CityStudioSTL- Somethingness: Ways of Seeing and Building

photo by Malia Kalahele
photo by Malia Kalahele

CityStudioSTL is the culmination of a group of people with different backgrounds, interests, and histories who want to re-develop a sense of community in an under-resourced and overlooked St. Louis neighborhood.   The CityStudioSTL summer course, sponsored and administered by Washington University and the Pulitzer Foundation, challenged graduate students to imagine how community based initiatives could be pursued through the collaboration of art, architecture, social work and other fields. The students of CityStudio STL under the leadership of the Rebuild Foundation pressed through three weeks of intense physical and mental labor in an effort to repurpose an abandoned residential building and socially engage the Hyde Park community. The residential building will be converted into an “arthouse” for community members and the Most Holy Trinity church’s youth arts program, Urban Expressions.

The class was poetically sub-titled “Somethingness: Ways of Seeing and Building.” In St. Louis it is hard to ignore the pockets of desolate areas filled with abandoned and deteriorating buildings. There is a perceived sense of “nothingness” in these areas not only to visitors of the city but St. Louis residents as well. This perceived sense has relieved those in power in St. Louis to accept any real responsibility to reshape, revitalize and rebuild these areas. During our three weeks in Hyde Park we have witnessed powerful moments of happiness and hardship that are evidence of life and beauty in this community. I now realize that three weeks was an unrealistic time frame for a group of students to solidify any major positive impacts on the neighborhood.  The real objective of the class was to make people of the Hyde Park neighborhood, St. Louis and national community remember that there is something in Hyde Park and it can not be forgotten.

What did the program mean for me? There is an undeniable power in the built environment and I have been drawn to this power for as long as I could remember. The way one perceives his or her environment influences who they are and the person they want to become. This is the reason I chose architecture as a career path. As I continue to follow my dream of becoming an architect, I will diverge from the typical path and will begin pursing a Masters in Social Work at Washington University this upcoming fall. My hope is to build an architecture practice that will focus on using the built environment as a vessel of impactful social change. CityStudioSTL has allowed me to develop my career goals even further by exploring the relation between spatial, cultural and societal contexts to create more sustainable and healthy communities.

Alicia Ajayi, 2013 MSW canidate
Brown School of Social Work
Washington University in St. Louis

photo by Kaitie Militzer
photo by Kaitie Militzer

Below is a synopsis of what a team of builders, artists, social workers and architects were able to physically accomplish within a three week time frame, written by Britani Hollis:

Walls have gone up and walls have come down in the course of this three week class.  After starting off following directions from Theaster and others in the crew of skilled workers to complete tasks like moving out bricks and other debris around the site, reinforcing and cladding one of the exterior walls and removing another wall, we began to incorporate our own ideas and plans into the project, our own solutions to the problems that began to present themselves. The back of the house, opened up by the removal of the back wall, became home to a new door that we designed, built, and installed to open out into a canopy. The yard, once an unkempt mess of weeds, concrete, and dead trees, has been transformed into a garden, a gathering space, a place to watch a performance or have a barbecue.  We knew that in three weeks, we would not have time to complete the rehabilitation of 1415, but by staging an intervention in the yard, the first space you see as you approach the site, we hoped to create excitement and a prelude to the transformation that is in progress in the building itself and show that someone cares about the space.  We put in a bed for a grapevine, a compost bin, and the beginnings of a system of pathways.  The dead tree in the garden area was painted bright orange as a way of reproducing the re-birth of the house itself in something naturally occurring in the environment around the house.  The work has been a continuous movement in and out of the space – clearing out debris, concrete, an entire wall; installing a door, a path, paint on a tree; a taking and giving, tearing down and building up.  

In addition to all the physical improvements we were able to engage the community by initiating a Community Advisory Board filled with people who are present in the Hyde Park neighborhood.  A general informational meeting was held for the board that will be responsible for giving direction on how to use the arthouse as a social practice that will uplift Hyde Park. We were also able to hold design charrettes with the children who participate in the Urban Expressions programs and get their input on what they envisioned the space to be while exposing them to design education.

Participants recladding the western elevation as part of their initial “neck-down” project

The western elevation after being re-clad with used fiber cement board.

The new back wall and room, featuring an airplane hanger style “bat-wing” door, which folds into an awning, allowing the back room to function as a stage, in this case featuring a performance by The Black Monks of Mississippi

The back door in the closed position, with dusk setting in and the interior lighting providing a gentle glow.


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