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“Between States: 50 Designers Transform Chicago’s Neighborhoods” is the second phase of CAC’s multi-year 50 Designers, 50 Wards initiative to explore how innovative design can create a better future for all of Chicago’s residents.

by Jennifer Bosch

In this round, 50 Chicago-based design teams were asked to identify a single, physical asset that could benefit from a redesign. They were presented with two challenges: first, propose a way to change the state of an underperforming or dilapidated site into a rejuvenated civic anchor; and second, present an inspiring case study of a similar and successful project from another U.S. state or somewhere outside Chicago.

Building momentum

Last year, 50 Designers, 50 Ideas, 50 Wards presented a wide array of design projects that proposed ideas for addressing persistent challenges around the city. The entrants tilted toward younger, emerging practices and many of the projects were intended to be springboards for long-term growth and investment. This year, a new group of firms is building on this foundation, with infrastructure projects of increased scale and complexity. One example of the synergies found in this stepped process is the proposed revitalization of shuttered Chicago Public Schools.

While working on a Habitat for Humanity project near a closed West Pullman school, architect Paola Aguirre started to notice the gaps that occur when buildings once central to their communities are taken out of service. She asked broad questions about how the empty school and others like it could be repurposed for and by the community, and began building relationships with purchasers and others interested in West Pullman. Her 50 Designers, 50 Wards exhibition entry, “Creative Grounds: From Closed Public Schools to Neighborhood Commons,” called for the accelerated repurposing of schools, with a focus on the needs of the surrounding neighborhood.

“As an architect trained with an urban planning focus, it changed my viewpoint and I looked beyond spatial qualities. I look at how communities can connect to design,” Paola said.

This year, Between States includes a project with an intention similar to the one originally discussed in Paola’s proposal. Pappageorge Haymes Partners is proposing a new future for Overton Elementary, a school designed by Perkins + Will that they would like to see transformed into a shared asset for the community. With the physical building already in place, the designers are focusing more on learning about how community entrepreneurs could use the space to grow their businesses. Current ideas include a commercial kitchen, recording studio, event space and shared offices for start-ups. As part of their extended research process, the firm examined a similar project in Detroit, where a former Catholic school was converted into a loft-style office space. Pappageorge Haymes architect Ken DeMuth said he believes the firm’s ability to launch the project and have immediate community impact will be increased by considering the successes and failures of similar projects.

Part of a whole

While the designers were free to choose the scale of intervention and what size asset they wanted to work with, they were encouraged to focus on “anchors,” or cornerstones of community life. Thinking about their projects “between states” was also a requirement, to spur thoughtful recordings of the design process and the ripple effect of CAC’s 50 Designers/50 Wards exploration. A critical overall component of this work is conversation and the sharing of information, both within the community that is receiving the intervention and from other places where successes and defeats have already been realized.

Come visit the exhibit this fall at CAC and let us know what you think! By linking the local wisdom of citizens with our incredible architectural community, CAC will create connections for real and meaningful change.

“This program gives us a shot at bringing neighbors, architects and city leaders together for a shared dialogue that has potential to bring real, positive change to the city in the months and years to come,” said Michael Wood, CAC’s senior director of program strategy.