In many Chicago neighborhoods, vacant lots are a constant visual reminder of disinvestment and abandonment, a sort of barometer of neglect. The city alone owns more than 10,000 vacant lots — it’s held many for decades. They’re concentrated in the city’s Black neighborhoods on the South and West sides. If put side by side, the empty lots would take up an area the size of downtown.
But what if cities began to see vacant lots not as a scourge, but as potential? What if society thought about them not for individual benefit — but for community benefit? And what if community residents were connected to architects and designers who helped them create spaces that address their hopes and needs — from the arts, to wellness, to entrepreneurship to housing?
That’s the premise of this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, which opened Friday and brings together more than 80 participants from 19 countries to consider “The Available City” — a re-imagination of how vacant land might benefit communities.
Radically, the biennial doesn’t only seek ideas from architects and designers. It also highlights answers from community groups and individual neighborhood efforts that might otherwise be disregarded by the urban planning establishment. And it’s taking place not downtown or in museums, but on actual vacant lots in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
That’s how Myra Sampson, CEO and Principal of CCA Academy, an alternative high school on Chicago’s West Side, came to host donors, media and architects recently in a “food forest” and permaculture park the school started in 2018. It’s constructed across multiple lush vacant lots off Pulaski Road near 13th Street.“We have 70 fruit trees and bushes that are planted here,” Sampson said. Sweet potatoes, pumpkins and vegetables grow on mounds of clean topsoil.
For 30 years the school let these lots sit vacant. “But when we started to learn about permaculture, it hit home,” said Sampson, who saw potential in a type of farming where nature does most of the work. Now, urban agriculture, ecology and stewarding the site, called “Perma Park,”are key parts of the school’s curriculum.
In the center of the property is a recently created gathering space called “The Living Room.” It features a circle of 21-foot-high steel columns planted in the earth; attached to them are giant carved wood pieces that look like knots in a rope. The columns evoke trees or totem poles.
“We worked with a local chainsaw carver who sculpted all these pieces spiraling on the columns,” said architect and UIC professor Antonio Torres, who worked on the project.. It’s meant to offer space “for humans and nature to comfortably intermingle in a thriving cultural ecosystem that evolves, transforms and promotes collective growth.”
Sampson said the totems will soon be home to mushrooms, birds and insects. Hand selected boulders and a “learning circle” give students and community members a place to sit, talk and perform poetry or music. There are no fences. Anyone can walk in off Pulaski Road, which Sampson likes. She sees parallels between the ecosystems her school is building here and the North Lawndale community.
“You build support systems so that everything takes care of each other and so that everything can live independently — together,” she said.
Sampson views vacant lots as part of society’s throw-away culture. Her school is countering that.
“Instead of being vacant, full of trash — [encouraging lots] to be developed into something that can nourish community, nourish the individual and nourish the Earth … it’s a complete cycle for us,” Sampson said.
Designing a Lawndale brick
The thinking and research behind the theme of “The Available City” comes from architect and UIC professor David Brown, this year’s artistic director. Brown has worked at Perma Park. He’s interested in the development of individual vacant lots, but also envisions a network of thousands of lots as a cohesive urban landscape.
“To a degree you can think of [the network of abandoned lots] as a landscape that’s not unlike the park system — but to begin to say it’s going to be a park system that can actually have a much greater variety of uses,” Brown told WBEZ last year.
The biennial features five sites in North Lawndale. One of them, Soil Lab, is working with community residents to come up with a custom “Lawndale brick.”
“We wanted to make a special brick, one that reflects or represents this area,” said James Martin, part of an international architecture and design team convened by the Danish Arts Foundation.
Eibhlin Nichathasaigh and Martin said a bespoke Lawndale brick will serve as “a totem.”
“When we think of the special bricks in buildings that we visit, there’s always a corner detail or there’s a brick that goes on top that makes it — identifies it — as that particular building,” Nichathasaigh said.
Soil Lab is also employing community residents and artists to help fabricate structures from rammed earth walls. The thick walls, made by pounding soil into large rectangular forms, will eventually form a ceramics studio on the vacant lot. There’s already a kiln on site, where artists will help community residents create ceramic objects.
Martin and Nichathasaigh said they were drawn to the idea of creating soil walls because that’s one thing vacant lots offer — dirt. They’re interested in modernizing the ancient, rammed-earth building technique because it’s sustainable, since there’s no material to manufacture or truck in. But their experiment revealed another challenge inherent in reviving many of Chicago’s vacant land: The soil where they’re working has high lead levels. The pair said they had to haul in dirt from an hour away.
Soil Lab’s vision is also entrepreneurial. Designers believe the tile or brick produced on the site could become a business and be used as the raw material to build things on other vacant lots. “This workshop could produce material that could activate the other sites,” Nichathasaigh said. “So if you want to build a barbecue from the … brick or you want to build a bench, it could be the enabler.”
Like other exhibits or installations in this year’s biennial, Soil Lab’s site will continue evolving as the biennial continues through December.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.
This story was produced for web by digital intern Penny Hawthorne.