end there may not be a perfect way of designing public buildings, and in many cases one person's eyesore is another's St. Peter's Cathedral.

But Snyder says that the letter he wrote shows that the mayor and the city aren't open to criticism on this matter. Ashe was emailed a copy of the letter by Metro Pulse so he could respond, and he called McCarty to complain.

"I have been personally offended by the petty manner by which the politicians have responded to criticism by their actions and tantrums directed towards MHM and then towards me though MHM," Snyder wrote in an email. "I hope in the future the mayor can look past the criticism without punishing people who will ultimately have to help him create his 'view of Knoxville.'"

He also says that the city is trying to have its cake and eat it too in new construction.

"There is a concept I believe in personally which I have heard many times in many offices: In the creation of great architecture you can have either quality, expedience, or inexpense," he says. "You can have any two of the three, but you can't have all three."


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