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Catherine Baker, AIA: Linking the Social and Spatial with Community Outreach Architecture

Landon Bone Baker Architects uses direct neighborhood outreach programs to develop better-informed communities and simultaneously harvest actionable design data.

By Nalina Moses

Three years after receiving her Bachelor of Architecture degree from Ball State University, Catherine Baker, AIA, earned a Master of Arts in Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. As she sees it, these two seemingly unrelated disciplines share some fundamental underpinnings. “Architecture and social sciences are very similar,” she says. “Both disciplines involve understanding people, understanding problems, making connections, and developing a program.”

These words might provide a perfect motto for the Chicago architecture firm Landon Bone Baker Architects (LBBA), where Baker is a partner. LBBA is well-known for its finely designed and thoughtfully planned public projects in underserved parts of the city, such as the Rosa Park Apartments in West Humboldt Park, and the Roseland Place Senior Independent Living Facility in Roseland.

In addition, LBBA has a strong reputation for community involvement, both in the way it partners with community groups throughout the design process and in the outreach projects the firm has established. Two of the firm’s best-known programs are Shade Lab and airLab, which offer local high school and college students paid internships to study environmental conditions in the city, fostering education and engagement. LBBA formulated both of these programs in response to specific community needs, and funds them themselves and through grants. Baker has played a leading role in developing and sustaining LBBA’s social programs, which she spoke to AIArchitect about.

LESSON ONE: Community Outreach as Design Fact-Finding
Shade Lab and airLab

The lab programs [Shade Lab and airLab] developed out of our desire to add another dimension to the design process. These initiatives were not related to any specific project, but rather we felt the need to better understand the communities in which we work, and to offer our clients services beyond a typical “full service” architecture firm. We wanted to assist our clients in evaluating their buildings’ performance and, as an office, to understand how or if sustainable features were performing [properly]. LBBA uses this data to improve our building design.

In the pilot program Shade Lab, students conducted a community-asset mapping program that mapped and measured the trees in a certain neighborhood. Our client used their work to ask the city to install trees in front of one of their residential projects. The subsequent airLab and airLab 2.0 focused on research and data collection on the indoor air quality at the Rosa Parks Apartments in West Humboldt Park.

We view airLab as a vital information-gathering arm of our firm. We want to use the data to help us design better buildings—whether that informs us in how we select materials or mechanical systems, or informs us in how the building is used and maintained. By now, all architects are aware of sustainability issues, and we all design buildings based on best sustainability practices, but we really don’t know how the buildings are performing until we go back and test the units.

We also share the data in whatever format we can. We invite many guests, experts, and clients to our weekly “smartlucks,” and we host a community presentation at the end-of-the-summer program. The community presentation is designed to inform the residents about our findings and give them tips and advice for living in a healthier or more sustainable environment.

Across all of our outreach efforts, our goal is to educate communities, organizations, and city leaders to make better decisions on improving the health, well-being, and efficiency of their neighborhoods through awareness and good design. Participating in outreach programs makes us better architects. By understanding local issues, we can apply our knowledge of the built environment in a thoughtful, productive, and positive way. Our office aims to reshape neighborhoods by aligning our goals with the community’s interests, and strong collaboration acts as a catalyst. We don’t consider ourselves as activists, but our work sometimes places us between two worlds of design practice and social engagement.

LESSON TWO: Communication Builds Community
As part of LBBA’s 25th anniversary celebration this year, our office hosted a series of roundtable discussions. We invited various clients, members of the community, city officials, and anyone interested in the chosen topics: sustaining communities, neighborhood transformation, and grassroots development. A shared interest in issues like the Housing Bronzeville [affordable] home ownership initiative provided a point of entry for community residents, architects, and developers to connect and discuss how we can achieve positive outcomes.

LBBA is really a Chicago-centric architecture firm. Everyone who works in our office lives in the city and is dedicated to improving the surrounding environment. Unfortunately, Chicago can be both racially and culturally divided. Uniting the city across these divisions is a challenge, but the distinctions generate vibrant and identifiable communities and neighborhoods.

LESSON THREE: Design Thinking for All
I am proud to be the child of two public school teachers, and as such I’ve always understood education as a way to grow, advance, or change a situation. But the typical high school pedagogical approach that I experienced was not terribly inspiring. My first exposure to design education was at a Ball State University summer program for high school students. The program focused on creative problem-solving—a revolutionary idea for me at that stage—and marked a distinct turning point in my life. High school students are far more observant than we give them credit [for]. Although they are rarely asked their opinions, I believe high school students are open-minded and mature enough to candidly evaluate their environment.

Actively engaging Chicago’s architectural education community led me to teach an architecture class in partnership with Lane Technical High School and [inner-city arts education non-profit] Marwen for over 10 years. LBBA extended the partnership outside the classroom and became a founding mentor for Marwen’s Art at Work program.

As a member of the Chicago Architecture Foundation advisory team for The Architecture Handbook, I helped develop an architecture curriculum for the Chicago Public Schools. LBBA supported the initiative by hosting workshops to introduce and strengthen design teaching skills for instructors.

I believe design education teaches students how to independently and critically assess a given situation; develop multiple options for solutions; critique and refine these options; accept criticism and suggestions; and, finally, return to the drawing board to revise their work and present it again. In a typical high school model, students may believe that there is only one solution to a problem, but in fact, there is no right or wrong solution. Design education engages students far more effectively than any other method.

We’ve seen anecdotally how design education leads to critical thinking. The students in the Shade Lab program conducted an environmental assessment study of one of the neighborhoods where LBBA is rehabbing a few buildings. The students noticed an excessive amount of trash, but no trashcans in the neighborhood. When we met with the alderman, they asked him about the lack of trashcans. He said that he would love to have trashcans, but that he didn’t have a budget to employ someone to empty them. The students realized that many issues are deeper than they appear, and that generating solutions is a more involved process than they originally thought.


Catherine Baker, AIA. All images courtesy of LBBA.

Baker leads high school students in an airLab 2.0 group. Image courtesy of LBBA.

LBBA’s Woodlawn Center South affordable housing in Chicago.

LBBA’s mixed-income Dorchester Artist Housing in Chicago.


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