Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Building a Baltimore Design Center

This Thursday, the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects, along with several other stakeholders in the design and architecture community, will host a brainstorming session about the creation of a Design Center in Baltimore. The event is open to the public and starts at 6 p.m. at Load of Fun in the Station North neighborhood.

You can read more about the goals behind the get together by clicking here.

Organizers asked for one page white papers that imagine what a Design Center in Baltimore might look like. I've been thinking about just such a space for some time now, so went ahead and drafted a submission. I've posted it below.

You can download other ideas by going to the Envisioning the Baltimore Design Center Web site and clicking on the links under the "White Paper" heading.

Got ideas? Send me an email before Thursday or, better yet, stop by and contribute to the conversation.

Baltimore Design Center White Paper

At the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale, the U.S. will highlight organizations and individuals engaging communities in a conversation about their built environment. The fifteen participants in the Biennale exhibition work in vastly different landscapes—from California/Mexico border towns, to downtown Brooklyn, to rural Alabama. Yet the underpinnings of their efforts are the same. Whether it is Detroit’s Collaborative Design Center or Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard, each represents the movement of architecture and design into the realm of social justice and offers a compelling vision for the small scale, grassroots change that is possible when creative minds come together without ego.

We are at an interesting juncture for American cities, and Baltimore, in particular, represents a special challenge. We are a shrinking, post-industrial town with entrenched conflicts and disputed territories. We live in a city that is, in places, aesthetically impoverished and inhumane. But we also have an inventive spirit, and, I believe, a renewing sense of self, that can be seen in pockets of creative energy throughout the city. Baltimore has often been called a city of silos: individuals working within their own sealed space. To address our built environment, we must rise above our fragmented past and knit together our disparate efforts around design and planning.

A Design Center in Baltimore could galvanize creative energies and foster new conversations. It can be a place for germinating what our city could and should be in the future, making Baltimore a playground of design, a Petri dish for cultivating new ideas about urban living.

So how do we do it?

There are many models to work from, but the most compelling combine a physical resource center with a creative hub. PROGRAM in Berlin, is a great example. The founders took a cheap physical space in a warehouse district (think Station North) and carved out several functions. There is a gallery for architecture exhibitions and a resource center/reading room for citizens. They offset overhead costs by leasing desk space to freelance architects, artists, and designers, which generates more creative networking. They also have a studio area for a designer-in-residence program, which invites in the best minds to work on urban design issues.

I envision a Center in Baltimore being the place where cutting-edge design meets community outreach. It would:

1. Become the 311 for the built environment.

The Design Center could provide access to information about the built environment, promote transparency in the development process, and connect the silos. Need information on a historic building? Contact the Baltimore Architecture Foundation. Need help streetscaping? Call the Neighborhood Design Center. Want to plant trees? Here’s Parks & People. It could also include an Expert On Call to help with questions: The City says they want to rezone my neighborhood. What does that mean?

2. Inspire from Within

Look for ways to introduce a broader audience to the role that design can play in their lives and empower them to take those lessons home to their communities:

  • Host exhibitions in the Center’s space and discussions that advance the cause of architecture and design in the city.
  • Explore design of everyday elements like benches, bike racks, and signage.
  • Create competitions that invite international participation [For example, what does a shrinking city do with its excess housing stock? Or, how does a city like Baltimore begin to engage and inspire the broader community in a design conversation?].
  • Partner with existing entities, like the AIA, to support and enhance events like Architecture Week. Look to arts organizations already advancing the built environment conversation, such as Art on Purpose, The Contemporary Museum, and The Current Gallery, and work to support and partner. Create pipelines with academic programs at Morgan State, MICA, and elsewhere.
  • Work with strategic partners to create an architecture exhibition at ArtScape.

3. Cultivate Creativity

Create a designer-in residence program with an international reach, one that will bring top minds to Baltimore.

4. Sponsor Design/Build Competition

Be actionable: It’s time to bring in a design/build competition to the city that can show what a difference architecture and design can make.