The Legacy of Michael Barranco

   Written March 1, 2011:

   Actually, the title's a bit misleading, because this post is only about the parts of Michael Barranco's legacy which I've observed personally. Michael was a Renaissance man; an architect, artist, musician, and civic leader. The more than two and a half thousand people who packed the Performing Arts Center at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi on Saturday for the celebration of Michael's life attested to how much he meant to so many in his community. But Michael's life and work also had a much broader impact, even though he never would have told you so himself.

   I first met Michael in Jackson, Mississippi, at DPZ's planning charrette for Lost Rabbit, a new town on the Ross Barnett reservoir near Madison, Mississippi. Mark Frascogna and Richard Ridgeway, the Town Founders of Lost Rabbit, had selected Michael to be the Town Architect. We had a lot to talk about from the very beginning, because I'd served as Town Architect in a number of new towns and neighborhoods for several years. I could go on for hours about the character, generosity, intensity, and basic decency of this man, but then, many others share those characteristics. Let's look instead at the events spawned as a result of those characteristics.

   Several months after the planning charrette, Michael started talking to me about an architectural charrette to develop home designs for Lost Rabbit. This is highly unusual, because most first-time Town Architects without a long-running history in the New Urbanism tend to use their position to secure as much work as possible for themselves. Michael, on the other hand, was doing the right and generous (but highly unusual) thing of bringing in some of the best New Urbanist architects he could find. We selected Eric Moser, Julie Sanford, Lou Oliver, and Milton Grenfell from the ranks of the New Urban Guild and set the charrette for July, 2004. It would be the second official New Urban Guild charrette, after the one at Alys Beach that January.

   Michael was a major part of an extraordinary decision made on the first morning of the charrette to focus on a best architecture of the region. Previously, most developments picked a random handful of historical styles for their architectural "collection." This decision, made jointly but with Michael's urging, transformed so many things about the way we have worked in the years since. But that was only the beginning of transformations. A much bigger one was a couple days away.

   The charrette proceeded with palpable excitement over this different way of doing architecture; and the shadows of new insights hung strong in the air.  Michael and Jene hosted dinner the night before the charrette ended; it was an evening of new bonds and new ideas. The final day came and went, as did the celebratory dinner. Later, as we stood in the parlor of our B&B, the Millsaps-Buie house, came the most transformative moment of my career. We were still trying to get our minds wrapped around all the new implications of this way of working. I had been searching for years for what I called the "Heartbeat of Living Traditions," not sure quite what it was, but clear on the fact that it allowed ordinary people, for most of history, to build extraordinary places better than what the best planners and architects could do now.

   Late that evening, someone was describing an architectural element's function as "We do this because..." And then it hit me: "We do this because..." That's it!! That's the Heartbeat!!! If you put every pattern of a language of architecture into these terms, then you open up the rationale of the patterns and allow architecture to live again! It isn't just some random collection of historical styles... it's what we do and why we do it!

   Had Michael not advocated so strongly on that first morning for taking this approach, for reasons none of us understood at the moment, the Transmission Device might not have been rediscovered that last night. And so many things might have remained locked up to us, even unto this day.

   Just over a year later, the Gulf Coast was irreparably and violently changed by Hurricane Katrina. I had been on the road for several days before and after the storm, and returned to Miami both physically and emotionally exhausted on September 1. My wife and business partner Wanda met me at the office door. She said "I've been on the phone with Michael Barranco; it's urgent. You need to call him tonight." I was exhausted and wanted to call him on later. Surely he'd be out of the office by this hour.

   But Wanda persisted, and so I called. Michael was still there. He said "Steve, we're assembling a Governor's Commission, and we'd like to have you come and speak to them very soon about how to rebuild Mississippi according to the principles of the New Urbanism…" We talked for a good while longer about the particulars, and about the storm. Michael was still running his office by candlelight, as Jackson had taken a big hit from the storm, too, even though it is well over 100 miles inland.

   I realized immediately that the job was too big for me. The rebuilding of the entire Gulf Coast deserved the very best, and deserved more than just a speech. I called Andrés Duany and arranged to come over in the morning to discuss this new development. Andrés, revered by many as the world's greatest rock star of planning, said "this is too big for me, too... let's call in the entire Congress for the New Urbanism." And so we did. And with this began a series of events that changed forever both the Gulf Coast and the New Urbanism.

   Through the years that followed, Michael worked quietly at the highest levels to advance the right ideals of rebuilding. Without him, we were just a bunch of outsiders, but with him, we were far more effective. If you really pressed him, he would simply say that he was doing what any civic-minded person would do. But he's responsible for so much more than that. The Mississippi Renewal Forum was the largest planning event in human history, with nearly 200 planners working side-by-side in one cavernous room to re-plan the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It never would have happened without Michael.

   The Katrina Cottages initiative sprang out of the recovery work. Katrina Cottages would likely never have existed without Michael. So many careers, including my own, have been unalterably changed by the awful necessity of trying to stand up and do something to help those devastated states recover... and that first big move in Mississippi that opened so many doors thereafter would never have been possible without Michael. Even today, the New Urbanists are the most trusted people in recoveries in other places such as Haiti... and that all began with Michael. So this one man, humbly doing what he considered to be his civic duty, has seen the influences of that duty ripple outward far beyond what he ever would have imagined, around the country and across the seas.

   That civic duty now has ended. One week ago tonight, Michael died in a one-car accident in northern Mississippi returning from a meeting with clients. Michael was 48; he was married to Jene almost 24 years; they have four children.

   But though his duty has ended, his legacy has only begun. We who knew him well mourn his loss deeply, but there is so much that will live on. How might we recover differently from future disasters, both at home and abroad, because of what Michael started? How might the Katrina Cottages become a part of the solution of affordable housing? And of multi-generational homesteads? And of working from home? How will architecture change, now that we understand the Heartbeat of Living Traditions? It may take a lifetime to discover answers to these and other questions about the legacy of Michael Barranco.

© 2012 The Guild Foundation Press