The Architect’s Newspaper: How important is design in establishing and sustaining a sense of community?
We think design is crucial. We’ve been doing this for a while and it really amazes us that people respond to good design. They respond to participation in design, too. We try to get input from our clients and the community to help get at what design should be in each neighborhood. That takes us outside the box a little bit and helps add value to the process, in a non-bricks-and-mortar sense.
A good design generally is well-received, and good design can come in many forms. The opportunity to get people involved is a really positive thing. It’s kind of a holistic approach—we’re not creating something behind the curtain at the office.
You designed the Los Vecinos SRO housing project in consultation with its potential residents. How did their input influence your design? Is this standard practice for you?
I think more and more it is. Every neighborhood has its own dynamics and its own community, and I think trying to define that community is hard sometimes. But in the case of Los Vecinos, a community arts group, Archi-treasures, brought local kids in Humboldt Park and the SRO residents together for this ceramic mural project for the lobby that was made by the kids and installed by them, as well. It turned out very nicely.
If we plan early, we can usually make that stuff happen. We constantly ask, “What is community, and how can we help sustain it?”
What do you think are the most important elements of livable communities?
There are a lot of different answers to that. I think we really start with the people. There are different qualities associated with good neighborhoods—good urbanism, public transportation, easy access to recreation and local shops, connectedness—but I think that from a grassroots level we feel it needs to be an inclusive process. It’s important to bring people to the table early on, and then the other things kind of fall into place.
Years ago it was like, “Okay, we’ll build this building.” But now I think there’s a greater sophistication with our clients. Things like integrating urban agriculture that better the community beyond the building. It really changed the dynamic.
Chicago loves its neighborhoods, and LBBA’s projects focus on innovative development among Chicago’s many local communities. What’s most challenging about this kind of work, such as Roseland Senior Campus?
That project was difficult, but it’s pretty typical of some of the neighborhoods we work in. Neighborhood Housing Services, our client, worked in that neighborhood for probably 20 years. The project started with filling in vacant lots and trying to get the drug dealers out of the alleys behind the homes. So it’s a super grassroots kind of approach. Over the years, that first spark of a project, which was 19 or 20 affordable single-family homes, turned into a 40-unit development on Michigan Avenue for single mothers with a protected garden. Then it turned into this whole senior community that was building from within.
The goal was to allow people to age in their neighborhoods so they don’t have to move away. Obviously the politics and the stakeholders’ goals played into it, even within the architecture. That’s kind of typical—a lot of projects take a long time to brew and develop. We’re really fortunate to have a series of long-term clients who can evolve with projects over the years. I think that really helps our designs, because we can learn from what we’ve done.
What’s something you learned recently, from Roseland?
To not underestimate the impact that a building—any kind of development—in the Roseland neighborhood can have. Debbie Dixon at Neighborhood Housing Services always said, “We’ve got this lot that’s just full of diapers and bottles.” That’s what we were starting with. So the initial challenge is to get that under control. When people on the street respond in a positive way, that’s pretty amazing.
Development in Chicago can often seem like a tale of two, or many, cities—do you see an upward trend in developing livable communities outside of downtown? Are you hopeful?
We’re super hopeful—I really think it is an upward trend. One example is the city’s encouragement of urban agriculture. I think we are seeing an opening up and a desire to make better neighborhoods, and not just looking at it as business as usual.
What’s holding back that trend from developing more fully?
It’s driven by the economy, but one thing that’s hard are CHA projects. The market-rate component of those projects, and how to continue development while maintaining the mix is tough.
Funding is another aspect. There’s a lot of competition for funding from the city, IDA, the state of Illinois, HUD—it’s really very competitive. We’re seeing a lot of great projects. There are people who really want to do something, but the funding might not be available. And you can’t go to just one source anymore. It’s more complex. It would be great to develop some of these neighborhoods and have an impact, but I think funding is a problem these days.
You’re president of Knothead Furniture, an ongoing collaboration with LBBA. Do you bring aspects of your methodology for larger built work to furniture design?
Yeah, there’s a connection there. We try to get feedback, and it really is part of the architecture so we don’t think of it as a separate thing. We’re looking at opportunities to integrate our furniture into the construction, or teach residents how to build the furniture as kind of a social enterprise.
How important is it—how urgent is it—that Chicago address community building outside of the Loop?
We’re really fortunate because we get to see how big the city is. These can be small projects but most of the time they have a big impact, and that’s really hopeful for us. Our goal is to just keep doing it, and to get better each time.
Hop in your car or ride your bike, go into these neighborhoods and look around. Go to far-reaching neighborhoods and see what they have to offer, because there’s a lot of cool things happening—a lot of grassroots action.