Architects, designers thrive in Shark Tank-like competition

Gheskio Cholera Treatment Center - SXSW Eco

The Gheskio Cholera Treatment Center, designed by MASS Design Group, was honored in Place by Design's Resilience + Health category.

AIA served as a media sponsor for international event promoting architects as problem solvers and community builders

The fourth annual SXSW Eco's Place by Design competition honored projects in six categories, bringing together architects, designers, planners, activists, and artists working toward social and environmental change. The program’s celebration of grassroots and cross-disciplinary efforts was evident in the list of finalists under consideration and the list of panelists charged with judging the competition. SXSW Eco design curator Julie Yost noted, “I would like for people to walk away with a new perspective on the power of place and their own agency in creating more dynamic and just better public spaces.”

The competition’s format allowed finalists, who were chosen from among more than 70 entries, four minutes to present very complex projects followed by a quick question-and-answer session with the category panelists. Winners in all the categories explained how beneficial the process was, noting that boiling down the work into what one judge called “the ultimate elevator speech” helped them clarify the projects for other stakeholders and for potential funders as well.

Ultimately, the competition is about making connections across industries, noted Yost. “I find cross-disciplinary collaborations lead to really interesting results, and as a programming team we definitely like to showcase those possibilities,” she said. Of the six winning projects and three honorable mentions, seven are architect-led projects. The work illustrates how architects are contributing to larger dialogues about community building and placemaking.

Honored projects

Using 12,000 pounds of ice harvested from a local lake, Molly Reichert, Assoc. AIA, of Futures North in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sought to illustrate the effects of climate change. Her project Phase Change was made up of three lattice armatures supporting the ice blocks and infrared lights, programmed using data based on climate change research to simulate distinct scenarios: the pre-industrial era, the current climate conditions, and a “worst case” possibility. It was on view during the annual dusk-to-dawn Northern Spark Festival in the Twin Cities, where visitors were invited to take home bottles of melted ice water. Honored in the Art + Interaction category, the panel sought to recognize beautiful work that raised awareness and transformed the public’s perception of space. As a night installation, Phase Change accomplished a dramatic statement by distilling information into what one visitor described as “visceral” interactive platform.

The Revitalization category also celebrated the transformative role of art in public spaces. Detroit’s African Bead Museum was recognized as the winner and the Storefront Theater in Lyons, Nebraska, received an honorable mention. Made up of 18 outdoor installations plus the African Bead Gallery, the N’kisi House, and the African Language Wall, the African Bead Museum celebrates African culture by reimagining vacant buildings and lots with found objects. Artist Olayami Dabls created the museum and has established an anchor for the local arts community, while also attracting hundreds of tourists annually.

Phase Change, a climate change awareness project from Molly Reichert, Assoc. AIA, used three sections of ice to illustrate how quickly our world is heating up.

In addition to receiving an honorable mention in the Revitalization category, the Storefront Theater, a project by Boston-based artist Matthew Mazzotta, was also honored with the Audience Choice award. Mazzotta transformed Main Street in Lyons by introducing a new theater into one of the historic buildings. The storefront system folds down, allowing the integrated seating to project out onto the street. A movie—along with a tractor pulling a screen and a projector–can be rented from the public library. The debut film was done entirely with community volunteers, including an avid amateur set designer.

Similarly, the Urban Strategy + Civic Engagement category aimed to showcase efforts to create vibrant, innovative cities and to engage the public in design, planning, and civic realms. A startup incubator for aspiring retail businesses took home the award. BOOMBOX, a shipping container turned storefront in Chicago, allows entrepreneurs to experiment with scaling up prior to establishing a permanent brick-and-mortar locale. It is the work of Latent Studio’s Katherine Darnstadt, AIA. An architect and urban planner, Darnstadt partnered with the City of Chicago and founded Activate! Chicago to advance placemaking in the city. Panelist Tim McCollow, founder of the City of Milwaukee's HOME GR/OWN initiative managed by its Environmental Collaboration Office, summarized the group’s thoughts: “BOOMBOX brought together pop-up vending, scalability, and replicability. The project also demonstrated partnering, patience, and tenacity in working with the City of Chicago's policies and ordinances to make the idea a reality.”

The Equity + Inclusion category celebrated architects who are giving voices to underserved and victimized communities. The winner, Territory Urban Design Team, empowers high school students to take on public spaces throughout Chicago. Their projects include transforming the front door of an elementary school, establishing a business plan for a corridor of local retailers, and a series of spontaneous design interventions in a neighborhood, among others. Honorable mention was given to Spatial Practice as Evidence + Advocacy (SPEA), an ambitious spatial analysis and visualization tool created by SITU Research that captures data from various sources to map and document human rights abuses, including confrontations between the public and law enforcement agencies.

Panelist Thor Erickson of buildingcommunityWORKSHOP summarized the jury’s sentiments: “Territory Urban Design received high remarks for their focus on youth in the design process. When we discussed equity and inclusion, their speech touched on many of the points we collectively valued. Youth are often voiceless in community planning and design projects and to see dedication to this is outstanding. SPEA is doing very impactful work around the world and received an honorable mention because of their data and visualization work centered on human rights.”

BOOMBOX, from Katherine Darnstadt, of Chicago-based Latent Studio, allows entrepreneurs to open a business in a temporary shipping container before moving up to a more permanent storefront.

The Resilience + Health category honored MASS Design Group’s Gheskio Cholera Treatment Center, the most traditional architecture project of the competition. Located in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the building couples passive design elements with infrastructure, such as on-site wastewater treatment, to prevent the spread of disease. Designed around a courtyard and garden, patients are provided areas for repose and recovery. Juror Bon Ku, associate professor at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University noted: “All the projects were amazing but Gheskio stood out to the jury. The design of the center had a direct impact on health outcomes in its community in Haiti. It was a great example of how better design can improve public health.”

The category Speculative + Prototyping concluded the competition with a nod to the future. Sean Ahlquist, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, is exploring how children with autism spectrum disorders engage the world around them. His project, Social Sensory Architectures, uses responsive fabrics, light, and sound to create physically, visually, and auditorily transformable environments.

Panelist Kory Beig of OTA+ summarized the jury’s comments: “We felt that the project was the most fitting for the category because it really took the project through initial concept to prototype. And ultimately, it demonstrated how design can affect change in the world.” Honorable mention in this category went to a digitally fabricated heat-sensitive window system, Bloom + Invert Window System, by Los Angeles-based Doris Sung Architecture.

All of these projects take on global issues, from climate change to underserved urban blocks and building and human behavioral health, and each introduces a local solution determined through a design process that is universally applicable. The strategies are united by their aspirations to impact communities and cities. The group of 2016 Place by Design winners clearly illustrates how effective multidisciplinary design can enhance public space and act as an agent of change.

Image credits

Gheskio Cholera Treatment Center - SXSW Eco

Courtesy of SXSW Eco

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