In an exciting development for Memphis, several hundred of its riverfront cobblestones are going on a road trip.

They will be the stars of an exhibition that will shine a matchless spotlight on Memphis at the world’s most celebrated exposition of art and architecture – La Biennale di Venezia (Venice Biennale).  There, the story and the allegory of the historic stones will be used to explore the meaning of placemaking and architecture in keeping with the United States Pavilion’s theme of Dimensions of Citizenship

The cobblestones featured in Venice, Italy, speak to the value of Memphis’ relationship with Studio Gang, an architecture and urban design firm with offices in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, that developed the exciting and elegant 2017 conceptual plan for the riverfront.  Because of Studio Gang’s prestige and reputation, Memphis has been ushered into a network of imaginative thinkers about how to connect people in meaningful ways to each other, their communities, and their environments.

In Venice, Studio Gang will tell what it calls Stone Stories: Civic Memory and Public Space in Memphis.  “We are proposing to help facilitate storytelling around citizenship in Memphis through gathering and sharing the stories of exceptional Memphis citizens,” Studio Gang wrote in its booklet about the project.

More Feet On the Cobblestones Than In Decades

Studio Gang will transport several hundred cobblestones 5,000 miles to Venice where they will be relaid in the United States Pavilion “to form a powerful spatial experience punctuated with special stones highlighting the citizenship stories that visitors can discover beneath their feet.”

An inventory toward the end of the 20th century said that the riverfront has 800,000 cobblestones, and the Riverfront Development Corporation has 2,000 cobblestones stored in its maintenance yard, so there is no lack of raw materials for the special Venice exhibition.  (It suggests how massive the original landing was since it lost land to parks on the south and north of the cobblestones and Riverside Drive took up some of them on the east as well.)

The installation in Venice will take place between April 23 – May 18 and will open to the public May 26.  It will remain at the 16th International Venice Architecture Biennale until November 25.  By that time, more than a quarter of a million people are expected to visit the international architecture exhibition held in even-numbered years.  Art Biennale is held in odd-numbered years.

We’ve made no secret about our excitement and enthusiasm for Studio Gang’s concept plan, which describes how six miles of the riverfront can be stitched together into a network of signature spaces and experiential opportunities that each of us can individualize.

National Standards

Here’s just a reminder from our post in July, 2017:  “It’s hard for us to recall any report, plan, or study about Memphis that has ever been so lovingly and positively reported or that has such profound aspirations to set national standards.  Now, all it takes is what we have provided precious little of over the past 35 years – action.  That’s the most encouraging indicator from this process.  We can think of no time in recent history when more funders and leaders were aligned to make something happen.

“The relatively recent entry into Memphis by the Kresge Foundation continues to write a new chapter in ambition and critical thinking.    It seems highly possible that we will look back to the day as a milestone when Kresge Foundation – which has entreaties for help from cities everywhere – decided that Memphis deserved its special help.  That it is supported and joined in the riverfront work by the Hyde Family Foundation – which is behind so much good that happens here – and the involvement of the Riverfront Development Corporation bode well for future action.

“None of this would have happened, however, if it had not been for Mayor Strickland, whose stamp of approval was required to set this process in motion.  It belies criticisms that being ‘brilliant at the basics’ rules out concern for improved livability and urban design.

“We are particularly impressed that the riverfront report demonstrates a deft touch, in particular saluting the environmental issues that have so often been a point of division in moving ahead.  Not only did the report honor the existing environment, it also set ecological restoration as a priority.  This is a powerful lesson learned at Shelby Farms Park, where a planning principle was that it takes people to restore ecologies that people disrupted.  More to the point, the concepts are built on the belief that that in stitching together underused public assets on the riverfront, we are doing more than mending broken connections, we are in fact creating a new civic fabric as the riverfront comes to not only symbolize the city we once were but the city we want to be.”

More Than Another Job

What has been most heartening for us is the feeling that the Memphis riverfront is not just another project for Studio Gang, but work that speaks to the values and the soul of the firm.  Evidence of this is not just seen in its exceptional ideas for the riverfront but in the way it understands and articulates why the riverfront matters and what it means to the city.

It is proven once again when Studio Gang writes in its booklet about the Venice Biennale: “The diverse mosaic of stones that make up the Landing tell the story of Memphis and its people, though today those stories – which range across fact and fiction – remain largely opaque.  The site is fertile ground for convening a community conversation that brings Memphians together to discuss their history, lift up the stories of today’s citizen leaders, and begin to imagine and realize a collectively meaningful future for this and other places they own in common.  The project can also resonate beyond Memphis by providing an example to cities across the world who want to shape a more vibrant and inclusive future from the complex public spaces they’ve inherited.”

When the Biennale ends, the cobblestones will be returned to Memphis where Studio Gang hopes they will contribute to the Landing’s next chapter, which could include site-specific interventions, “to transform Cobblestone Landing into a more welcoming and meaningful place.”

The italics are ours, because while there has been a great deal of conversation about an important project – preserving and restoring the cobblestones, it’s time for just as much conversation about what can be done to make them interactive, tactile, and an exploration rather than restoring them for $6.9 million into a largely uninviting and unwelcoming space.

Making The Most Of The Moment

This will be a valuable discussion, and hopefully, it will end with a decision for how we can interact with and experience one of Memphis’ first great places – the Great Memphis Landing/Cobblestone Landing.  Today, at a time when placemaking is driving concepts for the future of the riverfront, there should be no argument that applying these principles to the cobblestones is a conversation important to have.

There are some rare moments in the life of a city when events, leadership, and vision align in a way that inspire and mobilize historic leaps to be made and great things to be accomplished.  After 40 years of waiting for progress to be made in transforming the riverfront into one of the country’s best, all the elements are in place for real progress to be made.

There’s Studio Gang, philanthropies, City Hall, and downtown leadership, and best of all, Carol Coletta, one of Memphis’ brightest minds and a nationally prominent and highly respected expert on placemaking and cities, now heads the Riverfront Development Corporation.   If ever we are to achieve our ambitions of creating a vibrant, enchanting, and elegant riverfront, this is unquestionably our time.

It doesn’t really matter what each of us sees as the reason for the present alignment – providence, destiny, fate, good fortune, or merely luck – but there’s no question that we cannot let this unique opportunity pass us by.


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