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Into the Open: Positioning Practice at Parsons The New School for Design

In America, small studios and collectives are experimenting with ground-up, community-oriented projects that see architecture as a force for change.

Studio 804 designed an arts center for a rebuilding project Greensburg, Kansas, a town flattened by a tornado in 2008.


How's architecture holding up in the recession? Great, actually. Sure, some starchitect monuments may be stalling, but underneath the glitz and glam that has characterized the industry for so long, there's a revolution taking place. In America, small studios and collectives are experimenting with ground-up, community-oriented projects that see architecture as a force for change.

"Into the Open: Positioning Practice" gathers 16 of these projects at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, from now until May. The work runs from research projects like a curtain-sized graphic about the U.S.-Mexican border by Estudio Teddy Cruz of San Diego to built structures like a floating pool made out of a decommissioned barge by Jonathan Kirschenfeld Associates and a bandshell made from post-consumer waste by the San Francisco studio Rebar.

Estudio Teddy Cruz's 2008 research project on urban conflict around the U.S.-Mexico border hangs in the exhibition space. (copyright Matthew Sussman/The New School)

"Into the Open" premiered at the Venice Biennale architecture exhibition in September. There, it was more of an idea showcase-a report for the rest of the world on what was happening in America's architecture scene. At Parsons, the exhibit is a classroom. The walls are covered with chalkboard paint-Have an idea yourself? Scribble away-and the school is planning a series of design classes and charrettes with some of the architects. To understand how it all came together, I talked to Aaron Levy, who curated the show, and with Melina Shannon-DiPietro, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, whose work is one of the centerpieces: a garden-as-classroom inside an exhibition-as-classroom.

The exhibition walls are chalkboards where students and visitors can add comments about the show. (copyright Matthew Sussman/The New School)

Aaron Levy, the executive director of the Slought Foundation, curated the show with William Menking, founder of The Architect's Newspaper, and Andrew Sturm, director of architecture for the PARC Foundation.

GOOD: Participatory exhibitions are hard. You don't always get the visitor reaction you want-just flip through any guest book at a museum show. Were you worried about that?

AARON LEVY: We had a discussion about how to take the press photos-should we do it before the walls were written on? It became clear that there is no "official" photo-it's evolving over time. And because this is a design school, and we're doing those charrettes, it'll encourage an interaction you wouldn't get with just anybody off the street. That helps us avoid the traditional failure of participatory exhibitions. The charrettes are a way to engage with someone in the field, and think with them. They allow intimacy beyond what just the exhibition can do.

Design Corps built low-cost bath-houses for migrant workers in Sampson County, North Carolina in 2003.

G: Is there a connection between how the show was set up and organized, and how the architects in it operate?

AL: The way we were organized and funded mimicked the groups. It was a collaborative approach-there were three different organizations involved, and we had to raise a lot of money from all different sources, public and private. And that's the way many of these architects get support for their work. They don't uphold the individual author idea. It's more a choreography of collaboration.

Rebar's 2008 Panhandle Bandshell in San Francisco is made out of post-consumer trash.

G: Is there something about the work that's uniquely American?

AL: They do add up to an entrepreneurial vision of architecture. We've been calling it intellectual entrepreneurialism. These architects are each marked by an experimental disposition that leads them to initiate and undertake complex collaborations, and to unlock hidden resources in the private and public sectors. They do this in their own, typically American, do-it-yourself manner, by creating and sustaining novel institutional and organizational frameworks. And that dimension is unique, I think.

Melina Shannon-DiPietro is the director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which collaborated with Alice Water's Edible Schoolyard program to plant a garden of local produce in the exhibition space. Both organizations promote education and community-building through local gardening projects.

GOOD: You're not an architect. How does your project fit in with the rest of the work in show?

MELINA SHANNON-DIPIETRO: A garden is about simpler spaces, but spaces that create community and also spaces for beauty, so it's definitely an inspiration for architects. Urban agriculture changes the way we see the land. We're not talking about environmental stewardship in the abstract-we have a piece of land, we plant beans, we water it, we hike it. It's a direct connection. And if architects understand that, they can be environmental stewards in our country. Architects build for people, and people eat, and in cities, architecture can make room for that.

The Center for Land Use Interpretation researched the waste in Los Angeles from the curb to this giant landfill.

G: What do gardens do for a city or for a community?

MSD: It's not just that communities use gardens, gardens build communities. Everywhere we go, we find people working together in gardens that got to know each other working in gardens. And gardens are of course about eating together, and sharing meals is an age-old way of building community.

Jonathan Kirschenfeld Associates' floating pool turned an old barge into a mobile public swimming pool in New York.

G: Aaron Levy said the work in the show is, at least in part, an American thing. What do you think?

MSD: Well, school gardens and victory gardens are an American phenomenon or an American tradition. In World War II, forty percent of produce was grown in victory gardens-there was a huge spirit of patriotism. But at the same time, the radicchio in our garden is from Italy, the okra is from the southern U.S., the beans some students brought back from Mexico. I don't know if I want to disagree with the curators, but gardens are universal.

The Yale Sustainable Food Project and Edible Schoolyards built a garden in the exhibition.

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