LabCamp II Recap: St. Louis

This is an entry by guest author Alexandra Miller, an urban planner living in New Orleans. You can follower her on twitter. This post is about LabCamp, a gathering of urban planners and designers and their collaborators sponsored by Social Agency Lab. The lab was attended by several PT authors. This is the first in a series of articles by those who participated in the LabCamp and highlighting the work that came out of it.

For our second LabCamp gathering (read about the first here), Social Agency Lab collaborators traveled to St. Louis to stay and work with Rebuild Foundation in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Rebuild Foundation is a “a not-for-profit, creative engine focusing on cultural and economic redevelopment and affordable space initiatives in under-resourced communities” — in short, they are helping communities value and express their own needs by developing spaces for neighbors to interact and create.

Social Agency Lab was lucky enough to stay in the first complete St. Louis home that would serve as one of these spaces, 3619 Blair, which will be a community kitchen for the Hyde Park neighbors as well as a home for the Rebuild Foundation’s team. During our stay, we were honored to help inaugurate the 3619 Blair house as a public venue, as we helped cook the Rebuild Foundation’s first public dinner there and share it with friends of Social Agency Lab and Rebuild.

We chose St. Louis as the site for Labcamp 2 based on the Preservation Research Office competition to reimagine the former Pruitt-Igoe public housing site. Pruitt-Igoe was a federally-funded housing project constructed in the early 1950’s at the height of high-rise public housing developments. It was demolished 20 years later in what architects and urban planners now consider to be “the death of modernism,” or the point at which human scale and neighborhood-type development began to reemerge as the favored template for creating attractive, safe, and wholesome environments.

As we considered our approach to the competition, we knew that we needed to go beyond this basic understanding of what Pruitt-Igoe means to professional architects and planners, and take a step toward understanding what the demolition meant to the residents of Pruitt-Igoe and St. Louis at the time, and toward realizing residents’ visions and hopes for the future of the city.

With deep roots in the Hyde Park community and a dedication to involving community members of all ages, Rebuild Foundation was an unbelievably gracious and important partner in allowing Social Agency Lab to work with students from the their Urban Expressions program on developing a vision for the future of Pruitt-Igoe.

During a day-long charrette on Saturday, we worked with Matthew, Shallen, Malik, Myasia, Knaya, Justin, and Anyiah, all students at the local Holy Trinity school.

Together, these students, Social Agency Lab members, Rebuild Foundation staff, and Michael Allen of the Preservation Research Office toured the now-forested Pruitt-Igoe site, learned about the history of public housing in St. Louis, brainstormed about good things and problems in St. Louis, and finally built some ideas about how the Pruitt-Igoe site could become a good place that would help bring people together and make St. Louis a better place in the future.

Some of the projects focused on creating spaces to imagine and hang out, places where the students could be free to have fun and be themselves. Knaya created an amusement park that included rides but also a library and comfortable indoor environments to sit and talk.

Justin created a “Bluetopia” where everything was blue and winter didn’t exist, a place that was dedicated to the imagination.

Other projects focused on addressing some of the problems that students saw in their own neighborhood environments, like stray animals. Malik addressed this issue by making the site into an urban wildlife park, with animals separated by type across a large, swiftly flowing river.

Anyiah created a pet store and shelter where stray animals could be adopted and pet owners could get everything that was needed to keep their animals comfortable and happy.

The last feature that recurred in the students’ ideas was aesthetics and comfort; how to turn the city into a beautiful and comfortable place with the assets we already have. Shallen had a special interest in working with recycled art, and expressed her artistic vision by proposing a sculpture garden.

Myasia and Matthew revisited the original public housing idea of Pruitt-Igoe, but incorporated elements of comfort. Myasia designed a new edition of Pruitt-Igoe with swimming pools and shopping areas.

Matthew designed a homeless shelter and pet shelter with a “TV in every room.”

For another perspective on Social Agency Lab’s visit to St. Louis and our project, visit the Rebuild Foundation’s blog, where Shallen has written a detailed post about our day at Pruitt-Igoe.

Social Agency is currently working on next steps for collaborating with Rebuild Foundation as we move on from this single weekend event. In the meantime, all of the Social Agency Labcamp participants owe a huge thanks to: Dayna Kriz, Charlie Vinz, Gina Martinez, and Theaster Gates of Rebuild Foundation; Donna Lindsay, Ms. Betty, and Ms. Blackman, friends of Rebuild in the Hyde Park community; Michael Allen of the Preservation Research Office; and all of our student partners on the competition team, Matthew, Shallen, Malik, Myasia, Knaya, Justin, and Anyiah.

For more information or to participate in a future LabCamp, visit the Social Agency website or facebook page.