American Urbanism: Highway 61 Visited

Author: School of Architecture

In August 2009 Professor Philip Bess took his Graduate Urban Design Studio on the road. The group wound through the South following famed U.S. Route 61 (The Blues Highway), and the Natchez Trace, among others. With the goal of studying regional urbanism, the group started with Oxford, Mississippi, continued through Starkville, Vicksburg, Port Gibson, St. Francesville, and finished in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The main goals of the traveling studio were to experience different forms of urbanism in motion, to understand how regional forms developed, and to add to the students' overall awareness of how urban design impacts lives. “You become a great urbanist,” Professor Bess said, “by immersing yourself in the urban fabric as it’s functioning.”

To capture the structure and spirit of each place, students documented town squares, regional building typologies, and significant historic architecture. But they also studied the everyday pulse–how citizens circulated through the cities, how climate and landscape affected architectural forms and why, among other details, porches were plentiful.

Along the way, the group met with developers and policymakers to see how multiple forces contributed to town-building. In the case of post-Katrina New Orleans, that involved the added variable of revitalizing and rebuilding devastated areas in a way that respects regional forms while facilitating urban recovery and sustainability.