Monday, November 30, 2009

The Rose Fellowship Makes its Way to Chicago

I was invited to attend a reception by The Enterprise Rose Fellowship in Community Architecture at the Ransom R. Cable Mansion last month to welcome Chicago's new Rose Fellow, Daniel Splaingard, as well as recognizing the inaugural Fellowship in Chicago.

Katie Swenson, Senior Director of the Enterprise Rose Fellowship and co-author of Growing Urban Habitats, Seeking a New Housing Development Model was nice enough to make herself available for an interview. Here is a summary of our coversation

Steven Pantazis: When the Fellowship was first formed, did they imagine it being as far reaching as it is today? Is it as far as they wanted it to be?

Katie Swenson: I think the original concept of the Fellowship is unchanged and that's something we're very proud of. We wanted to give young architects and designers a full experience in community development, not just an experience in one component of architecture, drafting for example, as they normally would coming out of school. So when we place them in a Community Development Corporation, they are exposed to design, construction, maintenance of the buildings upon completion, providing mortgaging and credit counseling to potential residents. In this way they walk away from the program with a much broader experience. We felt it would be useful for emerging architects to have experience from the developers' perspective.

One thing Jonathan Rose mentioned recently that was unintended as a huge benefit to the program is the network amongst the fellows that has developed and is maintained over the years. As far as the program being where we thought it would, you know, the original funding for the Fellowship was thought of as seed money so, yes, we are very happy with how far it has come. We have programs all over the U.S. and this year we are planning a Fellowship in Puerto Rico. We're also working with six tribal groups in the southwest to establish sustainability programs. This program spawned from what was originally a one-off resulting from one of our Fellowships.

We have a new program with the National Endowment for the Arts called the Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute which pairs a team of resource practitioners with Development Directors for a few days in an exchange of knowledge similar to the Mayors' Institute.

SP: You mentioned Fellows being exposed to multiple disciplines, are Fellows expected to be generalists upon completion of their term?

KS: Not necessarily. The goal is to provide the Fellows with the tools they will need to make educated decisions, and very specifically, where they want their careers to go. Some went on to work for firms that work with community developers. Fellows are engaged with community development corporations which are mostly non-profits and some have stayed in that field. In fact, 85% of CDC's go on to hire the Fellow after the term which I think is a testament to the success of the program. CDC's don't realize the value of having an architect on staff until they have a first hand experience with it.

SP: So it's a learning experience for both parties.

KS: Exactly. And the focus of Enterprise has always been to support CDC's. Architects understand good design but you don't always have a developer that appreciates the benefits of good design.

Daniel with Joy Aruguete, Executive Director, Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation. Photo by Harry Connolly.

SP: As a Rose Fellow Alumnus, what impact has the Fellowship had on your life and career?

KS: Well, first of all, I think it's impossible to separate a career between a personal and professional identity. So in that regard, the Fellowship allowed me to unite my personal mission and professional mission. It gives you the ability to say you want to use your work and career to make a difference by giving you the opportunity to develop skills, vision and confidence. The three years allows you to have the experience and make it into a career path so that, after the Fellowship, you can be more specific about what you want to do.

SP: The Fellowship is nearly 10 years old, why is Chicago just getting the opportunity now?

KS: Chicago had not been on the Fellowship's radar before, but it is the heart of American architecture and has such a robust community development world. But there's always room for more. That's why Enterprise has a local office in Chicago. And, of course, Monica [Chadha] was instrumental in bringing the Fellowship to Chicago.

SP: What have some of your favorite projects been? Who has set the bar for Chicago?
KS: San Francisco has been an important model for us. We started there with one Fellow in the first class and because of him another CDC came forward. From there another foundation stepped forward. So it grew upon itself rather organically. And San Francisco is an incredible leader in design excellence in affordable housing.

L.A. and Portland are really excellent examples.

We found CDC's often don't look outside their own cities. Looking nationally works to encourage an exchange of ideas so we've been encouraging CDC's to look to what is being done in other cities.

SP: How can other cities get involved?

KS: It works in different ways. Sometimes we identify a city or sometimes a CDC comes to us. For example, in Puerto Rico we started by working with a CDC based out of New York. On the other hand, in Cleveland, we new we wanted a Fellow deeply engaged in the foreclosure crisis there, so we started by identifying the city and the problem and potential CDC's we could work with.

We rely on government, local and national support and actively fundraise at the local level for each fellowship. So it's really important, for the fellowship to work, to have a commitment from the community as well as from Enterprise.

SP: This is one of the worst years the architecture profession has ever seen. How many Applicants did you get?

KS: Lots. We received more applications for the CHicago Fellowship, many more, than we had ever received in any other year. It felt almost brutal the amount of incredibly qualified people that applied. But, we decided, from the very beginning, that we wouldn't question their motives on how they got interested in working in public housing. We just looked at every applicant as we normally would and tried to select the best candidate

SP: Can you describe the selection process? What made Dan stand out?

KS: The way it normally works is a local committee narrows down the selection of applicants before they are placed in front of the national committee. They then go over the list with the host CDC. This year was different in that they got down to four and couldn't get any further. We just had so many applicants and so many of them were extremely qualified. They interviewed the four finalists in Chicago and it was the CDC who made the final decision.

Dan understood the broad range of a project from the big idea at the beginning to the final minute details, maintenance on the final building, for example, at the end. He was able to connect the entire process from the design to the living experience of the residents to the maintenance of the properties. One of the things he said was, from his experience at the [Sam Mockbee's] Rural Studio [at Auburn], he called himself both a dreamer and a janitor. So Bickerdike believed he had qualities that would make him both a team player and a leader.

Chicago-based Rose Fellow Daniel Splaingard with Andrea Traudt of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, Daniel’s host organization. Photo by Mitchell Canoff

SP: How did you select Bickerdike?

KS: The CDC selection is a more closed-door process but I can tell you that Bickerdike embodies so much of what we look for in a CDC; a combination of deep, long term real estate development and neighborhood focus. Plus their executive director is on our national board so she had worked with Enterprise before. Also, this was the second time they applied. They applied initially seven or eight years ago so this told us they were familiar with the program and really interested in participating.

SP: Have you received any feedback from either the Fellow or the host on how things have progressed thus far?

KS: Yes, Dan is deep "in it" which is the best sign. I know that they both have a sense of the long-term commitment so from Bickerdike's perspective they have identified what he needs to learn early so he can be more effective later. But Dan is being more proactive as well. He has identified areas, such as Revit, that he needs to improvement on and is working on those areas. He also decided on his own accord to take the LEED right away and not wait.

SP: When will there be another Rose Fellowship to apply for in Chicago?

KS: I don't know. I can’t answer that at this point.

SP: Will there be another Urban Habitats Competition?

KS: I don't think so. The competition was more theory and I'm more interested in applying that theory to practice. The competition was great; trailer parks are fertile ground for either good or bad design. They're not like normal neighborhoods because the people living there have no rights to the land so the developer can do whatever he wants.

Some of the experiences coming out of the fellowships is theory and research in a way, though. We're learning how we could better hone our skills to make the areas of design and practical construction not so divergent and how we can pass on that knowledge.

SP: Does that mean another book could be on the way?

KS: I certainly hope so. Right now we're more concerned with matching Fellows with CDC's.

SP: You mentioned, at the reception, the desire for Enterprise Community Partners to work with emerging architects. How does an emerging architect go about getting noticed by Enterprise?

KS: The CDC's are finding that in order to develop high quality, green affordable housing, they have to be more savvy about design. Our goal is to have all CDC's have someone like a Fellow on their staff. I would advise emerging architects to expand their horizons a little bit to understand policy regulations, financing, etc. You know, I think I mentioned Shaun Donovan at the reception and he's a prime example that if you broaden your experience to understand the other aspects that go into public housing, then you're perhaps better prepared to make a difference in the areas you want.

SP: Enterprise has a presence in cities all over the country, are they actively seeking to do more work in Chicago?

KS: Absolutely. We have a local office there with multifamily mortgage and asset management. We've been working on the green retrofit funding with Chicago. We also look for a bit of guidance from local agencies, the CHA for example.

SP: So, what I'm getting from you is, if we wanted to work with Enterprise your advice to any CDC's in Chicago would be to be a bit more proactive and reach out to Enterprise rather than to wait for Enterprise to reach out to them?

KS: Absolutely, it couldn't hurt.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

7 Days Until Pecha Kucha Night Chicago

The 12th installment of Pecha Kucha Night Chicago is in one week on Tuesday, December 1st at Martyrs. I'm not a presenter this time, but it will still be good. I promise. Tickets are $10 at the door or online.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A+DEN Conference: The Objectivity of Good Design

One of the themes that permeated the conference was the challenge of establishing a culture of understanding of good design.

One major roadblock, getting everyone to agree on what good design is. During Peter Murray's presentation, he mentioned Prince Charles' affinity for Georgian architecture and the now famous, or infamous, sacking of Richard Rogers' modern design for the Chelsea Barracks for a Georgian alternative. Mr. Murray is the Chairman of New London Architecture and the Director of the London Festival of Architecture.

Peter Murray on the role of political will in architecture.

I don't blame the Prince of Wales for preferring the Georgian style, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But it's just that sort of political intervention that has been used in cities and neighborhoods to confine them to a certain look. I've heard stories of architects avoiding public housing projects because they mandate things like devoting a minimum percentage of exterior wall to brick. I understand the intent of a requirement like that to protect the end product by disallowing inferior materials. But you also risk stifling the design freedom of the architect.

Richard Rogers' scheme for the Chelsea Barracks. Image courtesy Telegraph Media Group.


Prince Charles' alternative scheme for the Chelsea Barracks. Image courtesy Telegraph Media Group.

Also, while this may work at a small scale, when you get to the scale of an entire city you risk the sort of mundane homogenous neighborhoods one may find in the row housing of Las Vegas or Mexico. Perhaps it would be better to grade architecture, not by style, but by overall aesthetics, quality of materials, the effectiveness of the building to perform the functions for which it is intended, its integration with the urban fabric, its contribution to the social fabric, etc.

One way the City of New York has worked to promote original designs and emerging architects is by setting aside RFP's for smaller projects for smaller or younger firms. As the firms complete these smaller projects they will be considered for larger ones. This has resulted in a very diverse range of designs from emerging architects and has generally been considered a success. I was somewhat familiar with the program but really admire it now thanks to a presentation at the conference by Rosalie Genevro, Executive Director, Architectural League of New York.

Panelists from left: Story Bellows, Director, Mayors' Institute on City Design; Maurice Cox, Director of Design, National Endowment for the Arts; Victoria Thornton, Founding Director, Open House London; Lynn Osmond, President & CEO, Chicago Architecture Foundation. Photo by Anne Evans.

Maurice Cox, Director of Design, National Endowment for the Arts, even broached the subject at a panel discussion. He referenced a lecture by Shaun Donovan, Secretary U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, at Harvard's GSD. In it, Mr. Donovan never used the word design. Instead, his lecture was peppered throughout with the word space-making. I assume this is an effort to avoid alienating a segment of society who sees architecture and design as, rightfully so, elitist.

One of the things I walked away with from the conference is a feeling of admiration from a number of attendees. Few cities have a culture with such an understanding of architecture and design as Chicago. This gives us a bit of a head start over other cities that have to start from scratch, so to speak.

Monday, November 16, 2009

How was Rebuilding Together?

I talked to Andrea from Rebuilding Together last week and she let me know there were a number of you there because you had read about it on my blog. One of the reasons I chose a blog as a web resource for volunteer opportunities was because of the ability to provide candid reviews about the organizations with which I volunteer. One way to extend that resource is by having your comments.

Did you go? How was it? would you do it again? Did you have a donut? A bagel? Were the volunteers friendly? The home owners? Who else are you volunteering with?

Speaking of which, I'll be out with the RT people this Saturday but CAF is looking for volunteers at the same time. Krisann needs people to lead high school students through a sketching session from 9:30-3:00 as part of her Saturdays in the Studio program. If you want to get involved or you're even a little curious there's a planning meeting this Wednesday at 12:30 at CAF, Suite 430.

Please comment.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Carol Coletta at the A+DEN Conference

It's not what your cities can do for you, it's what you can do for your cities. More specifically, what architecture and design can do for cities in attracting and retaining talent. So, I guess it is what your cities can do for you.

Carol Coletta. Photo by Anne Evans.

This is the second keynote I've heard at an architecture convention in as many months that addresses the importance of knowledge. This time Carol Coletta, President and CEO, CEOs for Cities, referred to it more as talent. Most mayors and city leaders recognize the current race in attracting and retaining talent and so she suggests architects use this to convince policy makers of the importance of good design in the built environment.

In my experience in this regard, which admittedly stems mostly from hearing about others' experience in this regard, there seems to be a universal understanding in economic influences to cities yet there continues to be a disconnect in understanding the role good architecture can play as an influence. Chicago is one of the few lucky exceptions and in hearing what others in attendance from around the nation had to say they were a bit envious.

Ms. Coletta spent significant time addressing the most mobile segment of society 25-34 year olds. The number one thing they look for in a place to live is a city that is clean and attractive. This criteria is followed closely by their ability to live the way they want, green city initiatives, safety, and they want the housing they want to be affordable. That is, they don't want affordable housing, that put out and subsidized by the government. They want whatever housing they want to be affordable, which touches on the stigma that exists with the term "affordable housing". And rightfully so, so much of it is poorly designed. Although there are some gems out there.

Ms. Coletta also mentioned the 2030 plan and the tendency for politicians to verbally commit to something that they know will fall outside their term limits, leaving no incentive for them to follow through. While many mayors have signed on to the 2030 plan, there is no plan of action for implementation. Although I don't think she knows about the Carbon Reduction Plan being proposed to the city by Adrian Smith+Gordon Gill Architects. It was presented at the CTBUH Conference to much acclaim. The interesting thing was, once you start to investigate what needs to be done to reduce emissions by 50% you realize the extreme measures that need to be taken.

To be continued...

Monday, November 9, 2009

ACADIA 09: reForm()

Every year the Association for Computer Aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA) assembles a group of the best and brightest academics and practitioners in the field of architecture with the intent of advancing the knowledge revolving around the use of computation in the field of architecture. ACADIA was formed in the early 1980's for the purpose of facilitating communication and critical thinking regarding the use of computers in architecture, planning and building science.Their annual conference changes venue every year and this year comes to Chicago and, more specifically, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).

An interesting coincidence, as SAIC President Wellington Reiter points out, that as Chicago celebrates the 100th year of the Burnham Plan it hosts a conference of innovators and big-thinkers that Burnham himself would attend were he alive today. The conference, titled "reForm()," explores how architects, engineers, artists and designers are using new HARDWARE, SOFTWARE and MIDDLEWARE technologies to transform the ways in which buildings and spaces perform, act and operate. Mr. Reiter, against the backdrop of a premier art and design school, acknowledged and embraced the exceptionally high level of craft on display in the work presented at the conference, while at the same time issuing a caution to not let the intricacy and complexity enabled by digital tools distract from the issues of the day.

I’m going to attempt to give an objective recap of each of the conference highlights, followed by an interpretation of how the technology presented addresses issues at hand for practicing architects in a world concerned with climate change, renewable energy sources, sustainability and high-performance building systems.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Rebuilding Together - The Final Push

You may recall previous posts in regards to an organization called Rebuilding Together. I had intended to write a reflection on my experiences with the not-for-profit and the people they help. Now that the interviews are winding down, and they need more volunteers for the final push, I figured this was as good a time as any.

I won't get into the semantics of the organization themselves, they were well organized and knew what they were doing, this being their 10th year. I should mention the donuts, bagels ad coffee. As I said, well organized.

The things that really stood out for me was that there are so many people in need in such a small area, the Austin neighborhood, and that there were such extremes of classes involved, in some cases they lived just down the street from each other.

For example, one house had three men living in it, the grandmother, her daughter and four or five grandchildren running around piles of refuse. The walls had massive holes in them due to a complete overhaul of the plumbing in the place. It was tough to see and tougher to walk away from. I don't think I'm experienced enough in these situations to presume to know where to begin to help, but I remember thinking that the children could use a good mentor.

Just down the street, however, an older woman, possibly in her forties, answered the door and invited us into her fine, middle-class home. In many ways it was nicer than my condo and even the basement was finished. While it was sad to see the extremes, the potential positive outcome here was the exposure the children in the previous home would have to a middle-class home or family. That's something that was taken away from poor neighborhoods in the last 50 years in this country but is also something we have come to recognize and attempt to rectify with our new housing projects, aptly named mixed-income communities.

I've heard other people say Austin is the new North Lawndale. Several years ago the architecture, design, development and real estate communities descended upon North Lawndale to the point where, some say, it was over saturated with outreach. The results are clear, and master plans and proposals continue along with new or rehabbed buildings that are setting a new standard, not only for the neighborhood but for the nation, such as the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center by Doug Farr's office.

Austin is shaping up to be in a similar situation. Many organizations are focusing their efforts on the neighborhood. One of the things that has kept it on the down-and-out is its proximity to Oak Park and its use as a westward drug corridor into Chicago.

Rebuilding Together is a well-run organization and I never felt unsafe. You may be familiar with their Rebuilding Together day which normally falls in April. If you're unfamiliar with the interview process that is required of applicant homeowners it's a great program with a lot of need. They're coming down to the end of the season and would like to be finished with Austin by the end of November (they've started tackling Berwyn too). But whether or not they finish depends heavily on you. Interviews are done in pairs, one person interviews the homeowner while the other scopes the house to determine how much help they need. As an architect, I was a scoper and they made it very easy for me by providing a checklist.

There's a thriving community here, some people just need a little push in the right direction. Whether you want to help out, meet new people or build up a resume in this economic downturn Rebuilding Together could use you and there's certainly a lot of need in Austin. I know how many of you are out of work so if you're tired of sitting around this is a worthy cause.

The next interview days are as follows:
November 14th
November 21st
December 5th
December 12th

Please contact:
Andrea Fritsch
Program Manager
Rebuilding Together * Metro Chicago
PO Box 641250, Chicago, IL 60664
P: (312)201-1188
F: (312)977-3805