Less than a year after taking the three-question Mystery of Mooresville (urbanism, architecture, and process) back to college with me, Wanda asked me the most searching question of my career: “Why is it that you refuse to design anything anyone else I love would love?” “Do I?” “Of course you do!” “How do you know?” “Have you ever listened to non-architects talk about architecture?” “Our professors tell us we’re supposed to educate the client.” “Well, if you’d stop and listen to the people, they might actually educate you.”

I had no answer, but took it to heart. And while I did a fairly good job of designing stuff the professors liked, I soon realized that I had no idea how to design things non-architects would love. In fairness, not all professors were alike. Much of the faculty was made up of dedicated Miesians or Corbusians, but there were notable exceptions.

Key People

Marv Rosenman was key on the faculty, opening many doors of thought for the more curious ones of us, and was clearly more interested in our development than pushing a style agenda. More professors should be like Marv. Jack Wells opened our eyes to how much there was to learn about the long heritage of humane architecture in the first year. Bob Koester accelerated my thinking on how buildings condition themselves naturally, and brought me back in 2010 to lecture on the Original Green. David Hermansen in later years was a great curator of appreciation for humane architecture. And Dan Woodfin, a Pattern Language advocate, was invaluable in my thesis year, when a few things were finally beginning to come together for me. I owe them all. David Rau, Allan McGuire and Mark Fishero were chief of my fellow-travelers, questioning us all and opening doors some professors would prefer to remain tightly closed.

Searching for the Unknown

But upon graduation, my curiosity about designing what the people love overwhelmed my nearly non-existent abilities to actually do so. I remember trying to design a refined house for no particular client after graduation; I quickly developed a good plan, but had no idea how to properly compose a calm and dignified elevation. I left that drawing unfinished during several years of self-education, until I was finally able to complete it. During those years, I had no idea what I was searching for, where to find it, or if it even yet existed.

By about 1992, the doors to open thinking slammed shut as the Modernist hegemony returned in full force, with stories in the journals about the nascent New Urbanism and new traditional architecture slowing to a trickle, then drying up entirely. Working in the flyover hinterlands where architecture was more of a business than a passion for most, I completely lost contact with the architects and urbanists who had served as my compass. It seemed I was all alone.

Finding My People

Then one late September day in 1995, I got an invitation from some group I’d never heard of called the ICA promoting an event in Manhattan a few weeks later. Seems like they had an interest in humane architecture, so I quickly signed up. It didn’t take long once the symposium began that I had found my people! I was not alone!

That quickly led to a search for the urbanism side of the coin. All I had known up until then was Seaside, but it turns out that Andrés Duany & Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of DPZ (Seaside’s planners) and a group of likeminded revolutionaries had founded the Congress for the New Urbanism two years previous, in October 1993. Emboldened by these facts, I began promoting the New Urbanism to developers I’d been working with locally and by 1997 a local project had begun.

The Big Plan Break

There were two star traditional architects of the day who Southern Living had discovered, one of whom was originally slated to do most of the plans for this local traditional neighborhood, but his houses were all designed for lots that were wide and shallow, and his refusal to design anything for the slender and deep lots in the plan opened the door for me to start designing plans for the neighborhood.

Catalog of the Most-Loved Places

About 30 months later, a Friday afternoon debate with the Town Architect of the place led to a weekend-long photo safari across the region. Before Monday morning dawned, what later became known as the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places had begun. Today, it numbers over a hundred thousand images in neighborhoods and towns across the US and in Europe, catalogued by street address, and stands as one of the big steps in my self-education.

DPZ Changes Everything

Two years later, DPZ showed up in town to design the Village of Providence. I had an office of about a dozen people by then which could run itself for awhile, so I decided that since Andrés and Lizz had been my heroes since first seeing the plan of Seaside 21 years earlier, I should show up and volunteer a week. It turns out that in the New Urbanism, even the heroes welcome help from strangers so long as they show up with good ideas and hard work.

We hit it off almost instantly, and for the next several years, I did so many charrettes with DPZ that many thought I actually worked there. And a year after the Providence charrette, Andrés said “Steve, if you move to South Beach, I’ll get clients for you from all over the world who would never do business with an architect in a small southern town because they’d assume you’re no good. But if you live in South Beach, they’ll believe anything I tell them.”

It was an agonizing process, pulling up roots in the town where I was born at 43 years old and moving a thousand miles to a place where we felt like expats. But the 17 years we were there wrought an amazing transformation for us. At the rate I’d been burning myself out on 100-hour weeks in my original hometown, it’s unlikely I’d even be alive today. And by that time, I had found clear direction on two of the three questions in the Mystery of Mooresville: how to design and build places that are compact, mixed-use, and walkable (urbanism) and how to design buildings people love (architecture). But still the third question remained: what was the process that allowed the wisdom of building so well to be passed down to future generations that for so long weren’t even able to read?

The Great Epiphany

On July 19, 2004, less than a year afer we accepted Andrés’ invitation and “took our talents to South Beach” we began an architectural charrette with the Urban Guild which I co-founded with Nathan Norris in 2001 for a DPZ project in Madison, Mississippi for a place named after its ancient Native American name: Lost Rabbit. On the first morning of the charrette, the design team made a fateful decision not to base our work on a random collection of historical styles, but rather the best architecture of this place. At that time, this was revolutionary.

On the final night of the charrette, we had the customary celebratory dinner, then departed for our accommodations. The design team was staying at the Millsaps-Buie House in downtown Jackson (a B&B), and we were saying our goodbyes when someone asked Milton Grenfell, a Mississippi native, the pivotal question: “Milton, why are bell-cast eaves so popular in Mississippi?” “We do this because in these parts, we have torrential rains, especially in hurricanes and their aftermath. And if your roof is too shallow in a hurricane, it’ll likely get sucked off, while if it’s too steep, it’ll likely get overturned. But at 8/12 to 9/12, it’s strong. But at those slopes, torrential rains will dig a trench in your yard. So the bell-cast eaves break the force of the water, sending it off the roof in more of a spray than a sheet.

It took a few moments for it to hit me… “wait, what did he just say??” “We do this because… That’s it!! That’s what I’ve been looking for all these years!!” These four words are the key to unlocking the last question of the Mystery of Mooresville! If every pattern in a language of architecture can be expressed in these terms, then it’s clear how a living tradition can be passed down from generation to generation with nothing more than an oral tradition! This last turn of the key late on the evening of July 21, 2004 changed everything for me in the sixteen years between then and now.
This is the second post of three; the next will be tomorrow on the 40th anniversary of the origin of the Mystery of Mooresville telling the story of the benefits of unlocking the mystery.

Previous: The Mystery of Mooresville (part 1)

Next: The Mystery of Mooresville (part 3)