By Nootan Bharani, AIA
Collaboration is difficult. Increasingly, knowledge domains have become siloed, and the myriad areas of expertise are hidden behind walls, often uncharted, and unbeknownst to those that most need access. In order to address work in our societies, formal agreements are regularly required to bring different viewpoints together. Group work — a commonplace occurrence in high school English class, where everyone is deputized to think, act and share leadership — must be carefully thought out in our adult world, so that each consultancy receives a fair share of pie – and liability. But what happens when the task changes or the problem at the heart of the work shifts? What if the dilemma swings from a technical issue to one of social cues? If the initial intention of a team was to bring new art exhibit space to a neighborhood, but the reality is that the community wants and needs a space for dance, performance and healing arts. Is the team nimble enough to quickly pivot?
Team evolution is a constant
Over the past two years of working with each other and integrating into the ecosystem of organizations led by Theaster Gates, the Place Lab team, initially brought together to document and demonstrate a path forward for ethical urban redevelopment, has grown more and more nimble in identifying and addressing challenges. We have found that problems weave in and out of knowledge domains quickly. Different teammates’ efforts wax and wane and then wax again, depending on the course of our community engagement and redevelopment efforts. The team continues to evolve, the processes grow and progress, as the scale of our efforts change. The work can move forward quickly through many iterations as each teammate applies knowledge and expertise, untethered by traditional expectations within her or his field.
Departure from the standard approach
The St. Laurence School board-up project is an example of collaboration and agility within the Place Lab team — it is a major departure from a standard construction task. One of the first imperatives in adopting an existing building, especially one that has been vacant for more than a dozen years, is to clean up and board up. But St. Laurence was turned into a community artwork with over 100 patterned boards, created by young people from the neighborhood during their public school summer program. The processes involved conceiving the program, engaging the local public school administration, involving a well-known Chicago mural artist, and convincing the board-up company to provide boards and then to hang them after they are works of art. We then celebrated with a parade including music by a local acclaimed artist and original artworks of parade puppets, a certificate ceremony for the youth participants and a back-to-school supply give-away. It was far from standard. The project couldn’t have happened as smoothly and with such intentional vision without input from each team member. In this gesture, a deviation from the norm, the neighborhood youth from a nearby public school had an opportunity to literally put their thumbprint into the process of re-making this space, and they now have the confidence to boast stewardship in and for their neighborhood.
The projects in the Reimagining the Civic Commons portfolio will benefit most from many viewpoints, varied expertise, and agility of idea and implementation. The indeterminate nature of the problems of ethical redevelopment require us to work as a constellation of knowledge, pulling each other toward as well as away from issues, providing expertise and perspective at once. Together, we are prepared and dexterous to Reimagine the Civic Commons.
Nootan Bharani is a licensed architect and Lead Design Manager of Place Lab at University of Chicago.