Standing in the Gap since 2007.

Change is that which occurs when circumstances force you to get different

The Activist Architecture and Design Studio was founded in the fall of 2007, and is part of the sustainable architecture concentration of Lawrence Technological University’s Master of Architecture program. The class attempts to engage students in a dialogue regarding the social, political, and cultural obligations of the design professional. The primary lesson of this studio, both for students and practitioners is simple: You don’t need permission, you need to act.

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Lights! Camera! Action!

While many of the investigations in this studio stem from an interest in widely-considered issues such as housing, food security, and homelessness, sometimes a student explores an issue not covered before, with delightful results.  Such is the case of the work of student Maria Tomaszycki.  Maria is a self-described lover of classic films and movies in general, and researched why the millennial generation is not interested in classic movies.

“Through countless articles, web pages, and an interview with a Detroit film critic”, Maria wrote, “I found the main cause of this sad reality is plainly this: people are not exposed to classic movies.”  To better understand what is being done to preserve this cinematic heritage, Maria reached out to the Motor City Theater Organ Society (MCTOS), an all-volunteer organization that owns and operates the Redford Theater, one of only three theaters in Detroit that screens classic films.  The Redford Theatre is a complex which consists of the theater in the middle, two storefronts to the north and two storefronts to the south, and conversations with Steve Overstreet, the President of MCTOS and Thom Kinney, an MCTOS member, it was determined that the MCTOS wished to convert one of the storefronts into a 35’-0” x 16’-4” multi-use space that could be used for meetings and film discussions, or be rented out to community members.  The back area would eventually capitalize on a connection to the main theater space, and become the MCTOS office.  Maria and her community partners determined that the objectives for what would become Redford Theatre Storefront were to “maximize flexibility, coordinate the new interventions with existing design plans, revamp the existing glass storefront for street appeal, accommodate 30-36 people for various activities, and improve the acoustical quality of the space.”

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Before and after images of the multi-purpose space (all images: Maria Tomaszycki)

 

With spatial flexibility being a high priority, it became obvious to Maria and her partners that the main leasable area be kept clear.  The challenge was compounded by a lack of available storage space.  Maria investigated a variety of flexible systems, and means of storing seating within the space when it needed to be opened for receptions or larger gatherings.  Among the possibilities was a means of wall-mounting unused seating to maximize available floor area, as well as the creation of storage compartments tucked beneath an existing staircase.  The major intervention in the space needed to be at the ceiling, where acoustical remediation could best be addressed.  “At the moment it works as a great echo chamber”, Maria wrote.  “The ceiling is where we had the most room for creativity and making the space come alive.  After discussing this with my community partner, we decided that implementing a free floating drop down ceiling was our best option for the space.  The drop down ceiling creates a wave-like form to draw the attention of the users upward.”  This ceiling system created visual interest, while allowing access to mechanical and electrical systems.  While the office / support spaces would be part of a second phase of construction, Maria also prepared planning studies to demonstrate how to best utilize the office.

The street appeal of the storefront needed to be addressed as well.  The proposal was to remove the existing signage to reveal the glass block underneath.  “This move will help bring more light into the space”, Maria noted.  “Furthermore, in a way, the glass block will become a marquee for the storefront because a variety of translucent paints will be applied to the blocks for the glass to appear as stained-glass. Additionally, the (existing) black curtains will be replaced by plantation shutters. This too will allow for more light in the space and will be aesthetically appealing.”

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Before and after images of storefront exterior.

Maria and her partners were excited for the possibilities of the space: “The storefront will be used to support the theater in the best way possible.  The surrounding community, movie buffs, and volunteers will be able to rent the space for activities ranging from birthday parties to business meetings to small movie screenings.  Although the storefront is in place for the use of the theater it in itself is its own entity and will be beneficial for the community.”  Maria’s passion for classic film can now help others appreciate (and discover) this cultural touchstone.

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Food for Thought

In this studio, students begin by investigating two issues that resonate with them.  In most cases, the students then pursue one area in great detail, but in some cases students find partners and projects that combine both concerns.  Such was the case for Stephan Karetnik.  Stephan felt that the affordable housing crisis and mental health were the issues of greatest concern to him, and the two dovetailed when he was introduced to the Windsor Residence for Young Men.  “The Residence deals with male youth ages sixteen to twenty‐four”, he wrote, “who have suffered some sort of abuse in the past, or who have been homeless and willing to work on turning their lives around. This voluntary program takes the necessary steps in addressing the delicate issues that each of their residents have endured. The WRYM provide counseling and other professional services catered to rehabilitating their dwellers and building their self‐esteem and allowing for personal growth.”

Stephan was impressed with the programming within the WRYM, which focuses upon creating a family environment for its clients.  This is reflected in their facility: a single family dwelling that has been converted into a fourteen person lodging facility.  Growth in occupancy reflects the effectiveness of the WRYM, but also has created some stresses upon their home.  In particular, Stephan discovered that the existing kitchen was no longer ideal for the home’s needs.  “With a rotation of about fifty occupants throughout a year, there is no surprise that the current kitchen has fared harshly and the cabinets show wear.  The obstruction caused by the peninsula is both a circulation concern as much as one of safety and security.  The layout is too tight, and the lack of counter and storage space are strikingly evident.  All in all, the current kitchen conditions are not ideal for the new purpose of the dwelling and require a redesign.”

In addition to the practical needs to be addressed, there was a social function to the kitchen that had to be supported in the design efforts.  To underscore the sense of family, the WRYM encourages residence to cook and share meals communally.  Stephan and the residence director wanted to design a space “that promotes teamwork and openness, an area that is flexible and adaptable to the size and the needs of the ‘family’.”

“The first step in the renovation”, Stephan wrote, “was to remove the existing U‐shaped kitchen layout and replace it with a more open L‐shaped configuration.  The existing appliances would remain as they were with the single relocation of the dishwasher closer to the sink to minimize the work triangle and improve flow when working in the space. The last unit of the L‐shaped counter would be designed in such a fashion that it would house a pullout countertop with three stainless steel leaves that can be fixed into place similar to how an expandable dining room table works.”   The need for flexibility and adaptability in a tight space required Stephan to undertake extensive research into a variety of systems that would allow workspace to expand and contract as needed, while meeting the requirements of durability and maintenance.  He found that my minimizing the moving parts in any component, he could meet these needs while maximizing storage space.

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View of new kitchen (all images Stephan Karetnik)

 

Stephan also developed a movable island on casters with integral storage, providing “a work surface that can be moved around to where ever it is required. The added benefit of a movable island to this kitchen environment is that the island can be used as a serving station for the larger meals that the residents have. The upper shelves of the unit are carefully mounted at the height that will not impede the function or flow of the kitchen.”    He also proposed removing a folding table from kitchen/storage area and introducing full-height door less pantry unit along with a flip‐up countertop. “The addition of the pantry unit adds the required storage need that was lost when the upper cabinets of the peninsula were removed. The flip‐up countertop adds another preparation station to the kitchen and adheres to the original design ideal of flexibility.”

“Due to the high demand for the new kitchen, durability and longevity are key concerns”, Stephan wrote.  “Materials such as durable plastic laminates and wood cabinets would replace typical melamine products.  Stainless steel countertops were introduced for the same rationale but also for their non‐porous finish.  Backsplash and floors were also considered to be as durable and easy to clean as possible. Products like vinyl wood-look flooring were introduced to give the project a much homier look and offset the stainless steel.”

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Revised pantry and foldable work surface.

 

While the project was small in scope, Stephan and the WRYM staff drilled down into great detail.  “With an area this small it is hard to reconfigure the space without moving and opening up the wall.  The new design can meet the requirements for the residence while maintaining a simple and clean look, allows for the natural light to penetrate further into space, and is completely adaptable and flexible to change.”  WRYM Executive Director Gregory Goulin praised Stephan’s efforts: “Your redesign of our kitchen produced functionality that our Board and myself could not conceive of; and, it provides the basis for quotes upon which grant applications are based. The presentation of your designs are not only technically functional, but additionally easy to conceptualize by the lay person, which is also very important.  We simply could not function without citizen professionals, like you.”

To learn more about the Windsor Residence for Young Men, visit their website: https://www.wrym.ca/

From Blight to Beauty

In 2007, Jakobi RA was killed by a hit and run driver at the age of two in his Avalon Street neighborhood in Highland Park.  Determined to heal and honor his memory, Jakobi’s mother, Shamayim ‘Mama Shu’ Harris, a mother, founded the Avalon Village sustainable eco-community with the goal of combating blight and creating a beautiful neighborhood.  Mama Shu is the former Vice President of the Highland Park Housing Commission, serves as the first female chaplain of the Highland Park Police Department, and is the chair of the Highland Park Charter Commission.

When searching for a partner in his work regarding blight remediation, student Lucas Allen discovered Mama Shu and Avalon Village.  At this time, owned 20 parcels of land and 4 houses, and had already undertaken a number of projects, including a community gathering space named “Jakobi RA Park, the Homework House (an after school learning and activity center for neighborhood children), the Goddess Marketplace (an economic development initiative for women entrepreneurs), the Healing House (a center for holistic healing), a healthy cafe, activity courts, greenhouses, a micro library and more.” (source: Avalon Village website)  After meeting with Shu, Lucas recognized that her ambitions and capacity for project follow-through presented an opportunity for others to participate in the work, and classmate Nasser Ali joined the team.

The project which Lucas undertook was the redevelopment of a corner site which at the time was an abandoned gas station.  Mama Shu had applied for, and received, a city funding for the demolition of the site, which would require environmental remediation due to its former use.  “What was desired for the site,” Lucas writes, “was that the gas station that would be demolished be rebuilt in its former image. The building was unique with composite metal panels on the exterior and a chamfered front corner, along with an entire wall that was a rolling garage door. The idea for the entire lot is to build a café, named the Blue Moon Café, in the image of the old station, as well as a greenhouse with a community kitchen. As the project developed this lot ended up having retail space added to its design in the form of shipping containers, similar to the Goddess Marketplace.

The greenhouse is designed from the structure of six shipping containers and utilizes an aquaponics system. The whole site will be equipped with an underground water cistern that collects runoff rainwater from the site, which will be used to water the grass, fill the aquaponics greenhouse and water various other plants on the site. The Blue Moon Café is going to have a modular green roof set on top of typical roof pavers. There will be stairs that lead up to the rooftop that allow for workers of the café, or visitors to pick fresh vegetables that can be used on site. In order to produce meet the energy demands of the site, solar panels will be put on the roof of an adjacent house, which will be known as the Healing House. Solar street lights will also surround the site, providing adequate light to keep the facilities open and safe into the night.”

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Blue Moon Cafe and Greenhouse rendering (image: Lucas Allen)

 

Nasser worked with Mama Shu on the design and planning of a site two blocks east of the Blue Moon Café that will be known as the Eco-Mall. “This space will be a retail-focused walkway with rentable ‘sheds’ for the visiting consumers to enter, Nasser wrote.  “The sheds will be built using reclaimed pallet wood as the structure with various exterior finishes as well as roof designs to make each one unique to the vendor. Each vendor will be able to help lower the cost of renting by helping to build their own shed (at least up to a certain point), as well as choosing the façade design and color. At the back of the lot will be a gathering area with a walk up patio area that overlooks the Eco-Mall with a view down the back of the adjoining lots all the way to the greenhouse. The lots between the mall and the café will be greenspace, decorated with a flower garden and community garden.”

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Mama Shu and rendering of the Eco-Mall (images: Nasser Ali)

 

In this studio, each community partner is engaged uniquely, with students working to build trust and a level of comfort for their partners in the participatory design process.  In Mama Shu, Lucas and Nasser found a community partner who was not only enthusiastic, but well-prepared to drive design ideas, with experience in project implementation and fundraising.  They would return to studio after project meeting energized by the conversations had and ideas developed.  They write of their experience: “Working with Shu was a pleasure to say the least and we are both very excited to stay involved and see this thing out to the end.”

In the time since Lucas and Nasser worked with Mama Shu, she has been elected to the Board of Education for the City of Highland Park, and received the 2019 Annette Rainwater Grassroots Organizer of the Year Award at the African American Leadership Awards.  The Blue Moon Café site has been cleared, and Avalon Village moves progressively forward in its vision of a healthy, livable community.  Mama Shu is a true local hero, who had turned loss into hope for her neighbors and friends.  Her philosophy is summarized in this quote: “Some people look for a beautiful place.  I chose to make a beautiful place.”

To learn more about Avalon Village, and see updates on progress visit:  https://www.facebook.com/TheAvalonVillage/

When the Rubber Leaves the Road

Students Caitlyn Brush and Paige Chorkey investigated the issues surrounding post-consumer tire waste, and its impact on the city of Detroit.  Their research found that this type of waste accumulates by (on average) one tire per person annually, and tires are often dumped, rather than recycled for a number of reasons.  “In Michigan,” they state, “fees are collected by the state at $1.50 per vehicle registration.  Individuals and companies often try to avoid paying these fees and dump the tires in vacant lots.  Data Driven Detroit says there are approximately 78,000 abandoned structures and 100,000 vacant lots which are potential illegal dumping grounds.  Tire dumping is a misdemeanor and the state doesn’t keep records on prosecutions.  The last high-profile case was in 2013.  Prompted by a TV news investigation, the owner of a local rubber recycling company pleaded guilty to dumping 70,000 tires in northwest Detroit.”   The potential environmental hazards of tire dumping include viruses (tires are a breeding ground for mosquitoes which is an ever alarming issue with the rise of the West Nile Virus) and fires (tires have potential for tire fires which produce acid smoke harmful to humans and the environment).  “Tire fires are not extinguishable and in some instances burn for several weeks.”

A local organization attempting to address this situation is the Detroit-based social enterprise De-tread, which was founded by Audra Carson in 2008.  De-tread collects discarded/abandoned tires from the streets and buildings of Detroit, “to produce high quality creative and utilitarian items for the global landscape”.  In addition to their mission of mitigating the impact of this type of waste, De-tread employs local citizen (at a living wage), and educates team members on the environmental hazards of discarded tires, and techniques for reuse.  Ms. Carson describes the core principles of De-tread as being based in a triple bottom line of ‘people, profit, and planet’.  Having found a perfect community partner, Caitlyn and Paige each embarked on a project to build upon these principles, and advance De-treat’s mission.

Caitlyn and Ms. Carson brainstormed numerous ideas.  The first was to develop the design of a bus bench using discarded tires, which would offer a resting spot for transit users in locations which lacked any facilities besides a signage pole.  This idea later turned into a public space bench that could be used in parks around Detroit, and eventually branch out further around the region. “Audra talked about the bench being placed in the Osborn Outdoor Learning Garden”, Caitlyn states, “so I researched the park and what the needs of the community were.  Through this research I found that they would be having lessons there with Greening Detroit to help teach the community how to make their neighborhood and Detroit greener.  I then took this information, along with my precedent study research, and used it to really inform my design plan for the bench itself.  I wanted the bench to have a lot of adaptability for different environments, as well as, being made of at least ninety percent recycled materials.  The bench also needed to have a low cost budget because the organization is currently a non-profit organization.”

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Tire bench prototype by Caitlyn Brush

 

Caitlyn’s process was to develop several physical iterations of the tire bench.  In the process she learned the most effective and safest ways of disassembling the tires to create raw material for the bench.  Each prototype was tested for stability, comfort, and ease of assembly, leading to the final version.  “Each bench seat used three car tire sidewalls, two bike tires, and a bike inner tube.  The second phase would be to figure out a design for a detachable backrest for the bench.  The goal would be to utilize the tire tread from the seat sections for this. Any unused tread would then be processed down to be used for tire mulch.  The third phase would then be to pour permeable rubber pavement along the dirt pathways of the Outdoor Learning Garden, or to place down permeable rubber tiles.  The goal would be for these tiles to be made by De-tread.”  In addition, she created a set of instructions, to allow the staff at De-tread to replicate the benches in the future.

When Paige met with Ms. Carson, she was impressed by the ideas already used by the organization, particularly the creation of tire much created by putting the tires through a shredder.  She saw an opportunity to make this mulch more widely available to homeowners in Detroit, and create an opportunity for De-tread to raise working capital.  “I collaborated with Audra to create a commercial bag for the mulch to be sold in stores,” Paige wrote. “The bag was required to be reusable, recyclable, eco-friendly, affordable, and sturdy. Thus, I created a bag that is made out of the weed barrier fabric that is required beneath the mulch in order to keep weeds from growing through the mulch. The bag is 3’-0” x 4’-9” in size (covers a 3’-0” x 2’-9” area at 1.5” depth) and also includes six pegs in order to install the weed barrier. The pegs are used to seal the opening in the bag. The bag is designed to easy installation for the consumer. The bag can be installed by cutting and unfolding the fabric in a few simple steps. This product stands out in the market not only because it is helping reduce tire waste in the world, but also because it is an all-in-one product and can easily be transported due to the handles that are attached to the bag.”  The rope used in the design to close the bag is biodegradable, and instructions would be silk-screened on the exterior of the bag using environmentally-friendly milk-based paint.

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Tire mulch bag and installation demo by Paige Chorkey.

 

To learn more about De-tread, or to schedule a consultation, visit their website: http://www.de-tread.com/site/.

Re-purposing History

The work of fall 2017 students Trevor Garland and Catherine Schmitz at Kosciuszko Middle School (KMS) in Hamtramck, MI addressed the challenges of negotiating between the needs of a variety of constituencies, changing spatial requirements, and respecting a historic structure.  Trevor’s research into issues surrounding culturally diverse communities led him to Hamtramck. Once known as an enclave of polish immigrants, the city now is home to a mix of races, nationalities, and religions, and in recent years has seen growth in population of residents from Bangladesh, Yemen, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In a city like Hamtramck, the challenges and opportunities of such diversity often play out in the schools system, and Trevor saw this as a perfect place to look for a community partner.  A meeting with Christina Adamczyk, Building Restorative Practice coordinator at Kosciuszko Middle School, revealed a number of needs that Trevor could help address.  “The school was first built in 1919 and will soon become the third 100-year-old building in the city”, writes Trevor.  “Early assignments in our studio led to the discovery of KMS and their need for an auditorium to better fit the needs of the students.  There were a couple of projects that were discussed during a visit to the school but the need for a better auditorium stood out above them all.  The auditorium is often used as a performance space and also the students’ indoor recess space during the cold winter months.  The space is also used for choir practices and assemblies so preservation of the performance seating in the space is crucial.  In light of the building’s historical significance, the school board for the district is reluctant to make any changes to the space to preserve the nostalgia and ambiance of the room.  This creates an issue because the chairs are continuously falling apart and are costly to repair.”

Trevor and teammate Catherine Schmitz soon discovered that the board’s desire to preserve the historical character of the auditorium seating was shared by KMS alums, many of whom would attend events there, and seek out the chairs they had marked with their own initials as students.  To clarify the range of needs and opinions, Trevor conducted a staff and student survey.  This helped establish objectives for the project, including “increasing the support of the school board to improve the space, enhance the auditorium so its form matches the program, decrease the cost by exploring options (for) fundraising, provide a space for winter recess, and increase the potential of historic preservation of the seating.”  What was needed was a strategy to provide spatial and functional flexibility (sometimes allowing for two different activities to occur simultaneously) while addressing acoustical problems and respecting the sentiment regarding the existing seating.

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Flexible seating diagram (image: Trevor Garland and Catherine Schmitz)

 

With the KMS team, Trevor and Catherine developed alternative plans to preserve one-half to two-thirds of the existing seating (repaired from the parts of the chairs to be removed), and introduce removable plastic chairs that can “withstand elementary school children”, and can be configured to meet different activity needs.  “The removed chairs,” they write, “will either turn into acoustic wall panels, or be relocated to the landings by the stairs or outside benches. The acoustic treatment is crucial to the design of a space and if not carefully considered, can cause serious health issues such as tinnitus, headaches, high blood pressure and heart problems. The landing seating option for the reuse of the chairs and was suggested by our community partner, Christina. She mentioned it as a good place for the kids who do well in class to go to work on homework assignments.”  Either repurposing strategy would allow for the recognizable historic seating to contribute to the life of the school, and its users.  As part of their project follow-up, Trevor and Catherine developed preliminary project budgets, and suggestions for supplemental fund-raising to encourage support from the school board, and the larger Hamtramck community.

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Re-purposed seating installation (image: Garland and Schmitz)

 

Trevor and Catherine’s work initiated a relationship between the studio and Hamtramck Public Schools.  In the spring of 2018, Trevor passed along a message that similar work was needed at Hamtramck High School, where the auditorium was in need of significant restoration and upgrades.  The timing of this opportunity was significant, as Hamtramck schools had just received one of NBC’s R.I.S.E. (Recognizing and Inspiring Student Expression) America awards to support high school theater programs across the country.  Students Trent James and Mahmoud Hafiz visited the school, assessed the current conditions and needs, and worked with the staff at Hamtramck High to prioritize goals and develop alternatives. The project team included Superintendent Thomas Niczay, Principal Vraniak, Dean of Students Omar Thabet, drama club coordinator Shannon McNutt, as well as drama teacher Nancy Walter. The result was a renovation plan that updated the seating and color palette of the auditorium, introduced new storage capacity, addressed mechanical and vapor-barrier needs, and introduced a new ticketing booth for larger public events.  “The ticket booth design was a feature that our community partner specifically wanted to look into so that the theater could have dedicated service spaces,” Trent and Mahmoud write.  “The ticket booth proposal would also give the theater more of a presence from the hallway.”  Lastly there was a need to enhance the acoustical character of the space, without disrupting the classical aesthetic.  The design proposal integrates an acoustical baffling system into the existing rhythm of pilasters and arches.  “Given the ample negative space between the wall moldings, there is opportunity to make the new wall baffling features blend very well into the surrounding wall surfaces while adding an extra layer of detail to draw the eyes across (the space).”  The work of these two student teams marks the first time a partnership has been extended and expanded across semesters, and it is hoped the relationship with Hamtramck Public Schools can continue into the future.

Proposed Re-imaging of Hamtramck H.S. Auditorium (image: Trent James and Mahmoud Hafiz)

At the Intersections

While most students encapsulate their activist design work within the course of the semester, some maintain a relationship with their community partners past the duration of the term. For others the studio work confronting issues that concern them leaves an indelible mark.  For these students the experience in this course inspires them to take a more active role in civic issues as citizens, above and beyond their participation as design students.  One such individual is Fiorela Lesaj, who took part in the studio in the fall of 2017.

Fiorela was deeply concerned about issues surrounding immigration, particularly shifts in US policy that allowed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to expire. “The expiration of the DACA program effects 800,000 young Americans, who have migrated to the United States undocumented with their parents as minors”, she wrote. “The end of this program will revoke their right to use a Social Security and Driver License, and eventually get deported back to their native land. Imagine growing up and living your whole life in a city in the U.S, only knowing how to speak English, then finding out when you reach adulthood that you may be sent to a place you don’t have any connections to. This is what is happening to these young Americans.”

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Fiorela at an immigrant rights rally (Image: Clarence Tabb, Jr. / Detroit News

 

Fiorela connected with a non‐profit community partner, Michigan United, which is focusing on this specific issue.  Michigan United is “coalition of over 50 faith, labor, business, social service, and civil rights members all across Michigan, fighting for the rights of homeowners, renters, immigrant workers, families, and students.”  In addition to organizing rallies and demonstrations to raise awareness of immigration issues, the organization created podcasts of recorded interviews of DACA recipients. Fiorela stated: “These stories bring a face and a personal experience to the 800,000 (DACA participants). The podcast is on the Intersection’s website, which also has social media pages to help spread the social campaign.”

Fiorela’s participation in the project came from Michigan United’s desire to present these stories in a physical manner. “In order to do this,” she wrote, “I helped with adaptable display frames. The frames are easy to assemble and transport, as well as allowing for different content to be displayed. The displays are modular, so if the exhibit/project grows in the future, the module components can be duplicated. Because the locations in mind for the exhibit may change, the display system allows for different layouts so it can accommodate any location, rather it be interior or exterior.  The exhibit can progress further by creating pop‐up exhibits in public parks within district 11 as well as Metro Detroit entirely. This brings the exhibit to people as well as extending the project to a broader audience, which may never see or hear about the project if it remains as a scheduled event.

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‘Intersections’ display example (Image: Fiorela Lesaj)

 

“Because the displays can be singular, it can also be placed inside or outside a local business in a way forcing people to face the realities that the DACA recipients are going through. Another way to spread the exhibit beyond the couple days that it’s scheduled be presented, is to have the graphics and images printed on adhesive paper. This allows the content to be removed from the displays and re‐used on local businesses.”  The underscore the theme of ‘intersection’, Fiorela designed the display modules to express the joining of components as both a practical and aesthetic element.  To demonstrate the system, Fiorela used a prototype to display her compiled work from the semester at the final review.

Fiorela’s work with Michigan United, and her engagement in immigrant issues, continues.  In January of 2018, she was “contacted to help with flyers for a protest regarding an Albanian man who is staying at a Sanctuary Church in Detroit to avoid deportation, because he needs to stay with his wife who is ill and has MS.”  Beyond just designing the event collateral, Fiorela met with local Albanian community leaders, and returned to her childhood Albanian church, where she addressed two masses, and brought petitions.  “I was surprised so many people came after the mass to sign it,” she stated, “I got about 200 signatures.”

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Origami Butterflies (Image: Fiorela Lesaj)

 

Later that year, Fiorela participated in an art-based project as part of a MI United event.  The original plan by the organization was to have the community make 2,300 origami butterflies, and to hang them in a borrowed, metal cage for the rally in Detroit. Fiorela encouraged the rally organizers to utilize the paper butterflies to spell out the message ‘stop separating families’ and hang it up in front of the Spirit of Detroit statue.   The organizers decided to change the message, but Fiorela “helped them with the sizing, connecting it together and throwing it over the statue”, where it remained for two hours. Fiorela stated: “the people from the organization where very excited about.  I’m hoping this encourages them to not only do rallies, but focus on engaging with the public as well through more art projects.”

The Avenue

The number of constituencies, and sensitive politics encountered by students Daniel Adamczyk and Jillian McFadden was a lesson in negotiation and leadership through design.  Their process began by looking at the city of Flint, Michigan as a whole, then delving deeper into the unique situations occurring within the city. Their initial research led them to the Flint Public Art Project, whose “mission of collaborating with people of interdisciplinary backgrounds to revitalize their surroundings through art and design, coincides directly with our overall goal”.   A primary objective of the FPAP was to expand the Spencer’s Center for Art and Architecture. “The location is of particular historical significance; any design proposal would have to pay homage to Flint’s past while helping to define the direction of Flint’s future. Our goal was to layout a future plan for development that would accommodate not only Spencer’s but the adjoining neighbors and institutions”.  The students identified a number of groups within Flint that had interest in a significant six-block site around the proposed center, including The Carriage Town Historic Neighborhood Association, Flint Public Art Project, Kettering University, The University Avenue Corridor Coalition, as well as the local residents living within the proposed site.  They also discovered through their initial research that these groups had differing goals for this part of the city, and that relationships between them were not always cooperative.

Adamczyk and McFadden recognized a need to shift the scope of their project, and that success could only be achieved by inclusive processes.   “Every city consists of unique citizens”, they noted, “each with a diverse background, different skills, and thoughts. By working together, they form a complex network, from the neighbor next door to the cities politicians, nothing reaches beyond the realm of possibility when this system is actively collaborating. This same principle was applied to this design of urban fabric, by allowing each member of the community to have equal weight throughout the planning process. Our focus was to take on the role of mediator between the multiple constituencies, and through conversations and multiple iterations, develop a proposal that reveals the common ground between them.”

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Initial Mapping Session (All images: Adamczyk / McFadden)

 

Their first interactive activities were meetings and ‘mapping sessions’ with Flint city planners and the Carriage Town neighborhood association. Using aerial maps and street photos, they were able to collect perspectives on existing conditions and proposals for new development.   However, it became apparent that these organized meetings did not accommodate all parties with a stake in the project site.  Adamczyk and McFadden needed a method to include local residents more equitably into the process.

Their response was to create ‘The Avenue’: a model / board game that was “given to different members of the community to programmatically layout city blocks through a simple massing exercise.  It was designed as a tool for communication between community organizations who are no longer on speaking terms or have never met before.” Users place color-keyed blocks (representing different programmatic functions) on the model to create a proposal for land use in the project site.  Once a participant created a physical document of their proposal, they were encouraged to post a photograph on an established Facebook page, allowing others to comment and engage in dialogue about alternatives.

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The Avenue interactive planning tool

 

Adamczyk and McFadden assembled and compared the information gathered through a bricolage methodology.  They produced a set of diagrams outlining areas of planning consensus that could act as a base of continued development.  They submitted their results to a subsequent section of the course, for continued work with the Flint constituencies.  “The end result,” Adamczyk and McFadden write, “was a few areas of incremental development that all organizations should be able to agree on. These proposed areas can help inform what should be developed around them, in the more unrefined areas of the site.”

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Preliminary Master Plan