A handful of alleyways in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn.—a midsize city with a thriving startup and tech community and enviable proximity to the great outdoors—are about to get a face-lift. As part of the community outreach extension of the AIA Tennessee Convention, held in the city later this month, the state chapter partnered with the local economic development nonprofit River City Co. to issue an international competition, “Passageways: Activating the Urban Alley Through Architecture,” that aims to rethink four urban alleys for public use. This week, the program announced the five winning designs.
The projects, which must be built within a week and remain standing for a year, were selected through a two-part judging process. First, a design jury whittled down the nearly 70 entries to a shortlist of 24 finalists. Then, a local selection committee, with the "Passageways" team, chose the designs that they felt were best-suited for Chattanooga.
The competition’s design jury comprised: Paul Lewis, AIA, principal at LTL Architects, in New York; Aaron Forrest, AIA, and Yasmin Vobis, co-founders of Ultramoderne, in Providence, R.I.; Ted Smith, founder of Smith and Others Architects, in San Diego; and Barbara Brown Wilson, an assistant professor of urban and environmental planning at the University of Virginia School of Architecture.
We spoke with “Passageways” co-directors Jared Hueter, AIA, and Jason Ennis, Assoc. AIA, an architect and architectural intern, respectively, at Cogent Studio, in Chattanooga, about the project.
ARCHITECT: What is the goal of “Passageways”?
Hueter: With the AIA Tennessee Convention being held in Chattanooga this year, we wanted to focus on reaching out to the community. The theme of the convention is the impact of architecture on our world and community. We thought we should practice what we preach and use the energy of the convention to make an impact. With "Passageways," we wanted to do a design competition that turned into a public exhibit of the value of design in the community.
Why did you decide to locate the project in alleyways?
We pitched an abstract idea [of the project] to River City, and they immediately responded with, "We’ve been thinking about alleys. What do you think about doing alleys?" And we said, "That sounds great." It’s a great pedestrian space. One of the big ideas was how to create a secondary path through the city that’s pedestrian-focused.
In addition to being emerging practitioners yourselves, you relied on a number of other young designers in bringing this competition together. How did that happen?
Ennis: Jared, myself, and a team from River City did the legwork of organizing the competition and seeing the process through. We reached out to emerging professionals from our Extended Studio here, which is a loosely affiliated group of young practicing architects or associates, to see if anyone had interest in helping to organize each winning project. We were pretty ecstatic at the response. We’ve had about a dozen or so helping out from different firms throughout the city. It takes a lot of legwork on our end to make sure that it’s executed properly.
The winners hail from New York, Chattanooga, and Sydney. Did you intend for the competition to have a specific geographic focus?
Hueter: We decided to open it up internationally to see what the response was. The process shows how the Tennessee designers stand up against national and international designers. The intent was [that the first-round judges] didn’t have a stake in Chattanooga. If any Chattanooga participants were going to make it to the next round, we wanted it to be unbiased. The [second-round jury] looked at the 24 submissions, not knowing where they were from. The ultimate decision was left to our team because there were logistical issues with some of the submissions.
Ennis: Part of the criteria was that the design would last for a year, and some of the submissions that did well in the judging didn’t address that need. Other logistical issues include code and public safety concerns.
Chattanooga has a growing startup and tech scene. To what extent is that impacting the architectural profession there?
Heuter: It’s an interesting discussion that we have quite a bit about innovation in the city. The city has labeled a few blocks as the Innovation District, and [the Cogent Studio] office is within that. The AIA Tennessee and local firms here are just jumping on the scene and trying to push design and design thinking. There’s a lot of momentum in education and in the general public about the value of design thinking and producing an entrepreneurial spirit in business, in technology, in everything. That is a foundational element that maybe hasn’t been as much a part of the conversation in the past as it should have been, but it’s growing. That’s obvious from the support for "Passageways" and the Learn by Design program at convention, which have both been supported by non-architecture foundations that are saying, "We see design as valuable to education, to business, and community development, and so we are going to give you thousands of dollars to develop these programs to show the value of design."
Construction on the five installations will begin within the next two weeks. The projects open to the public on Aug. 24.