Like They Used To: Craftsmanship, Sustainability and Design

In week eight of the Change the World novena, the spotlight shines on the art of making, asking what appreciation of craft and quality can do for creating unique memorable, and lasting neighborhoods.

When you analyze what’s great about the great cities of the world, it often comes down to a collection of neighborhoods or districts that provide a set of experiences that we want to seek out again and again.  That’s what the average person knows.  What they can never quite put their finger on is what specific ingredients went into the strange brew that is their favorite place.  Architects, designers, planners and developers have a little more insight.  We know that it’s all about placemaking, from the scale of the buildings, to the style of architecture, to the quality and texture of the public space, often “branded” by public art or unique street furniture.  But in the end, aren’t we just creating an elaborate stage set?  Sometimes with backgrounds and props so contrived and phony, so generically designed to appeal (think you average lifestyle center or planned community) that we end up with the opposite of someplace- we get anyplace.

It’s once thing to rail against self-contained development bubbles, quite another when
Details from the building to be
adaptively reused for industrial arts
that approach is applied to a historic neighborhood.  "It's important to engage the historic context," observes Brad Cooper, one of my colleagues at GBBN Architecture. A lifelong resident of Cincinnati, OH, it took his two years spent away at graduate school for him to realize how much his hometown was evolving.  "Architecture school pushes you to think about the built environment in a different way," he observed.  The most positive change he found was that more people were moving back to the inner city.  This larger population made once dangerous neighborhoods safer, which further encouraged the development of live, work and play opportunities.  "People's comfort with being in these neighborhoods made the city itself sustainable, however, getting investment is still a challenge.  The investment that does occur can be of poor quality, with a focus on new being better.  There is still a perception of Cincinnati's core as being an old city.  Getting more people interested [in historic neighborhoods] will provide more stakeholders and more 'peer pressure' for greater revitalization."   But it has to be the right kind.  Brad's urban design philosophy has been inspired by Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft book, in which the author makes the point that over the years, people value craft less because they don't know how things are made.  Especially when dealing with historic districts, "You realize that the infill projects can't begin to match the quality or integrity of the historic buildings," he says.  In order to heighten architectural appreciation, Brad feels that it is critical to build awareness of the value of the old buildings contained in Cincinnati's historic downtown neighborhoods such as Over the Rhine, which is one of the largest intact urban historic districts in the United States.   What has earned Brad a place in this Change the World series is the steps he took next.

Fresh out of graduate school, he started work on a business plan. Brad realized that, while in school, students have access to wood and metal fabrication shops, but that that resource is cut off upon graduation.  There is also a dearth of skilled craftspeople.  He decided that providing the resource of rentable shop space could be combined with urban revitalization of abandoned industrial space. He focused on Over the Rhine (OTR) for it's historic character as well as the art of its craft of is celebrated industries.  "One of Cincinnati's strong suits is its diversity of neighborhoods, in part due to the hilly topography.  I thought that engaging OTR could be fantastic and help make this neighborhood part of the city's modern identity." What emerged was the LIVE•MAKE project, an industrial arts center and business incubator that will provide housing and workshops, maker-in-resident studios (aka master craftspeople), light manufacturing studios and retail storefronts.  When you  are an intern architect without millions in the bank account, this might seem like a dream destined for the back burner.  But Brad tapped into the resources available to him in the community.  He contacted the Hamilton County Development Company and talked with them about their business incubator model.  He researched other apprenticeship, leasable workshop and redevelopment through the arts programs like TechShop, Maker Works, and Ponyride.  He met with the OTR Community Council to pitch the project and learn about site availability.  Then, he partnered with AIA Cincinnati and the Over the Rhine Brewery District Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation to launch a design competition for the project that will include adaptive reuse of a historic industrial building.  Currently in the jury phase, the entries are being reviewed by international design leaders as well as leaders in Cincinnati politics.  In January of 2013, a series of community choice events will allow neighborhood residents, developers and other interested parties to vote on their favorite project.
If you live in the Cincinnati area, put January 11th, 2013 6-9 pm @ A359 Partners in Architecture16 East 12th St.  Cincinnati, OH 45202 or January 25th, 2013 6-9pm @ Losantiville Design Collective1311 Main Street  Cincinnati, OH 45202 on your calendar.  
Finally, winners will be exhibited in a gallery show that will coincide with the Cincinnati Maker Faire in the spring of 2013.  Brad hopes that by generating awareness and excitement for this type of project that he can then work to assemble funding.

"The idea of leaving the world a better place than I found it has always been a guiding principle for me," he says.  "Architects need to be more involved in civic projects.  OTR has a lot of residential buildings and promoting homeownership is important to its revitalization.  The LIVE•MAKE space will become a resource for home improvement projects as well as a source for some of the artisans that people will need to hire to restore their spaces."  He's hoping that the party-like atmosphere that will exist at the community choice events will draw crowds and encourage everyone to voice an opinion.  "If you want to engage people in architecture, you have to make it fun." The first step of community engagement took place during archiNATI, Cincinnati's annual architecture week celebration.  Brad worked to get a grant from the  The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation to tour the empty old brewery buildings.  "There is so much abandoned manufacturing space.  I'm interested in finding adaptive re-use for these high quality structures," Brad notes.  "There is such a difference in the attention to detail in the way things were built and manufactured then vs. now."  Looking ahead five years or so, where does he hope to see his LIVE•MAKE dream?  "I want people to say that there has been a building constructed that matches or exceeds the quality of design and construction of its historic context."

Bradley Cooper is currently a junior designer at GBBN Architects in Cincinnati. He attained his undergraduate degree from the the University of Cincinnati (B.S. in Architecture) and his Masters of Architecture from Taubman College at the University of Michigan. His thesis work, Accuulate, Curate, is featured in Dimensions 25. Bradley is on the Steering Committee for ArchiNATI and is an avid homebrewer.