Maurice Cox: ‘Design for All’


Coming rather late, here are my notes and thoughts from Maurice Cox’s October 13th lecture at the Tulane University School of Architecture. Maurice was my architecture studio professor in the spring of 4th year, and I’ve run into him since through his involvement with the City of Moss Point, Mississippi. He’s a brilliant guy, so there was no hesitation about heading over to New Orleans for the lecture. First, a little biographical information:


Maurice Cox was appointed Director of Design for the National Endowment for the Arts in October 2007 where he supervises the grant making process in design, oversees the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, Governors’ Institute on Community Design, and Your Town programs, and provides professional leadership in architecture and design to the nation. On leave from the University of Virginia School of Architecture in Charlottesville, where he is an Associate Professor of Architecture, Cox most recently led graduate students in the development of award-winning proposals for the rebuilding of affordable housing in New Orleans following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. Cox served as Mayor of Charlottesville from 2002-2004. His experience merges architecture, politics and design education to define a new role for the designer—the architect as civic leader. He was a founding partner of RBGC Architecture, Research and Urbanism from 1996-2006. RBGC received national acclaim for its partnerships with communities traditionally underserved by architecture. Cox most recently partnered with Ken Schwartz in Community Planning + Design Workshop (CP+D). A recipient of the 2004-05 Loeb Fellow at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and the 2006 John Hejduk Award for Architecture, Cox received his architectural education from the Cooper Union School of Architecture. (Source)

‘Design for All’

My much-abbreviated notes follow. The basic argument: Design is a basic democratic right that should be accessible to all.

The role of the designer is multifaceted — that of facilitator, problem solver, advocate, activist, instigator, public citizen. Design and public life must be intermingled, not separated by artificial distinctions of ‘professional’. Thomas Jefferson put it this way: “Design activity and political thought are indivisible.”

A designer in the public arena has an opportunity to engage the public and bring together everyone with a stake. This creates a discussion that can touch on the benefits, not just the dangers, of change.

A Community Design Center creates a neutral ground where people can enter into the design process much more comfortably than they could by, for instance, walking into a city planning department.

In the case of Charlottesville, VA, Maurice joined the City Council and then became mayor. During this time, changes took many years of constant effort. The very successful Downtown Mall, for instance, took 25 years to reach its current success. By contrast, many other cities have abandoned similar malls as failures after only a couple years.

Architects and designers should get involved in public life, but it doesn’t have to be as mayor: design anchored planning commissions, ad-hoc design task forces, and design review boards all play a role in the development of well-designed public space.

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Again, my notes are pretty thin; I was familiar with many of the projects Maurice talked about, especially the City of Charlottesville, where I lived during college. His career is an interesting one because it’s the path very much less taken for architects, few of whom immerse themselves so much in public policy and civic leadership, and it’ll be worth following over the coming years.

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