Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Material Process Product - The Art of Revitalization

I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a panel discussion on revitalization through arts and culture at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C. The panel was quite diverse, consisting of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s Kevin McMahon, Powerhouse Production’s Gina Reichert, and myself (Joseph N. Biondo of Spillman Farmer Architects). The program focused on the rebirth of industrial cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit and the Lehigh Valley. I became particularly intrigued by the work Powerhouse Productions is doing in Detroit neighborhoods: as part of their mission, they allow national artists to transform abandoned homes into interactive objects of art.

Image courtesy of Powerhouse Productions

Many communities throughout our country have flourished through smart redevelopment and introduction of the arts. The SoHo region of lower Manhattan is a particularly strong example. A variety of factors in SoHo transformed a “low road,” dead part of an American city into a more dynamic, more diverse, and economically stronger community.

The acronym SoHo was part of a clever branding strategy which refers to an area south of Houston Street. This region was the heart of manufacturing in New York in the early 1900’s. By the 1950’s, many of the manufacturing facilities began to outgrow their lofts and started to relocate west, out of Manhattan. The area south of Houston Street became a castaway void between Midtown and Wall Street; a district of “low road” buildings that became too unsafe to visit. The area’s lack of diverse uses (caused, in part, by a lack of planning foresight) killed the urban life of this once-vibrant district.
Juxtapoz  House on Morgan Street Courtesy of Powerhouse Productions
Eventually, New York city planners looked to gentrify the area, while grassroots urban pioneers began to occupy it. Megastructures and major thoroughfares were proposed, but a burgeoning population of artists began to squat in the neighborhood’s structures. SoHo’s rebirth was attributed not to city planners, but to the artists whose urban pioneering spirit and modest necessity stimulated the renewal.
Sound House Courtesy of Powerhouse Productions
The similarities in Detroit’s neighborhoods (although currently underway) present an incredible potential for rebirth. Like SoHo, Detroit's residents want to feel part of a true neighborhood – an authentic, unique village atmosphere that provides history, a sense of place, and a spirit of belonging. This type of neighborhood, where safety, interaction, lively streets and unexpected delight occur, must attract the same kind of creative class that was drawn to SoHo in the 1960’s. To remain vital, cities like these need to be creative and innovative, both intellectually, culturally and technologically. Hats off to Detroit!