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UTA CAPPA Commencement Address 2015

December 21, 2015

Introductory remarks by Nan Ellin, Dean of CAPPA

Dr. Gail Thomas is the President and CEO of The Trinity Trust to ensure the Trinity River Corridor, encompassing 10,000 acres, becomes the centerpiece of Dallas. Upon its completion it will compose the largest urban park in the U.S., with sports fields, trails, nature centers and recreational opportunities ranging from kayaking to horseback riding. At the same time, it will protect downtown Dallas from future flooding while providing environmental restoration, improving transportation congestion, and spurring economic development.

Prior to leading this effort, Dr. Thomas directed the Center for Civic Leadership at the University of Dallas, co-founded the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, and served as its Director for 17 years. Over the last 3 and one half decades, she has convened a series of conferences called, What Makes a City?, bringing together city planners, architects, artists, scientists, poets, teachers, business and civic leaders. The impact of these gatherings has been profound.

Dr. Thomas has written the books Healing Pandora: The Restoration of Hope and Abundance, Imagining Dallas and Pegasus, and The Spirit of Cities. She was instrumental in the creation of Pegasus Plaza in downtown Dallas and the restoration of Dallas’ icon: Pegasus, the Flying Red Horse.

Gail Thomas has received numerous awards including the Kessler Award for improving quality of life in Dallas, the Athena Award from The University of Dallas, the Award of Excellence in Community Service from the Dallas Historical Society, and the 2014 J. Erik Jonsson Ethics Award from SMU’s Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility. She also has been designated one of “The Dallas 25” by D Magazine, “Woman of the Year” by Les Femmes du Monde, and an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects.

We are extremely grateful to her for joining us today. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Gail Thomas.


UTA CAPPA Commencement Address 2015

Civic Virtues: The Making of a 21st Century City

Gail Thomas


I am very happy to be with you this morning, and I am grateful to be asked to speak with you.

I want to talk about how we, each one of us, can help; how we can make a difference. You walk out of this hall today and commence the rest of your lives. You commence to create a living world. A living breathing, imagining world.

I want to begin with an image: a piece I wrote in 1985.

I remember the crisp air that June evening when my husband and I walked down Bloor Street with Jane Jacobs and her husband Bob. Jane was guiding us to her favorite Sushi bar. This was the first of many visits to Toronto to see Jane, and it didn’t take long to realize that Bloor Street was Jane’s street. “Hi, Jane!” the man behind the fresh fruit stand yelled. “Hi, Steve,” Jane waved back. Jane made certain we noted the fact that the shops were open well into the evening and that the street was full of people talking and gossiping. A few were shopping, but the doors to the shops seemed to be open for social reasons as well as for commercial ones.

I also remember the smells on the street. Food was being cooked. I could smell onions. Flowers were on the street, but also people, lots of people. I remember being aware of the smell of city life. Not repugnant, but the opposite. I loved it. Coming from Dallas were streets are not for people, I realized how much I love city life with all the senses sharpened and alert…..”

And so, Graduates, I offer that as an image of city life. Degree in hand, you are going forth into the making of our public spaces (most of you probably already are). You are making our world, whether in policy or form.

And if each one of us is tasked with the making of a good city, as I propose we are, how do we discern what that is?

How do we forge new paths and yet not lose our way? How we create places that promote the common good?

What can we point to today and say: “We hold these truths to be self evident...?"

What tools do we use? Is there a logical answer?

Albert Einstein said: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will get you everywhere.”

So, I want to talk about Imagination. We are each gifted with a magical elixir. I call it the “third thing in Architecture.”

Look carefully at this word IMAGINATION.

Examine it. Literally, it is Image in Action.

It says, in one simple word: "If we get the Image right, we are propelled into Action.”

But what is the image? How do we know? What is the public good? What are Civic Virtues in a 21st Century city?

Plato says in order to do anything, achieve anything, one must have an image in the iris of the eye, so that everything you see, you see through this image. Image is everything….in art, in architecture, in city planning, in poetry. What is the image?

I have utilized the teaching of one of my mentors, Dr. Donald Cowan, a physicist who loved poetry, who gave us:

Three Modes of knowing: Grasping, Mapping, and Making.

These three modes have accompanied me through difficult projects in our city, political battles, underfunded projects, lack of vision and public will.

Grasping: We must seek basic truths before we launch into action. There needs to be a fundamental reason to move forward; a basic need to be fulfilled. Close your eyes for a moment and grasp as an image the 20th century city. You see it immediately. This city is built to move us through it as quickly as possible—fast lanes, fast food, lots of roads, more roads, and airplane terminals, suburbs, and shopping malls.

Now, grasp an image of a 21st century city. What comes? For me it is scenes that remind me what it means to be a human being.….walking, sitting, sensing the wind on my face, smelling the fragrance of a garden, or a bush or tree. And of course, being with others, eating, sharing, and cheering.

Beauty is present; Beauty has its own energy that propels it forward into action.

And Truth; we “just know” it is right.

Grasping involves a condition I call “poesis” – that realm which is a showing forth of an invisible universe running alongside the visible order we take for granted every moment. David Bohm calls it the Implicate Order. This “coming together” of worlds, of realms, has a vibration--colors, textures, aromas, elusive sensations-- and finally, this “coming together” of worlds finds a voice. This voice is pure poetry. Or it shows itself through an image. It offers expression of some basic, underlying truth.

Your dean, Nan Ellin, calls it the Tao, the 10,000 things.

Mapping is easier. It is usually where most development projects begin.

Mapping — plotting the course; design; drawing. We chart the course. We make the plan. We design, prepare the MOU. Sign the contract.

Making — action; bringing the idea into being.

The poet Alan Tate says “Action is Love carried to the heart."

These three: “Grasping Mapping Making” form a litmus test for Civic Virtue.

Amazingly, all three are present in the actual word ARCHITECTURE.

Arch i Tect ure —

archoi first principles, the arch, the ancient ones.

tectonics, the texture of our world, woven together

ure, into the future, culture.

architecture — we take the first principles, basic truths, and we weave them together into forms and the forms themselves guide us into the future and determine who we are.

We need, each one of us, to make places that are healing. Each one of us has in our hearts the desire to create a place that is whole. It is our basic nature to “aspire” to wholeness. All nature does. Greek philosopher Plotinus says, “Everything aspires to wholeness, every rock, tree, running brook.” And we as humans especially desire places that allow us to be whole, to be fully human. Few places in our built world do. We have lived through several decades of believing that we are economic creatures, driven only by monetary needs. Alas, we have bitterly deceived ourselves. Our human condition will simply no longer stand for such a narrow definition of what it means to be human. The soul connection has been forgotten.

We are forming a new culture. The future is here. The 21st century is a time for the spirit of community--communal spirit--the way the 19th century was given to the spirit of individualism, but it is taking us years of transition to get there. And the most immediate training ground for the formation of this new culture is the city. We will be learning to live in a new way in our cities -- a way of intimacy.

I will end with this reading from the architect/poet Christopher Alexander:

"There is one timeless way of building.

It is thousands of years old, and the same today as it has always been.

It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way.

It is a process through which the order of a building or a town grows out directly from the inner nature of the people, and the animals, and plants, and matter which are in it.

It is a process which allows the life inside a person, or a family, or a town, to flourish, openly, in freedom, so vividly that it gives birth, of its own accord, to the natural order which is needed to sustain this life.

It is so powerful that with its help hundreds of people together can create a town, which is alive and vibrant, peaceful and relaxed, a town as beautiful as any town in history.

Each one of us wants to be able to bring a building or part of a town to life like this.

Each one of us has, somewhere in his or her heart, the dream to make a living world.”

-- Christopher Alexander

Go forth, Graduates, and create your dream, make a living world.