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Memphis by Design

Saluting the city's built environment.



"I don't mean to insult Memphians, but I wonder if they are asleep."

So said Mike Cromer, a retired businessman who moved here a year ago after living in Boston, Ottawa, Canada, Park City, Utah, and San Diego. The quote comes from an interview with Cromer in the current issue of The Keystone, a publication of Memphis Heritage, Inc., the historic-preservation group. He was responding to a City Council meeting with representatives from the Riverfront Development Corporation and Friends for Our Riverfront in July.

At issue was the RDC's building plan for the Promenade overlooking the Mississippi River and the Friends' opposition to that plan. But Cromer was commenting on what he hasn't been hearing since this controversy began: the economic feasibility of the RDC's proposal. Instead, what he has heard are fuzzy references to "vision," "growth," and "progress" -- "vapor-ware," according to Cromer, a former software executive. "I should think [Memphians] would care more about a matter that affects their pocketbooks."

For the record, Cromer also believes that Memphis is "on the cusp of something big and special." He likes its "mix of old and new." He visited the city many times in the past, and he's watched it "grow up."

Memphians are watching too, sometimes with pride, sometimes with concern -- watching if not their pocketbooks then their city's built envivonment as never before.

Which makes the month of September in Memphis, Architecture Month, a good wake-up call. The events and exhibits have been coordinated by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and Memphis Heritage and include the participation of individual design firms and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

The visiting lecturers are impressive: John Connell, architect, artist, and author of Homing Instinct and Creating the Inspired House; Thomas Hylton, preservationist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of Save Our Land, Save our Towns; and Memphian Carol Coletta, executive director of the Mayor's Institute of City Design and host of NPR's Smart City.

The activities are varied too: an art by architects exhibit; a public-service project in Victorian Village; a downtown scavenger hunt; a panel discussion by leading local architects; an art exhibit by the city's youth; a tour of homes designed by local architects; a golf tournament; and the annual Preservation Awards.

Heather Baugus, executive director of the Memphis chapter of the American Institute of Architects, is psyched. "The Memphis AIA chapter was founded in 1953 to support the profession," she says. "But for the past few years, we realized that part of our responsibility is to the community as well. We've been trying to refocus our programming, open it up, and appeal to the general public. We're a resource for the public. We're here for them.

"It's funny," Baugus says. "I get plenty of calls from individuals coming to Memphis and wanting to know the top 10 buildings to see. Or out-of-state individuals looking for a local architecture firm to partner with in a project. I love those calls, but I don't get enough of them from within the city!

"We want to reposition the role of the architect in people's minds. The stereotype is not the reality. We have architects involved in community giving. We're developing programs to offer design services for nonprofits.

"But we also need to emphasize the value of historical buildings and engage the public to become active citizens. Our history, and especially the built environment, will not maintain itself. It takes pride. It means hands-on work. It means sometimes getting a little dirty. It means taking ownership. Memphis has a long way to go. Architecture Month is a first step."

For more information on Architecture Month, go to aiamemphis.org or memphisheritage.org.

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