Benedict Clouette & Marlisa Wise
Architecture has perhaps been too magnetized toward a future-to-come—when now is the only time we have.
Now could be a time for architects to rethink the structures we build that support our own engagement with social, political, and ecological realities. How do the ways that we practice design within the profession and academy affect the buildings, landscapes, and cities that architects produce? We explore these questions in our own practice by working through two separate but affiliated entities: a nonprofit design advocacy collaborative—Interval Projects—and a for-profit design company—Interval Office. We are now in conversations with a group of friends to transition Interval Office into a worker-owned cooperative business in order to bring democratic governance and equitably shared profits into the traditionally hierarchical design firm model. We see this as an opportunity to work on the structures by which inequalities are reproduced in the field by offering a radically horizontal, anti-oppressive model of design practice.
For a long time, we hesitated to use the word “community” in our work, since it is so often abused and devalued by being conflated with an idea of abstract, universal good. Communities—and cities—are defined by contestation, not by homogeneity. In our work, we want to pick sides and support partisan communities, rather than claiming the position of design in the “public interest” or for “public good.”
Our design for the Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Park in Butte, Montana, is a master planning project commissioned by the Restore Our Creek Coalition, an all-volunteer environmental justice organization. The site is located at the headwaters of a watershed—the largest Superfund site in America—where twentieth-century smelting operations contaminated a twenty-six-mile-long portion of the watershed and left the groundwater unfit for human consumption. It is a highly visible, highly contaminated public space in the heart of downtown Butte that has been the site of passionate environmental organizing for decades. We brought together public feedback and expert technical input with our own research and design process to produce a master plan for the restoration of the landscape and the provisioning of a public park and recreation area. We temporarily relocated our small office to Butte during the design process, working in donated office space, attending community meetings and events, facilitating design workshops, and living in the house of a coalition member. The resulting master plan has been successful in advancing the Superfund negotiation process, as the parties announced an agreement in principle this January after decades of stalled discussions and closed-door meetings. The EPA regional administrator began his public announcement by holding up a copy of the Silver Bow Creek Headwaters Park project book, assuring the community that the agreement was built around their desires as articulated through the Headwaters Park master plan. The EPA has set 2024 as the target date for the cleanup, and plans made public in February will allow treated water from a nearby source to flow into the restored Silver Bow Creek.
Spaces Beyond Property
An important consideration for our work as architects and urbanists is how ownership structures affect access, control, and autonomy in the buildings and landscapes that we design.
Our design for the Ranch on Rails in Long Island City, Queens, is a landscape project located on the site of the Montauk Cutoff, a decommissioned railroad spur owned by the MTA where a group of guerrilla gardeners have built a thriving community garden. In late 2015, the MTA put out a call requesting ideas for the use of the site, and the gardeners (Smiling Hogshead Ranch) pulled together a coalition of local businesses, nonprofits, community organizations, and area residents to envision a use for the site that would incorporate their garden. We were commissioned by this group, the Cutoff Coalition, and collaborated with the community land access advocacy group 596 Acres to visualize the coalition’s plans for the site. We synthesized the input from multiple working groups into a cohesive master plan for a self-powered urban farm and resiliency lab, featuring green infrastructure, rainwater catchment, communal spaces, educational gardens, clean energy generation, and an amphitheater. The proposal brings together nature, community, and industry on a postindustrial site, and encourages common stewardship of open space and the preservation of a rare oasis of communal space in New York City. The Ranch on Rails design allowed the gardeners to prevail over real estate interests in the process initiated by the MTA. It also forms a key element of the recently released Newtown Creek Revitalization Plan. The Coalition is currently negotiating land access and fundraising strategies in order to implement the full design, and in the meantime they are planning their upcoming season of “cultivating the commons,” growing vegetables and community together.
Design for collective autonomy considers how communities live and work together and assert the right to make decisions about the spaces they occupy. Rather than seeing autonomy and collectivity as opposed, such that group structures and individual freedoms have to reach some accommodation, we see collectivity as creating the shared power necessary for autonomy.
Our schematic design for Flux Factory in Queens aims to preserve and expand their nonprofit art space and residency program by renovating their existing facilities and expanding vertically. The design takes a playful approach to the existing complexity of two adjacent buildings connected via their party walls, where the varying heights of floor plates creates a complex industrial vernacular raumplan. The design emphasizes programmatic porosity, maximizes allowable square footage, and takes advantage of the mixed-use zoning district to create both residential and commercial uses within the building. Courtyards bring light and air deep into the plan while creating shared outdoor spaces for both informal gathering and public exhibitions. Cross-programming and unusual adjacencies are essential to the collaborative ethos of the institution, and the design preserves and expands upon these patterns of collective use.
When architects work with cultural institutions as clients, we must consider how artists are valued and compensated by those institutions and how the institutions are positioned within a larger cultural economy and processes of displacement. In order to preserve community spaces such as Flux Factory for long-term affordability, we volunteer with the New York City Real Estate Investment Cooperative (NYCREIC), which utilizes crowd-investing to secure permanently affordable commercial spaces and create community land trusts in New York City. Flux Factory is now in dialogue with the NYCREIC to explore how crowd-investing could enable the purchase of their building and the creation of a community land trust on the site, fully removing the property from the speculative real estate market and thus ensuring permanent affordability and creative freedom.