Monday, April 8, 2013

Community-Building Wisdom of J. Irwin Miller

Why and how we build matters -- more for people and community than for impressions

J. Irwin Miller in his Columbus, Indiana, backyard.
Photo by John Loengard, LIFE, 1967
ARCHITECTURAL GIANT.  Indiana lost a great mind and spirit when J. Irwin Miller died in 2004.  Miller used his influence to shape Columbus, Indiana into an “architectural capital."  Miller's influence is not just in buildings, but in ways of seeing and thinking and caring about people and places and organizations.  The following excerpts are from a speech he gave in Indianapolis about twenty years ago.  This is rich food for thought for community builders.

MAKE THE MOST OF SMALL OPPORTUNITIES.  “Your chance is to be found in a continuing succession of small, manageable events - little opportunities as well as the great ones.  Every time any public building is built, that building is a statement to anyone who uses it, anyone who passes by, as to what this city thinks about itself, what standards it sets for itself, what it aims to be.”

WHAT STATEMENTS DO OUR BUILDINGS MAKE?  “It matters not whether the building be a city hall, a museum, a school, a jail, a fire station, a parking garage, a park, or for that matter, new signage laws, exposed power lines, or the design of benches at bus stops.  Each, for good or ill, makes a statement.”

CREATE ENDURING MESSAGES.  “If the design and construction is clearly aimed to be the best it can be, that message is sent out every day, as long as the building or the park, or the ordinance stands.  If the design is ugly or routine and the construction shoddy, the message is that nobody really cares.  Nothing you do or build is too small or too insignificant not to do well.”

AIM FOR THE BEST EVERY DAY.  “The opportunity to aim for the best we know how to do comes up every year, every month.  The cumulative impact of caring enough to seize each opportunity, great and small, year after year, can change any city for the better within a generation.”

EXCELLENCE IS CONTAGIOUS.  “It does something else too.  It generates among others a desire to aim for the best: Churches build better.  Merchants build better.  The sights of builders of private homes are raised.  Interest in fine parks arises.  Streets become more attractive.  People plant more trees.”

INCIPIENT INFLUENCES.  “And in the invisible --  which maybe is more important in the long run -- determination for better education, for the elimination of crime, and drugs, and poverty, and teen pregnancy is nourished.  Young people aim higher in their own education and life goals.”

THE POWER OF EXAMPLE.  “You may, of course, not see convincing proof in your lifetime.  But, if you believe in the power of example, then you must believe that such an example, begun in many small ways, in deprived even more than in affluent areas, steadily pursued, handed on to succeeding generations, will over time make this a most remarkable city indeed.  You will have made a difference.”

AVOID MANYNESS.  “A few cautions now. And this comes out of my own local experience.  Avoid some of today's common reasons given for support of good design, support of the arts, support of humane projects, many of the ‘good things’ Euripides was thinking of.”

PEOPLE COME FIRST.  “Your concern will fail if it arises primarily because you are convinced it will be ‘good for business.’  It will be good for business, but people come first.  Business exists to serve people, not the other way around.  If ‘good for business’ is your reason, then the first down year in the economy will turn your attention away from such things.  They will be treated as ornaments easily foregone in bad times.”

HANG BEING “NUMBER ONE.”  “Your concern will also fail if it arises primarily because ‘We want to be No. 1.’  When the going gets tough, there is always the temptation to proclaim ‘We ARE No. 1.’  And to turn to matters that require less staying power.”

AVOID COMPARISON-MOTIVATED ACTION.  “Your concern will fail if it arises primarily because you want to say ‘We've got culture too.’  This is operating with your eyes enviously focused on some other fellow - not on the job at hand.”

GOOD FOR EVERYONE.  “Finally -- some encouragement.  Don't look over your shoulder at anyone.  Set your eyes on beginning to make your city a good city for all its members, a "home" for the least as well as for the greatest.  Realize that this goal will not be reached in your lifetime.”

LAY FOUNDATIONS.  “Don't try for instant ‘image.’  Instead emulate the cathedral builders of the 12th Century who were content simply to make great plans and to lay in their lifetimes no more than the footings and foundations.”

CONTINUOUSLY IMPROVE EVERYTHING.  “Next -- never miss an opportunity, however small, in respect to something that is going to be done anyway.  Try to see that it is done better than it would have been done, had you not stepped in.”

ATTACK INJUSTICE.  “Finally, never miss an opportunity to correct an obvious evil, an obvious injustice, great or small.  We approach justice in this world by attacking injustice.  We achieve beauty by attacking ugliness.”

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your tasteful comments and/or questions are welcome. Posts are moderated only to reduce a few instances of incivility.