Essays

Studio updates.

Between Precarity and Possibility

By Kristin Fleischmann Brewer

“As urbanists, we make signs to start a new dialogue between people and their spaces. Whether we are noting history or current events, beauty or horror, we are indicating that the space is important.”
– Mindy Thompson Fullilove, MD

A building can be unbuilt beam-by-brick by a salvage company, or a skilled technician can raze it in sections with a track hoe. And then it’s gone. The aftermath of a demolished building is rarely limited to the dispersal of material or creation of open space, however. These removals can profoundly affect the neighborhoods and communities in which they occur, impacting both individual and collective psyches in often-unexpected ways—from celebration to confusion, from pride to pain. To unbuild with consideration of a community requires as much sensitivity to people as to physical place. Looking beyond the layers of brick or limestone foundation, the recognition that sites have both a formal and social typology with cultural connections to place is a vital first step in maintaining the health and vibrancy of a community once a building is taken down.

For A Way, Away (Listen While I Say), Chicago-based artists Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez have created an original work through their role as creative advisors in the demolition of the building at 3721 Washington Boulevard and the subsequent regeneration of green space at the site. Built in 1921, this single-story structure sat directly across the street from the Pulitzer Arts Foundation before concerns about the structural integrity were discovered during an engineering survey in the summer of 2016. During its lifetime, this commercial space had housed auto parts, a trucking company, newspaper media production, a social club, and an art gallery.

Over the course of the five-phased project, Williams and Hernandez have both engaged the site and involved the community in a thoughtful, prolonged consideration of this building and its removal. For the conclusion of their project, the artists invoke healing, which implies that there has been some sort of trauma or, at the very least, an event that requires care. This healing extends to both land and community, with the demolition of 3721 Washington Boulevard as an emblem of the collective loss of many buildings in the City of St. Louis. A symptom of the population decline that began in the 1950s, demolition is transforming the face and character of the city. With the visible unbuilding of 3721 Washington Boulevard, this newly formed absence joins an adjacent empty lot to create nearly an acre of green space in the urban corridor. As a gesture of renewal, the site has been sodded in four shades of grasses—zoysia, bermuda, fescue, and blue—which mark the landscape in concentric topographical sections and subtly call attention to its new form.

With combined expertise in painting, architecture, and community organizing, Williams and Hernandez were drawn to this particular site and set of conditions because of their investment in the restorative and redemptive potential of vacant urban sites. Elements of their individual practices are reflected in A Way, Away. Hernandez’s project GHOSTGHOSTGHOST (2015–present) is conceived as a public activation on a vacant lot that was created by the removal of the former Cabrini-Green housing development in Chicago. Through choreography of word, sound, and movement, Hernandez asks participants to consider the remaining site as a spatial palimpsest of the changing urban landscape. For Messages in the Street (2016), Williams was asked to install an image of the purple “Crown Royal Bag” house from her Color(ed) Theory Suite (2012–15) on a billboard in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago—a place where, as Williams notes, “you might typically see an ad for Crown Royal liquor.” In addition to the installation, Williams convened an informal community gathering that she called It’s a Gold Mine/Is the Gold Mine? on an empty lot adjacent to the billboard; participants were prompted to write about the hidden worth of their land and community on yellow utility marker flags—objects commonly used in construction to mark elements below the ground.

Through a gesture akin to Williams’s Color(ed) Theory Suite, A Way, Away began by painting the exterior of the building at 3721 Washington Boulevard in gold—at once honoring its history and increasing the visibility of its demolition. Williams and Hernandez then brought their practices together by positioning the creative reuse of bricks salvaged from the demolition as tools for community-building. They also engaged neighbors, designers, and artists through a series of discussions around entrepreneurship, skill-building, and alternative economies. As Rebecca Solnit writes in “The Ruins of Memory,” projects that intervene into processes of unbuilding have the potential to produce “a pause in urban busyness to wonder and reflect. Artists in these circumstances often became their communities’ historians, servants of memory and thus of ruin.” Elsewhere, Solnit writes that “the larger purpose of public art is to make people participants in their communities, their cities, their politics—to make them citizens.”

A Way, Away is the second commission in the last year for which the Pulitzer has worked with artists to take down a structurally unsound building in St. Louis. The first was a home at 4562 Enright Avenue, located fewer than two miles from 3721 Washington Boulevard. The abandoned home was transformed into a gallery installation by Berlin-based architecture collective raumlaborberlin in collaboration with neighbors, the neighborhood historic preservation group, and the City of St. Louis, among others. And while the artists, aims, and collaborators for each of these commissions are different, the questions and interplay of variables in both projects share the same connection to community, material, and labor. What happened to these once-inhabited buildings? Why did they need to be demolished? Who is impacted by their demolition? What will happen to the materials and now-empty land? The answers are multilayered, and engaging them requires patience and a willingness to listen deeply and consider multiple perspectives.

The complexity of contending with often-uncomfortable histories and negotiating the entrenched politics and systems of the city calls for reflection—in this case, on the civic responsibilities of artists and institutions. Through both Williams and Hernandez’s and raumlabor’s projects, we have found that seeking answers to hard questions of process and policy—as well as incorporating community engagement into unbuilding—is an attempt at rethinking the transformation of cities and taking a step toward more equitable and inclusive practices with those whom are most affected. Precarity runs under the surface of these inquiries and actions. The projects engage questions about systems of care, social and economic benefit, and the ultimate interconnectedness of people and the places we inhabit.  

The futures of both sites are still in flux, but their bricks are currently being reused. With the continued support of the Pulitzer, the Enright Avenue neighbors are designing a garden and community space where the building once stood. Williams and Hernandez have likewise chosen to reuse materials from 3721 Washington Boulevard. The golden bricks are being channeled into community design projects across the St. Louis metropolitan area. Following an open request for proposals, four recipients were selected for their attention to creative reuse and consideration of community healing, legacy, and public health. A.R.T. House (Achieving Resilience Together) is a group of artists and community organizers who came together through the Ferguson rebellion and established a neighborhood space for creativity and health. Perennial is a nonprofit that teaches classes in upcycling. The Granite City Art and Design District is transforming a city block through a series of landscape interventions and the creation of art spaces. Finally, Solidarity Economy is a network of organizations committed to social justice and sustainability outside of the capitalist economy. Together, their projects include building a long table for community gatherings, a spiral healing-herb garden, a meditative and performance space, and offering workshops on the creative reuse of single bricks.  

Williams and Hernandez have compared the reuse of the golden bricks to the art of Kintsugi, a Japanese method of repairing ceramics. Through Kintsugi, artisans highlight the history of the object by using lacquer mixed with gold or other precious metals to rejoin the broken pieces. The repaired object is marked by golden or silver joints that hold it together. A Way, Away’s circulation of the golden bricks into the community for use in design projects parallels the desires of Kintsugi. The projects act as small sutures across the city, retaining the memory of the previous function (as building material) and continuing their storied life in a new form (as table, planter, domestic object, and stage). Building as healing is at once meditative and generative—a tool for bringing community together to make space for memory, acknowledge the power of the present, and create a future together.


Notes

1. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted-Out Cities (New York: New Village Press, 2013), 124.
2. Rebecca Solnit, “The Ruins of Memory,” in Storming the Gates of Paradise (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008), 367.
3. Rebecca Solnit, “Gaping Questions,” in Storming the Gates of Paradise (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008), 373.
4. More information on this project—including a catalogue featuring interviews with the artists and residents of the neighborhood—can be found online at https://pulitzerarts.org/exhibition/raumlaborberlin-4562-enright-avenue/.


Kristin Fleischmann Brewer is the Director of Public Programs and Engagement at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.