"The impact of design on people is palpable . . . These blocks hold enormous potential."

It takes a special combination of experiences to jump-start creativity in a city. During the Renaissance, individuals combined scientific genius with artistic talent to spawn innovation.

Architect Greg Walker, who, by the way, would never compare himself to da Vinci, has brought a unique set of skills to generating creative urban planning ideas in Salt Lake City.

Walker, lured by skiing from Manhattan Beach, Calif., studied art at the University of Utah. "I fell in love with environmental installation artwork."

But Walker's first career, which he says was formative to his design work, was art of a different sort—managing the men's and women's shoe departments for Nordstrom. "It helped me become articulate. I learned the importance of understanding a design product and how to convey that to a customer," says Walker, who can still rattle off the wonders of stitched soles and full leather lining. "I learned to explain my profession to people who don't understand it."

If some architects seem condescending when dealing with clients, Walker's shoe-selling days give him a grounded approach. "Nordstrom was about whatever it takes to make the customer happy." 

After 16 years in shoes, Walker yearned to return to something more creatively satisfying. He turned to his father-in-law Richard Toth, a professor of landscape architecture at Utah State University, who asked Walker what he wanted to do with his life.

"I want to do large-scale sculptural installations," Walker answered.

"What do you think architecture is?" Toth asked.

Walker graduated in 2008 from the U of U's architecture program. Now, as an architect at VCBO and chair of the Young Architects Forum, Walker has been key in launching projects that push the boundaries of design.

Salt Lake City residents have been enchanted by "Sway'd," an art installation next to the Capitol Theatre downtown. It temporarily occupies the empty lot that will soon be the home of Ballet West. Instead of dressing up the future construction site with shrubbery, Walker and other designers proposed using the allotted landscaping funds on a design competition to create an inspiring space. The winner was "Sway'd," an arrangement of 10-foot flexible graphite rods that sway in the wind like grain. 

The Young Architect Forum's newest competition is Sixtynine-Seventy (sixtynineseventy.com), which seeks design ideas to make the two downtown blocks south of the City Creek mall into a creative incubator. The goal is to provide a "connective tissue" for the neighborhood's creative and commercial properties. 

"We really think Salt Lake City is on the cusp creatively. These blocks hold enormous potential," he says, to bring a sense of community to an area shared by Ballet West, the Rose Wagner theater, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, the proposed site for the Utah Performing Arts Center, the Utah Film Center and dozens of bars and restaurants. The goal is to design an environment that will trigger more innovation and creativity. If this sounds vague, it is. Walker says he can't guess what ideas will result from the competition. But his fantasy is to someday see UMOCA's curator, the film center's director and a skateboarder swapping art ideas in a coffee shop on Main Street. 

"The impact of design on people is palpable," he promises. "Maybe one of these ideas will click and we'll find a way for it to happen."

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