Nov. 22-Dec. 5, 2002
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Mayor brings architect’s tools to the table
photo by Jenny Gerow
Students study Charlottesville-based planning and architecture issues in professor Maurice Cox’s class.

By “about 80 percent of mayoral issues are architectural –
the hospital needs to expand… schools are failing due to housing patterns… I’m concerned for cities that don’t have architects in the room.” – Maurice Cox

By Derry Voysey

When Maurice Cox returned to the United States after several years in Italy, he quickly noticed a marked difference between the two cultures in the architect’s civic role.

“In Italy, architects are respected — they are part of everyday conversation. But [in the United States], architects’ opinions are not really heard,” said Cox, assistant professor of architecture at U.Va. and co-principal of BCBG Architects.

While Italian architects are regularly consulted on planning and design issues in their localities, American local governments rarely call on their citizen architects for advice, even those with a national reputation for design excellence.

Cox decided the best way to gain the ears of the politicians and civic leaders who ultimately make most of the design choices for public spaces was to join them.

“We have to re-establish the value of [architects’] voices, and we can only do that if we are where the decisions are being made.” He has spent six years on the Charlottesville City Council, initially “just listening.” Later, after gaining the trust and respect of his fellow council members, he began leading planning initiatives designed to tackle issues of transportation, university relations, public housing and development regulation.

“Now,” he said with smile, “I can use terms like ‘mixed-use’ and other councilors know what I mean.” As a result of his efforts, in July he was elected mayor of Charlottesville for a two-year term.

“I would say about 80 percent of mayoral issues are architectural – the hospital needs to expand and is not sure where to go, schools are failing due to housing patterns, middle-income neighborhoods are in isolated pockets. I’m concerned for cities that don’t have architects in the room.”

Cox has brought his students along for the ride, finding ways to blend his civic responsibility to educate the public with his teaching responsibilities at U.Va. In 2000, he organized a seminar for students around the lack of middle-income housing in the Kellytown neighborhood of Charlottesville. Students led community meetings to determine the needs of the neighborhood, conducted research and proposed a housing plan that is currently under construction.

In another civic-minded course, architecture and planning students worked together to evaluate zoning issues threatening the residential character of the lower-income Fifeville neighborhood. From their studio in a former auto dealership downtown, students produced drawings and models for community members and invited them to neighborhood meetings.

They ended up proposing a transition-zone ordinance that reinforces urban design qualities, like building parking lots behind rather than in front of buildings, in mixed-use residential neighborhoods bordering on commercial areas.

The new zoning ordinance is the first to be approved in Charlottesville in 30 years.

The students’ work has since inspired a study that has identified 14 other commercial areas in the city that are expected to have new ordinances.

This fall, all third-year undergraduate architecture students at U.Va. are studying and proposing urban housing options in Charlottesville. They also are looking at light rail transit for future transportation needs, a special project of Cox’s.

Students in the studio will be involved with the mayor’s first annual City Council Institute on Urban Design, a symposium that will invite nationally recognized designers to make suggestions for Charlottesville.

The collaboration of architecture faculty, students, citizens and local government has led to a beneficial exchange. Several faculty members of the School of Architecture have been politically active on the local level for decades, lending their expertise to planning commissions, school boards and water management authorities, all of which find their way into studios at some level.

This integrated approach marks a departure from many architecture programs by pulling students out of the theoretical and into the practical and present needs of their own surroundings. Unlike in many programs, students are asked to interact with and make presentations to members of the larger community. And they get the satisfaction of seeing their studio projects built and their research applied to changes in planning ordinances.

“We are really teaching leadership,” Cox said. “We want to show the students the client model and show them how to redefine the problem.”


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