Guest Blogger: Aaron Rose on Salon Session #5: Design

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Ethical Redevelopment Salon Series
Session 5: 12.14.16

By Aaron Rose

principle: design
concepts: aesthetic, desirability

“We’ve been together about five times,” Theaster began, “but we haven’t ever actually talked directly about how things look. How things look is core to how we get down, but also the thing that makes what we do different from conventional lo-fi, lo-class people doing stuff in challenged neighborhoods.”

“If we were going to have a deep, first symbolic impact, people should go in these buildings, and lose their sense of where they are… we should interrupt whatever people thought they’d come to see. Design helped us do that.”

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

So what do we talk about when we talk about design?

At Salon #5, we talked mostly about the purpose and the process—and sometimes the product—of good design. The Salon Sessions included an afternoon tour of the Theaster Gates Studio on South Kimbark Avenue, followed by a presentation and discussion with Matthew Lister of Gehl Architects; an evening of dialogue between Matthew Lister and Salon Emcee Steve Edwards; presentation and discussion facilitated by Peter Landon, FAIA, LEED, Principal of Landon Bone Baker Architects; and an activity that invited Salon attendees to design their own project.  

Presentation by Peter Landon, FAIA, LEED
The focus of the evening session was a presentation by Peter Landon, Principal of Landon Bone Baker Architects (LBBA), about his firm’s work in the city of Chicago, and the ways their process exemplifies the Design principle. The firm’s tagline is “Good Design for Everyone.”

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

The firm’s completed projects include their collaboration with Theaster on the Dorcester Art + Housing Collaborative, which Salon Members visited during the afternoon session of Salon #2, and the Harvest Commons Apartments, a historic, green rehab of an impressive Art Deco-inspired six-story building on Chicago’s Near West Side that combines 89 units of affordable housing with a supportive services project: a teaching kitchen and social enterprise café, and small urban farm.

Legends South is an ambitious, ongoing project to replace and revitalize public housing under the Chicago Housing Authority’s “Plan for Transformation.” Developed in several phases beginning in 2007, the project, when completed, will create 2,400 mixed-income rental and affordable homeownership units, including one which will reconnect a “formerly isolated super block high-rise site to the street grid by adding new streets, scaling the blocks for more comfortable walking distances, and establishing a variety of public, semi-public, and private courtyard spaces.”

Landon Bone Baker Architects has also been selected to design the new National Public Housing Museum, located just south of the Loop and southwest of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The project will convert a 33,000-square-feet former block of the Jane Addams Housing Project into a national museum, with a library, research space, and restaurant, which will create “a living cultural experience on social justice and human rights that creatively re-imagine the future of our community, our society, and our spaces.” Salon Members visited the temporary offices of the NPHM during the afternoon session of Salon #6 for a presentation and conversation with Executive Director Dr. Lisa Yun Lee and other staff.

Most of the work LBBA does revolves around designing affordable housing. And their design, Peter explained, is inspired by beauty, which is demonstrated in murals and other public art projects the firm has created through collaboration with Chicago Public Art Group. An installation at Marquette Park, a memorial to Dr. King, is an example: the benches are made by professional artists, but mural components made of small tiles were created by neighborhood youth.

The firm doesn’t define their work as “green” architecture. They do see everything they do as sustainable, which they define as sustainable in its use by and for a community. Inspired by Jan Gehl’s books, beginning with the 1971 classic, Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, Landon Bone Baker strives to design projects like an affordable housing project in Humboldt Park, where kids connect to and take over the outdoor space to express their own creativity.

Peter related a story that exemplified the firm’s approach to designing affordable housing. They designed a series of “tiny homes.” The houses, very small, single-family houses designed with materials, colors, and attractive design features not usually seen in affordable housing, prompted a question from Theaster about the materials used and how much they cost.

Years after the houses were constructed, a woman approached Peter to thank him for his work, saying she had “grown up” in one of the homes, which he didn’t understand, given her age. She explained that when she lived in her tiny homes, she could feel her kids around her; she knew where they were. “We felt like a family,” she said, and through this experience she “grew up.”

Now, unfortunately, Peter explained, the thinking around affordable housing tends toward a certain kind of convention: that it should look like what’s next door.

Theaster commented on the elegance of the work, and noted that he was essentially asking a question about developers. Peter pointed out the difference between developers who do affordable housing and those who do market-rate housing. Affordable housing work is fee-based, and these developers usually find themselves initiating and driving the project. In the case of Landon Bone Baker, they feel a great deal of responsibility because most developers and contractors will build whatever is presented to them, including something bad. He also noted that architects are busy being architects, and don’t spend enough time being activists around issues that call for attention and, ideally, change. He used, as an example, the complete teardown of the Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s South Side in 2007 as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Transformation for Change.  It would have been better, Peter said, to save some buildings and construct infill housing—noting that he attributes the success of the Dorcester Art + Housing Collaborative project, especially its relationship to the surrounding community fabric, to keeping the original structure, though it was slightly more costly.

The firm is currently working on a new building at the site where part of the Cabrini Green public housing project was located before it, too, was torn down during the Transformation for Change. Located on Chicago’s North Side, the project’s design—how the building is situated, the location of entrances, and landscape design to foster better relationships between residents of affordable and market-rate housing—was informed by neighborhood kids enlisted to observe street patterns and other techniques developed by Jan Gehl. Peter pointed out additional challenges when designing affordable housing. You have to use union labor, which is good, but expensive; same with accessibility standards compliance—it’s good, but expensive.

Peter finished his talk describing the unexpected benefits of creating well-designed, livable housing: that the projects also create vibrant community, and healthier, happier human beings. He gave examples of working with and hiring neighborhood kids to assist with research in the early phase of projects, and of designing a shelter for homeless youth where they used furniture in creative ways to provide safe space, and a sense of ownership and privacy.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

There was a lot of information, fascinating information, about the firm’s experience working in communities, working closely with community members and future residents of their affordable housing projects, to take in during the Session. And the Q + A session after Peter spoke was an opportunity for some Salon Members to raise questions about thorny issues they encounter in their work, including one Member, who described being asked to present plans for a building that looked appealing from the street level to the second story, with no regard for the design of the rest of the building.

But most of the Salon Members are neither architects nor designers, and my sense, coming out of the Session, where the conversation was less lively than usual, was that the objectives and struggles of most Salon Members is situated somewhere outside the principles and practices of an architecture firm—though the quality of LBBA’s work is highly regarded, their approach to design instructive and inspiring, and perspective on community engagement valuable and encouraging. The core group of practitioners who attended most of the Salon Sessions are working with and on behalf of communities, or brokering relationships among communities, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and developers, to facilitate the development of smaller projects.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

The earlier, afternoon session, that included a presentation and discussion with Matthew Lister from Gehl Architects, began a conversation that allowed participants to really let loose with questions and concerns.

Studio Visit and Conversation
It was a snowy, sunny afternoon when Salon Members met up on 7200 South Kimbark Avenue, at the corner of Kimbark and East 72nd Street in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood, where Theaster’s studios, and studios for other artists, are located. The project to redesign and rehab the former Anheuser-Busch distribution facility, completed in 2014, was the brainchild of Theaster and his long-time collaborator, Mejay Gula, Building Strategist + Construction Manager for Place Lab.

It’s clear from the moment you enter the front door of this 25,000 square-foot building, even standing in the quiet of the open entrance area, that there’s a lot going on in the building. Up a short, broad flight of steps to the right is the Library—a simple, elegant rehabbed space with exposed bricks and beams that exudes warmth and welcome. The bookshelves that line three walls used to hold, before Stony Island Arts Bank opened, the Johnson Collection Archives, and now hold Theaster’s personal collection of art books. Rows of reclaimed benches range from front to back of the room.

Before the film screenings and programming moved to Stony Island Arts Bank, this was Black Cinema House, and I had the pleasure of seeing several films there—Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, showings over two weekend evenings of Gone with the Wind, and 70 Acres in Chicago, about the demolition of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Cabrini Green housing project—with audience conversations facilitated by Jacqueline Stewart, Curator for Black Cinema House. The room is spacious in a way that feels like you’re among a critical mass of people, and intimate enough to see and hear everyone. I’ll miss seeing films there.

On the other side of the foyer area, a door leads to studio spaces on the south side of the building. We started out in the 3,215 square-foot woodworking shop. I was awed by the size of the space, the stacks of lumber, and all the activity going on there. I lived for a year in the 1970s in an 18th-century manor hall in England, which had several outbuildings ranged around it. Ours was a communal household, and in one of the buildings, a barn, a man named Colin had set up a lathe for woodworking. The studio on Kimbark Avenue, enormous by comparison, reminded me of the excitement that was generated when the lathe was set up; and when Colin showed me how he worked with and shaped the wood. Some of Theaster’s artwork is made in the woodworking shop, and some items for building out Rebuild Foundation spaces is fabricated there. Initially, activities related to the Foundation’s workforce development program were also conducted in the shop.

The ceramics studio, which we visited next, a space about half the size of the woodworking shop, is used by ceramics artists who are on staff at Rebuild, as well as for artists in residence, including the Japanese ceramicist, Koichi. Shelves that ran from nearly floor level up the side of the wall for six to eight feet held bowls, cups and saucers, and plates arranged and stacked in groupings, some of which are sold to raise funds for Rebuild Foundation projects. Larger pieces of ceramic art covered every available surface in the space. The pottery is fired in four kilns on site: a soda kiln, a gas kiln, an electric kiln, and the wood-fired kiln set on an open stretch of land to the south of the building. I was fascinated by the wood-fired kiln, called an anagama kiln, an ancient type of kiln from Japan/China/Korea, and corralled Place Lab Project Specialist Carson Poole into taking a Salon Member and me to see it. We trudged through the snow and got a closer look at what felt like a site for sacred ceremony, built by ceramic artist Jordan Taylor in 2015.

Photo by Aaron Rose

Photo by Aaron Rose

I’m from Detroit, and grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, when the city was still an industrial powerhouse collaborating with a cutting-edge design industry that included modern design pioneers Charles and Ray Eames, Ralph Rapson, and Florence Knoll, and companies such as Herman Miller. The manufacture and assembly of automobiles, which we viewed as kids during at least one school field trip to the Ford River Rouge Plant, and the manufacturing of diesel and automotive batteries, my family’s business, were intense and thrilling enterprises that fueled the economy and culture of my home town, and of my family. My father anticipated the rollout of new car models each year the way a farmer awaits the birthing of new calves, or an opera or theater enthusiast looks forward to a new season of productions. There were other school field trips to the Rotunda building where cars were displayed, a national tourism destination originally designed for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, which, tragically, burnt to the ground during installation of the annual Christmas display in 1962.

The making of things—the sounds and smells, movement, rhythms, and processes of equipment and machinery—still holds that power over me. Here the production is art: a more human-scale enterprise closer to the earth, and to home and community.

This, I felt, is what Theaster means when he talks about beauty as a “basic human service.” A place that illustrates the Design Principle. “Beautiful objects come from and belong in blighted spaces… Creative people can play a pivotal role in how this happens. Beauty has magnetism. It defines character. It promotes reverence. Design can enhance the desirability of a neglected site, corridor, or block while illustrating the reverence and care of a neighborhood and its residents.…Design informs the spirit and the use of a place. Design can recalibrate what a community comes to consider sacred and cherished while reinforcing the comfort or identity of home.”

Presentation, Matthew Lister from Gehl Architects
After the tour, we gathered in the screening space for a presentation by Matthew Lister, Director and Team Lead for Gehl-New York, one of the offices of Gehl Architects, founded by Jan Gehl in Copenhagen in 1965. The firm also has a satellite office in San Francisco.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Architects, designers, and social scientists tend to impose their ideas on a society. Jan Gehl, as the story goes, radically altered his architectural practice when his wife, a psychologist, asked him if architects ever considered the effects of the buildings they designed upon the people who inhabit them. The architect secured a grant and in 1965 traveled to Italy with his wife to research people’s behavior in cities. In 1968, Gehl used Copenhagen as a laboratory for his studies, collaborating with colleagues and students to complete the first Public Space, Public Life survey and analysis. As Salon Member Tobe Holmes, Planning and Development Director at University City Partners in Charlotte, North Carolina pointed out to me, the pioneering work and writings of Jan Gehl, including How to Study Public Life (2013, with Birgitte Svarre) and his 1971 classic, Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space, are considered standards of urban anthropology.

Today, the firm continues to study public life, and how people behave outside their homes, businesses, and cars. What does it mean to have a high-quality public experience? What makes people feel good, and how do you measure well-being? All cities, Matthew noted, have information about how automobiles move through their environments, but very few have any data about how people move through and use cities. He described Gehl’s approach as “super-analogue.” They use volunteers to observe people on the ground, noting behavior, such as walking and cycling, according to demographics such as age, gender, and groups like families with children. A combination of observation and analysis enables Gehl to create strategic frameworks that inform project planning.

Matthew also described a process for project planning that observes and plans according to the behavior and use of places by people over time. Then they measure, test, and give people an opportunity to experience what change might feel like—and an opportunity to provide feedback. The practice of building trust within a community, allowing time for experimenting, re-measuring, and refining echoed the iterative process that Leslie Koch, former President of the Trust for Governors Island, described and advised during Salon #4.

There is a hierarchy of needs and priorities for people using public space: safety as the greatest concern; then consideration of the micro-climate—sun, shade, or wind; and the ability to walk freely, and to sit down. He cautioned against common mistakes: people do not like to walk for long distances, or sit in front of unbroken walls. Matthew showed an image of a superbly designed public bench, facing a blank wall, that nobody sits on. And he juxtaposed images of two public spaces in Pittsburgh, an impeccably designed, award-winning plaza that was mostly empty throughout a given day, and another, informal public space downtown with nondescript tables and folding chairs where people congregated at all hours of the day and evening.

Empathy is critical to understanding and weighing the concerns of citizens, the users, and of the government officials who bear responsibility for the success and failure of public projects. “Muscle-memory of the status quo can be super-strong,” Matthew said. Most government officials are concerned about money being spent, and about having their names connected to something that may or may not work—and having to answer to an unforgiving public. When a city feels it has to produce something permanent and perfect, they gravitate toward a conservative plan. Removing risk by implementing projects with small, temporary steps allows for more innovative and adventurous ideas to succeed.

Matthew gave the example of transforming New York City’s Times Square into public space in 2007, where automobile traffic was rerouted to create a true public square. The firm started by opening the space for pedestrians. A spontaneous snowball fight among kids was an act claiming the space as their own. As a second test, the firm purchased and placed inexpensive plastic chairs on the site to see if people would use them. They did.

This… is what Theaster means when he talks about beauty as a “basic human service.” A place that illustrates the Design Principle. “Beautiful objects come from and belong in blighted spaces… Creative people can play a pivotal role in how this happens. Beauty has magnetism. It defines character. It promotes reverence. Design can enhance the desirability of a neglected site, corridor, or block while illustrating the reverence and care of a neighborhood and its residents… Design informs the spirit and the use of a place. Design can recalibrate what a community comes to consider sacred and cherished while reinforcing the comfort or identity of home.”

Matthew also gave examples of projects the firm had done with Salon Members Alysia Osbourne, Director of Historic West End for Charlotte Center City Partners and Steve Kay, a founding partner of Roberts & Kay, a research and organization development firm, and since 2010, Vice Mayor of Lexington, Kentucky. In Charlotte, the Gehl team worked with Alysia to develop collaborative relationships with neighborhood leaders to test models for promoting public events and everyday gatherings that led to creating a vibrant community place using limited financial resources.

In Lexington, the Gehl team created a splash park in a previously unused area at the nexus of three communities with diverse demographics. Lexington is a horse town, and one of the city’s central parks has a sculpture of racing horses near a water feature. There is a big demand for water play areas in the city, and kids were drawn to the water feature, though it was not designed or safe for play. A largely unused playground nearby was identified as a location for creating a pop-up splash park, based on the principle that “invitations work much better than rules.” The project succeeded in encouraging families with children to visit the new play area. Since, the city has seen a significant increase in people using the park and, in a survey of visitors, one in three people report recognizing someone they know when they come to the park.

Conversation, Salon Members
We started off with questions and comments from Salon Members when Steve from Lexington intervened and interjected: we needed to pay attention to the design for our own conversation, which was about to be conducted from benches that all faced forward. We stood up, surprised at needing to be reminded of this obvious design problem and pleased by the corrective experience, and moved the benches so that we all faced one another and restarted the conversation.

This was one of the early, free-form small group conversations, and Salon Members took the opportunity to express, while not necessarily get definitive answers to, pressing questions.

One Salon Member expressed concerns about the metrics used to determine the success of a project. Project planners are sometimes just talking amongst themselves. How do we include people from the community in discussions about metrics? Another Salon Member responded that he doesn’t always trust what he’s told by community members. Sometimes people say things they don’t really mean, and it’s often better to observe people’s behavior.

Alysia noted that when she worked with the team from Gehl, it was immediately clear to her that their metrics would not work in the Five Point community, the oldest African-American community in Charlotte where there has been influx of younger, whiter, more affluent residents. Being flexible and experimenting with three different events was key. The team asked community leaders what they should be measuring and then observed people using and interacting in the space.

Other Salon Members noted that many people don’t understand structural systems, such as redlining, and other policies that have operated in and continue to shape cities, and that cause harm and suffering. People in power have to be educated about the realities of life for people in marginalized communities; about the serious problems of income disparity.

The issue of gaps in understanding and communication and representation came up again and again in the conversation. I remembered a forum I attended organized by Paola Aguirre, where a Chicago Public Schools administrator talked about the closing in 2013 of 50 CPS schools, mostly in South and West Side communities of color, who spoke frankly about the people at the table making the decisions about school closures: “Unfortunately, they’re not the most creative people.”

How do we convene these conversations? How do we foster empathy?

Matthew left us with a good example of how to overcome thorny issues of conflicting interests, responsibilities, and needs. When his firm collaborates with a municipal government, he said, they publicly promote the success of a project as the brainchild of the government agency or official. If there are set-backs and problems, Gehl shoulders the blame.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields

Fort Follows Feelings
Riffing on the architecture mantra, form follows function, Mejay Gula started out the last activity of the evening with an exercise to connect us with a core part of our human experience in space and place. Like beavers, Mejay noted, we strive to build. We built forts when we were kids. Why aren’t we building forts now? Mejay talked about the importance of this basic drive; the basic experience of connecting our feelings with our built environment. And the need, as adults, to bring the creative, useful spirit out of us.

The room came alive, even after a long day and though several Salon Members and guests had left. We counted off into five teams and Mejay presented us with the design challenge, and assigned a team leader, a designer, and a theme for each of the five forts: Poetry, Creating A Sense of Ownership, Quiet, Legacy, and Cool + Sexy. After a 10-minute brainstorming session to interpret our themes with one-word concepts, we set to work building our forts. Basic materials required to make a fort—small stacks of fabric in various colors, sizes and textures, long wooden poles, twine, and strands of electric lights—were provided. Everyone got very busy, and as these random but intentional groupings seem to do, organized people in ways that manifested the qualities of their chosen theme. Everyone in my group, for example, seemed like a poet.

At the end of this exercise, a spokesperson for each group described their process and their space. I will always remember how Bucky Willis, from Detroit, raised her finger to her lips: “S-h-h" and spoke to us in a perfectly clear, calm whisper as she represented the “Quiet” fort.

Like many of the events and experiences coordinated by the Place Lab team, the lessons learned during this exercise were as or more instructive than the formal instruction conveyed in the larger group sessions. In this case, the takeaway was how collaborative, ingenious, and diversely creative we can be when we have a clear task at hand, a mandate that engenders the will to share ideas and ownership, and bends the individual will or ego to the welfare of the group—how exhilarating the process can be, how satisfying the product, and how much fun we can have doing it.

Photo by Brandon Fields

Photo by Brandon Fields