Civic leaders look to architects for insight and inspiration at SXSW

By Catherine Gavin

Mayors and architects share many similar qualities; they are generally optimists and visionaries whose work strives to create and support communities. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Indiana, says one of her primary roles is that of the city’s chief designer, so it makes sense that mayors are quick to note successful examples of collaborations with architects to achieve goals for sustainability, resiliency, preservation, revitalization, and design. But as demonstrated in the recent Civic I/O Mayors’ Summit at South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, architects—like futurists and artists—can help mayors think outside of the box too.

Mayors are engaging architects to transform and shape their cities: From South Carolina to California, they are counting on architects to rethink and improve their communities.

City of Columbia Water and Wastewater administrative building. Designed by Watson Tate Savory. Photo credit: Gary Matson.

Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, is an advocate for building sustainable and resilient cities. He collaborated extensively with local architects Watson Tate Savory to achieve the adaptive reuse of a former auto dealership for the City Water and Wastewater administrative building—a US Green Building Council LEED-Gold certified project, which boasts the largest green roof in town. “The building is prepared for a 1,000-year flood event,” notes Benjamin. “It is forward-thinking architecture and a tangible way to shape a more resilient community.”

For Benjamin, architects and allied professionals are essential to the future of cities: “All mayors must be introduced to the power of architecture and the importance of urban design in creating the public realm. In 50 years, we may not be here, but what we build will remain, and it has the power to demonstrate what is important to us—what matters to us—and whether our communities are prosperous.”

Elizabeth Kautz, the longstanding mayor of Burnsville, Minnesota, with more than 19 years in her post, notes that architects can help communities envision what they want to be in the future: “What do we want our cities to look like? How can we build something compatible with that vision?”

Kautz points to the mixed-use development Heart of the City as a successful example of urban planning in Burnsville. “It was a 54-acre blighted site that is now a thriving mixed-use district with a performing arts center,” notes Kautz. “Ultimately visual appeal is an economic driver; creating spaces that people enjoy is fundamental to supporting our communities.”

The Barn. Designed by !melk. Photo credit: Chad Davies.

In his seventh elected term as mayor of West Sacramento, California, Christopher Cabaldon credits architects with the revitalization of the city’s waterfront. “The Bridge District is one of our best examples of good planning,” notes Cabaldon. “The collaborative effort has resulted in the highest levels of design.” The project, which Cabaldon describes as bold, has redefined a former industrial waterfront with a mixed-use neighborhood anchored by a large park and event space called The Barn. Designed by New York-based !melk, the sweeping cedar-clad structure is a nearly 8,000-square-foot open-air pavilion.

Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, emphasized that mayors must solve significant social challenges while finding ways to innovate and charge forward.

“Architects in Austin are helping shape policy as we try to address issues of development and affordability,” says Adler. They have actively engaged the city as it moves through the community engagement process of rewriting the building code, conducting charrettes, and producing written documents to respond to each draft.

In Portland, Oregon, architects are helping Mayor Ted Wheeler achieve dual goals of innovation and sustainability. “The City of Portland is especially proud to work with LEVER Architecture, the local architecture firm designing Framework, which is set to become to tallest timber high-rise in the US,” explains Wheeler. “We’re particularly enthusiastic about this development, which demonstrates how innovative architectural design, combined with sustainable technology and smart funding decisions can connect rural economic growth and sustainable urban development.”

As part of the 2018 Civic I/O Mayors’ Summit at SXSW, these mayors sat down with architects to dream up creative briefs for artifacts from their cities in 2030. Architects were there to provide local insight and to lend their problem-solving expertise as the futurists led the group through situational exercises that guide creative thinking towards alternative futures using a four-layered approach: litany, social causes, worldviews, and myths/metaphors.

Working groups were then given hypothetical situations, from which they created the briefs for the futuristic artifacts. The entire process was not too distinct from the tools architects use for design thinking and programmatic planning.

“In practice, architects and futurists have large overlaps,” says Jake Dunagan, director of the Governance Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future, and the person leading the charge at Civic I/O. “Historically the two disciplines are intertwined as both groups tend to think of the world in a systems way,” he explains. “Architects take the abstract and make it concrete, this process resonates with mayors.”

For Gabriella Gomez-Mot, founder of Laboratorio Para la Ciudad—an experimental research, design, and planning arm of the Mayor’s Office in Mexico City—and a panelist at Civic I/O, architects thrive in both the intangible and tangible. “I have been fascinated by the intensity with which architects can explore social processes, participatory scaffolding (etc.), moving through and then beyond the physical domain,” says Gomez-Mot.

As perfectly stated by Gomez-Mot, ultimately architects and mayors are often reaching for the same important public goal: “redrawing spaces of possibility.”

Learn more about working with an architect in your area, by contacting an AIA chapter near you.