Crayola Architecture: Architecture for Humanity and Public Interest Design in the Hands of Kids

In April 2013, Charlie Branda, a long-time Old Town resident and mother of two, brought together the Near North Unity Program and Architecture for Humanity Chicago to help realize her vision of a nonprofit storefront arts center, providing sliding-scale classes for children and adults in the near North Side. The art center is intended to bridge social and economic divisions in this dynamic and evolving neighborhood.

Partnering with Marshall Field Garden Apartments, Charlie plans to build a community institution within the vacant storefronts of Chicago’s oldest privately funded housing project, enlivening the Sedgwick corridor and providing a creative and open environment for interaction between neighbors and generations. She believes that within the auspices of education and activity, it is possible overcome the divisions of generations and work to expand the educational and play resources available to neighborhood kids.

Architecture for Humanity Chicago (AFHC) is a volunteer organization that provides pro-bono design services to partner organizations not prepared, equipped or funded to provide them for themselves. Our network of volunteer professionals and students provides a voice for public interest design in the Chicago region, with a focus on educational opportunity, environmental justice, fair housing, food access, public space activation and community empowerment.

Charlie came to AFHC through the Near North Unity Program (NNUP), an organization that brings together many diverse and underrepresented communities in the neighborhoods between Division and North Avenues and between Halsted and Wells Avenue. For better or worse, the last 25 years have brought major changes to the area, including growth in investment and commercial development coupled with the decline of community cohesion and identity. Historic divisions and neighborhood conflicts are common, but the community vehicles for conciliation and resolution have diminished as a result of divestment in social infrastructure and the persistence of socioeconomic barriers. The separation of subsidized and market rate housing enclaves has only increased as market pressures drive more residents into the area and other critical communities out. NNUP works to create opportunities and programs that bring together these divergent neighborhood constituencies and advocate for positive, equitable growth.

For the past six months, Charlie, NNUP, and AFHC have worked to curate a community design process collaborating with neighbors to identify program requirements and specific neighborhood interests as well as to produce schematic plans for use in making the art center a reality. Throughout our collaboration, children, empowered with a voice and often a set of crayons, have held an active role in order to ensure that their vision is an integral part of the process. Architecture is not found within technical drawing but behind the efforts of pencils, pens and markers, driven to express opinions about neighborhood resources and public space. In the end, we have found that it takes the imagination of children to overcome the impediment of preconception, and allow us to begin to build for ourselves. So what does a Crayola Architecture look like? And how can designers, advocates, and the rest of us utilize the imagination of children to generate positive urban space?

1) We work as a team: In public interest and community-based design, the hands of many are required to realize any substantial inspiration. In the case of Old Town, Charlie approached the NNUP through a personal connection. The NNUP itself knew of AFHC from previous projects, but we had not worked together. As a team, Charlie, the NNUP and AFHC were able to leverage our networks to develop an increasingly diverse team and render a compelling request for support, funding and resources.

2) We work together on outreach: The first and last step in any community design process is to reach out to the served community; no successful community design process has ever been accused of being too inclusive. With NNUP, we combined announcements at a variety of community institutions, countless phone calls, e-mails, and even sidewalk chalk, to bring together a coalition of parents, grandparents and kids from subsidized and market rate housing around Old Town. Adult participants included artists and craftspeople as well as leaders, educators and service providers from the immediate community. The kids attended both public and private schools ranging from day care to high school.

3) We look for resources: Beyond the human capital available through a project team, funding as well as material resources are easier to find with a broad based and passionate team. Grant writing and other funding requests are a process of trial and error, but with every ask we establish ourselves as a unified voice for neighborhood change. Generating institutional credibility can lead to further partnerships and fundraising momentum.

4) We hold a charrette: A charrette is an intensive event that includes open-ended activities designed to encourage design thinking from all participants. Many people are not accustomed to a blank floor plan or being asked their opinion on toilet room layout but everyone has a vision for the spaces they choose to inhabit. AFHC works to create an inclusive and comfortable environment where stakeholders can use appropriate tools for expression, our volunteer professionals function as facilitators, favoring a hands-off approach to a single voice design mentality. Once a conversation has begun, we are observers and careful note takers. Often a dialogue can seem derailed, but critical issues come to the surface even in seemingly irrelevant conversations.

In Old Town we utilized a two-track event, working separately with parents and kids, identifying critical issues including modalities of art making, facilities for expression, parallel opportunities and neighborhood identity. At the end of the day the entire group reconvened to present their findings. While activities and questions for each group were not the same, when brought together the overall composition of ideas rendered a more complete and inclusive image for the art center.

5) Lastly, we “architecturalize”: Architecture is a process of compiling information into graphic and technical representation for the purpose of expressing building ideas. It is a coordination of constraints and aesthetics into a spatial context. Drawing on the information gathered from the community, AFHC produces a visual narrative that distills public interest into an executable design. Nothing is complete until the community supports it; regular presentations of architectural designs and ideas are integral to confirming assumptions and developing consensus.

In many ways, AFHC’s designs are as much a record of process as they are a document for construction. In Old Town, the initial designs will be used to solicit funding and additional support. Once support is in place, the partners can choose to hand the design over to an architect of record for construction. As a visual record of the process and conceptual image of the potential space, AFHC’s design booklet can be the foundation for advocacy, for fundraising, and eventually, for a physical institution built upon the ideas of the community. The documents also give children and adults a lasting record of a collaborative process, empowering neighbors to generate their own projects and inspiring critical change rooted in local conditions.