When I interviewed Thomas Woltz of landscape architecture practice Nelson Byrd Woltz about his research and initial design proposals for a rethinking of Houston’s Memorial Park, he mentioned a stinging comment that someone had made during one of the project’s public outreach sessions. It ran something like, “We don’t need your weenie, leftist, green, bicycling unfit-for-print!” A comment left under a story about the project on the Houston Chronicle’s website struck a similar tone: “Leave it alone, Woltz. I don’t need you to ‘tell a story’ with our park. Mother Nature has done a far better job than you ever could.”
While these gripes contain a number of fallacies—design professionals don’t need that pointed out to them—the pervasiveness of this sort of opposition makes it a factor that any architect must face when undertaking a project that is open to public review and input. And though the remarks above may have a certain regional flavor specific to Texas and the Southwest, this brand of misinformed, knee-jerk reaction is common all across our great nation. It seems, in fact, to be endemic in the American Grain.
As such, architects and landscape architects with ambitions to enter the public realm need to be prepared to deal with entrenched positions and prejudiced bloviating just as much as they need to keep their ears peeled for justifiable criticism and the opinions of locals who might know a site and how they want to use it best. Sure, designers should listen carefully to a community’s needs in order to make “careful insertions” that will “heal the public realm” by promoting “connectivity and open exchange,” or whatever, but a good idea is a good idea, and just as often as not too much influence from a divided and querulous populace can spell its death.
What I’m getting at is that, often, in order to protect the integrity of a good design it has to be carried through opposition without distortion. This can require certain actions that may not make the press release—backroom dealing, ardent cajoling, pugilistic obstinacy, etc. Luckily for architects, this dirty work falls mostly within the domain of the politician. But architects should pay attention to how ambitious projects are taken through the public approval process because it can help them craft their presentations to better ensure that the ideas that matter make it to construction.
A couple of examples of figures in Houston who have handled this tricky process well come quickly to mind. One is Judge Roy Hofheinz, who gleefully referred to himself as the Grand Huckster. Even before almost single handedly assembling the land, funding, and county approval for the Astrodome, he was known for swimming against the current to improve the city. As Mayor of Houston and as Harris County Judge, he was able to sell voters on new taxes in order to fund a range of civic improvements, such as paving the roads.
Another, more apropos, example is current Houston Mayor Annise Parker. In order to drum up money to pay for the Memorial Park improvements, rather than propose a bond referendum (which would certainly have been shot down) she approached the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (or TIRZ, a Texas variety of tax increment financing) and convinced them to redraw their boundaries to include the park. It was an easy enough sell. An improved park will only hike up Uptown real estate prices, thus feeding the TIRZ with increased property taxes.
Hofheinz and Parker both exhibit how to pitch a matter so that the stakeholders involved can see how it benefits them, even against their first inclinations. It is a skill that any architect would want in their quiver, even when dealing with a private client.
As for Woltz, he knows that maintaining the integrity of his firm’s design for Memorial Park is important. “We do need to listen to the public, but we are charged with a high goal. Never again is there going to be a 1,500-acre park in the middle of Houston,” he said. Fortunately, not everyone in the Bayou City stands against him. Other comments left under the same Chronicle story mentioned above include: “I like the plan,” and “It sounds great!” and “Fantastic!”