A trans-disciplinary collaborative for socially engaged architecture and urban design
The Citizen Architect Studio Project
This project explores what it means to be a socially-engaged architect in the 21st Century (see below to read what we mean by that). We are interested in moving beyond short-term community based planning and design processes such as workshops, charrettes, and town-hall meetings, popular among planners, architects and other place-based professionals. While the latter are time-tested forms of professional practice, our work within disinvested urban neighborhoods informs us that engagement that is centered around social justice, grassroots empowerment and a respect for local knowledge requires time and patience.
Since 2012 we have been exploring how long-term incremental engagement and recursive storytelling can be appropriate methods for an alternate form of engagement. We experiment with techniques such as tactical urbanism and grassroots, incremental change in order to explore, what Nabeel Hamdi calls, "small change." We produce what preservation scholar Ned Kaufman calls "storyscapes" or, "preservation methodology that builds historic narratives from residents’ memories." In addition to traditional visual and mapping tools used by architects, we learn from the trade and tools of oral historians and public historians. We interview neighborhood residents and search the archives for histories. We learn from design justice as practiced by organizations such as the buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, a Texas based nonprofit community design center.
The National Humanities Alliance, lists the BLC field school as an exemplar publicly-engaged humanities project because it:
Project Boundaries: N 40th Street, N 30th Street, North Avenue and W McKinley Boulevard.
The Buildings-Landscapes-Cultures field school is a unique curricular offering at the University of Wisconsin's Department of Architecture. It is a multi disciplinary setting where students, faculty, scholars and community members explore ways to see and interpret the city by engaging multiple urban stakeholders in storytelling, ecological conservation, heritage preservation and civic engagement. From Grace Lee Boggs we learnt that "We are the leaders we've been looking for" and our job at the BLC field school is to empower such leaders. The values that frame this project are listed here.
Can tactical actions suggest a design process?
Traditional architectural studios begin with a problem statement or a program goal. Our process differs: we encounter a community by constructing on-site art projects, performances or DIY installations. These interventions produce engagement and conversations. Stories generate more stories, meetings produce familiarity and friendship. The design program and goals emerge from such performative events and memorable encounters. Our actions become part of a strategy of place-based storytelling and story-making.
Design Strategies, Three Methods: The 2015 Projects
This multi-year project, currently set in the Washington Park neighborhood of Milwaukee, includes a summer field school and multiple design studios during fall semesters. During summer, the field school students, scholars, neighborhood residents and experts collaborate and collect stories of people and places that matter. During Fall, design students (from art, architecture, dance) continue this university-community partnership, analyze and study the information collected during summer, and develop new relationships. As a result of this incremental multi-year process we have crafted, tested, and accrued design strategies that respond to the unique needs and conditions of this neighborhood. Each year, we have developed a unique capacity to test our ideas from previous years and our work has encouraged a discursive discourse around issues central to our collaborators. In 2014 students suggested four major strategies for development and future planning of this neighborhood:
1. New Programming
2. Rethinking Infrastructure
3. Flexible Prototyping
4. Catalytic Insertions
The 2015 design projects employed these design strategies and tested them. James Wall, Jaclyn McDowell and Jennifer Hohol examined how the four above-mentioned strategies work at a neighborhood, landscape and urban scale and explained how the physical and social infrastructure of cities perform as catalysts. Johnathan Bartol, Taryn Singh, Kelsey Nuthals, Matthew Stuessy, Zachary Pate and Jwayne Gordon focused on the formal grammar of buildings and suggested innovative ways to use the building form as a prototype for new development, as a collaborative design tool, or as economic capital. Taha Shawar, Mitchell Branscombe tested out the formal process of tactical catalytic insertion via a design-build process. Daniels and Johnson suggested new programming for an alley set off the heavily trafficked Lisbon Avenue.
Community engagement is a vague term, its format is flexible — it could be a day-long workshop, a design charrette, a town-hall meeting, or more involved, participant observation and ethnographic study. This year's students focused on a critical examination of suitable "methods of engagement" and suggested three innovative engagement strategies that work in the context of this neighborhood. They include,
1. Place performances
2. Interactive models
3. Collaborative Public Art
University-community collaboration provides a unique opportunity for long-term engagement and brings together a diverse set of partners over a span of multiple years. Community-engaged practice and pedagogy at the BLC field school is not about top-down solutions or one-sided application of expert knowledge. Instead, this project demonstrates grassroots and place-based engagement; it engenders innovative forms of collective action. We tap into the exceptional knowledge held by community experts and challenge top-down forms of knowledge production. We come up with new, innovative, and apt strategies to work in urban contexts, empower local residents, hear their aspirations and suggest equitable and sustainable solutions.
Students participate in the Lisbon Avenue fair to create place-based storytelling and story-making events