One Community-Minded Designer Is Tapping the Potential of Chicago’s Vacant Lots

One Community-Minded Designer Is Tapping the Potential of Chicago’s Vacant Lots

The 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial builds on the research of this year’s artistic director, David Brown, who believes small-scale interventions can have a huge impact in neglected neighborhoods.
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The fourth edition of the Chicago Architectural Biennial is the outgrowth of more than a decade of urban design research by this year’s artistic director, David Brown, a designer and researcher at the University of Illinois Chicago. In the biennial’s first year in 2016, Brown presented an exhibition, The Available City, in which he unveiled a framework to reconsider the uses of vacant privately and city-owned parcels in Chicago, which, at the time, numbered more than 15,000.

Now, his vision is taking shape in site-specific architectural projects, exhibitions, and programs that Brown says aim "to demonstrate how the biennial can be a participant in the making of the city." In North Lawndale, Englewood, Pilsen, Woodlawn, and Bronzeville—five historically disinvested, largely Black and brown communities on the city’s South and West Sides—Brown has paired leaders of community organizations with designers to amplify existing efforts to reclaim and repurpose disused and neglected land.

We spoke to Brown to learn more about the biennial, and the potential of newly designed outdoor gathering spaces, play areas, and exhibition and performance spaces to leave a lasting imprint on the city.

Cover the Grid, an architectural scale painting designed by Columbus, Ohio–based firm Outpost Office and produced with a wheeled GPS-guided robot, adds geometric color patterns to the Bell Park play lot. It defines the boundaries of a basketball court, four-square space, and hop skotch route.

How did you begin thinking about how your ideas with The Available City might be put into practice at this year’s biennial?

The first manifestations of The Available City began to take form with Under the Grid. I helped coordinate an urban hack for two students developing [a public art initiative] for a vacant 15-block area under the Pink Line in North Lawndale. Walter Hood came to speak in an online summer workshop for 70 residents and architects from around the city. His design of the Beer Line Trail in Milwaukee, with city trees planted strategically as a continuous grove, and a splash pad and plaza under an elevated freeway at Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, California, were instructive in thinking about the space near the Bell Park site, which features installations by Outpost Office and Studio Barnes.

The orthogonal grids of bearing trees used by Illinois’s surveyors inspired Oakland-based Walter Hood—a professor, MacArthur Fellow, and founder of Hood Design Studio—to create New Witness Trees, a symmetrical grid of sixteen bald cypress trees broken into irregular quadrants by a chain link fence. Visitors can record sentiments on pieces of reflective foil and tie them to the tree branches. Designed to record events of the biennial and those that have shaped the era, the project calls attention to the pandemic, racial reckoning, police brutality, and climate crisis.

Few projects are inhabitable dwellings or buildings, or models of them. Why did you focus on smaller, outdoor typologies?

Given the proposal, I didn’t feel responses necessarily required larger buildings. Grids + Griots by Sekou Cooke Studio on the YMEN (Young Men’s Educational Network) Bike Box site, where shipping containers are used for outdoor storage, small stands for potential vendors, seating and gathering spaces, and space for raised beds qualifies as a small building. The argument is that you can address a fairly wide range of activities that can occur on a site through small-scale spaces that are outdoors and, in and of themselves, create urbanism.

With Grids + Griots, Charlotte, North Carolina–based Sekou Cooke Studio reconfigured a 40-foot long shipping container into components that help activate an adjacent bike repair and sales shop run by the youth leadership organization YMEN (Young Men’s Educational Network). The installation integrates elements such as raised planters, bicycle storage, walkways, gathering areas, and informal retail booths.

Referencing the Sleater Kinney album of the same name, The Center Won’t Hold by Neeraj Bhatia and Cesar Lopez of architecture practice Open Workshop is built to serve as a community gathering space and a speculative vision for resource sharing and skill building. Installed on the site of the Overton Incubator, a historic Perkins and Will–designed brick building and the former home of one of 50 Chicago Public Schools closed in 2013, the timber structure was fabricated by trainees at the nonprofit organization Revolution Workshop. Moving fabric curtains made of construction debris signify how common spaces can evolve with shifting community needs.

How can we assure that these kinds of improvements don’t accelerate gentrification and displacement? Which projects in the biennial, if any, address that?

I think there are greater potential pressures on the 15 commissioned projects at the 12 community sites. The pandemic has created an interest among individuals and families for houses, rather than apartments or condos, and inflated the market for housing. That’s a bigger question, in my mind, matched with speculation in larger scale projects like the Obama Presidential Center.

Today, land is almost in a holding pattern. While waiting for traditional development to happen, there is a continued negative impact on the residents who live in these communities. So, to discourage community-led development from moving forward is, in some sense, like saying do nothing and wait for gentrification to happen.

A climbable play structure at Bell Park by Miami-based architect Germane Barnes of Studio Barnes anchors a more extensive community-led effort to transform a 15-block stretch under the Pink Line train tracks. Designed in collaboration with Shawhin Roudbari, an assistant professor of environmental design at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Mas Context, a community-centric media company in Chicago, the structure and student-created modular wooden blocks for seating—collectively called Block Party—activate an existing concrete play lot owned and operated by the Westside Association for Community Action.

Your 2006 book, Noise Orders: Jazz, Improvisation, and Architecture, considers how the improvisational structure of jazz might apply to architecture and urban design. How do you graft that thinking onto Chicago’s grid?

No one space is intended as a cure-all to address the community’s needs, but each begins to work generatively and gain abundance over time. In a single block of North Lawndale, we see how the PermaPark garden, Soil Lab, and YMEN Bike Box come together to create something bigger. This is where the parallel of jazz and improvisation might apply to architecture. How do you begin thinking about 10,000 vacant spaces? It’s not something where you’re drawing every instance of what could be. It occurs more through local-level improvisation.

The brick, rammed earth, and ceramic-tiled structures of Soil Lab in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood are host to community brickmaking and wall-building workshops. Supported by the Danish Arts Foundation, the commissioned project by European designers James Alvert Martin, Eibhlin Ni Chathasaigh, Anne Dorthe Vesterm, and Maria Bruun draws on the work of landscape architect and Danish immigrant Jens Jensen. In 1935 he founded The Clearing, a school in Wisconsin that offers adults coursework in fine arts, crafts, humanities, and natural sciences.

And this strategy raises questions beyond community gardening. It advocates for a multiplicity of concerns: How can each community utilize land in different ways and at different scales and sequences? The grid system, in some ways, says that all land is uniform. But we know land is not uniform across economies and other vectors. And the ways in which you evaluate possible scenarios for introducing larger infrastructure, to me, work best if you begin with a community-driven effort. What’s the saturation point for community-led responses? And can some of the things the city desires—like stormwater mitigation and greater tree canopies—be part of that same community-driven effort?

The Garden Table by Netherlands-based Studio Ossidiana and Giovanni Bellotti of Venice, Italy, is a cast concrete object with bowl-shaped herb beds, a cooking grill, sculpted areas for table games, and tunnels and steps for children to explore. The installation will become a permanent feature of the El Paseo Community Garden, a one-acre volunteer-run garden and green space owned by the nonprofit land trust NeighborSpace and located in a former brownfield in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

What will happen to the site-specific installations when the biennial ends?

My preference would be to make them all permanent. There are two exceptions: Outpost Office’s [GPS-robot painted installations at Bell Park and El Paseo Community Garden] projects are ephemeral. They will last for about three weeks and the paint, which is VOC-free, will dissolve. Walter Hood’s New Witness Trees project is designed to gain history by bearing witness to activity at the biennial. Residents can leave their names and remembrances of their experiences on pieces of foil.

Switzerland-based architect Manuel Herz paired with the Central Park Restoration Committee to develop a mural on the side of the Central Park Theater, a once-thriving social and cultural hub in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. The mural that extends from the building wall to the ground of the parking lot references the floor plans and domestic spaces that stood next to the building until the 1960s, and depicts Dinah Washington, the "Queen of the Blues," civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman—all former residents of North Lawndale.

Just as important as the ongoing physical presence of the installations is their role as a starting point for ongoing urban design discussion. For instance, Manuel Herz’s [mural] at Central Park Theater doesn’t directly relate to the Central Park Restoration Committee’s effort to restore the building, which needs a new roof and a fire escape to be brought up to code. Yet I think the project is beneficial in both directions. The mural can help raise awareness of the fundraising effort to renovate the building, and further Herz’s understanding of the community’s history.

It’s these kind of conversations that I think can leave a lasting impression after the biennial. We still talk about the Columbian Exposition—what it signifies about the future and our perceptions of space and city. I see these projects, similarly, as having an enduring life.

Norman Teague Design Studios and BNMO Design joined with New Beginning Church and the job training and violence prevention organization Project HOOD (Helping Others Obtain Destiny) to create an outdoor workspace, stage, and exhibition space on a parking lot and basketball court in Woodlawn. The site is blocks from the birthplace of murdered civil rights icon Emmett Till. The blank slate of wooden panels, punctuated by glossy acrylic screens, is titled Woodlawn Canopies: Stories and Futures, and will offer a place for muralists to counteract negative social narratives with images of hope.

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