By David Greusel
In November of 2009, Mick Cornett, mayor of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, gave a speech to the local Chamber of Commerce extolling the benefits of pedestrian-oriented cities, and praising sidewalk and bicycle connectivity as healthier alternatives to automobile travel. Mayor Cornett did not develop these ideas out of whole cloth. In fact, the mayor’s speech echoed one given nearly twenty years earlier by Florida-based urban planner Andres Duany. How did Duany’s ideas take twenty years to penetrate the political leadership of a large Midwestern city?
That is the mystery of outworking. Outworking is a force that acts imperceptibly, over time, to percolate ideas from one person or institution to another. Like the crop of stones that mysteriously turn up each year in a New England farm field, these ideas seem to come from nowhere. But in fact, they come from specific people with specific agendas. People plant these ideas, and over time, they work their way to the surface of our culture. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “One plants, another waters, but God gives the increase.” Although Paul was talking about the mystery of agricultural (and evangelistic) abundance, his metaphor also applies to the idea of outworking.
Andres Duany is one of the founders of a movement known as The New Urbanism, a reaction to the car-centric cities of late 20th century North America. Duany and his peers have been touting compact, dense, walkable development since the 1980s, and in 1992 founded The Congress for The New Urbanism to promote their ideas professionally and academically. But even before the first Congress, Duany was point man for the movement, speaking wherever and whenever he was invited about his firm’s remarkable design for Seaside, a resort community in Florida that has proven extremely popular since its founding. Duany gave his standard stump speech praising the virtues of walkable development to a regional gathering of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1990, a region that includes the state of Oklahoma.
What happened after that is a bit of a mystery, involving a myriad of books, articles, lectures, and faculty appointments. But 19 years later, the mayor of Oklahoma City was giving Duany’s speech for him. The New Urbanists have succeeded, to at least some degree, in doing what Duany has always admired about Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba: “First,” Duany says, quoting Castro, “you must capture the transmitters.”
In 2003, The Clapham Institute began working with a group of members of a local church in the Kansas City area. I was part of that group, and that discussion altered the trajectory of my own career. Leveraging my own sphere of influence, I developed, in consultation with TCI, a seminar on the moral dimension of architectural design, and delivered that seminar at a national convention of the AIA in 2005. The session has since been repeated in a number of other settings, including, most recently, at the annual convention of AIA Kansas this fall.
Barely a month later, the president of AIA Kansas included this observation in his monthly letter to the membership:
The discussion reminded me of the greater impact of Architecture. We don’t create buildings in isolation just for the use and benefit of the client. Buildings collectively form the City, which is the physical stage upon which we act out living together for the common good. Therefore, buildings have an impact upon more people than just those who choose to build them. This unavoidable effect places upon us a responsibility we can never disregard. I encourage each of us to embrace it, and make our cities better places to live, work, and play.1
This language clearly reflects the language of the seminar on the moral dimension of architecture I presented to the state convention. It’s a simple example of outworking, because the chapter president was in the audience for my talk. Another example is this excerpt from a blog post by the president of AIA Southwest Oregon:
Architecture for human flourishing is humble, deeply local, and a reflection of the culture that produced it. Summarizing his thesis, Greusel quoted architecture critic Robert Campbell, who asserted that “every building is a billboard that shouts the values of those who created it, intended or not.” The values championed by Greusel facilitate a worldview that creates architecture supportive of human flourishing.2
The blogger was reflecting on another talk I gave, this one to a group of architects in Anchorage, Alaska. Will newsletters and blog posts change the built environment? Will they introduce a new sensitivity to human flourishing in a profession typically in thrall to the currents of nihilism and abstraction found in the world of fine art?
Not all at once, and not right away. That is the beauty of outworking. One man plants, another waters, and God gives the increase. Right now I’m focused on planting. But like the stones of New England fields, occasionally something rises to the surface that makes me think those efforts are not entirely in vain.
David Greusel is a lead architect with Populous, formerly known as HOK Sport Venue Event, in Kansas City and one who shares the aims and aspirations of The Clapham Institute.