PennDesign News

Posted May 25, 2017
  • Lecturer Danielle Willems and Architecture Chair Winka Dubbeldam (second and third from left) joined students and faculty at a meeting with residents of Philadelphia's Parkside community.

Architecture Students Present Big Ideas for Library Design in Parkside

At a packed community meeting in early May, a group of graduate architecture students met to share a semester’s worth of research around libraries and design with residents of East Parkside, the West Philadelphia neighborhood that backs up against Fairmount Park.

The context for the studio, called Fair Grounds, includes the 2016 Biennale of Architecture and a $500-million effort by Philadelphia to rebuild parks, recreation centers, and libraries around the city. Hosted by Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation, the meeting convened more than community residents. City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell was there, as were State Representative Vanessa Brown and Anne Fadullon (MCP’88), the City’s director of planning and development.

The students’ goal was to think through the various roles that a library could play in East Parkside—a neighborhood that currently has no library. And they thought big.

“The library of Philadelphia should not be static, but an urban network of mobile architectures, portable facilities and distributed learning laboratories that re-envision underutilized city resources, infrastructures and buildings,” said Prince Langely (MArch’17), a student in one of five sections of the studio.

The studio sections were taught by Annette Fierro, Associate Professor of Architecture and Associate Chair, along with Joshua Freese, Danielle Willems, Eduardo Rega Calvo, and Miroslav Brooks. Students studied the conditions of the neighborhood, noted its obstacles and connections to other parts of the city, and looked at various sites where a library might be developed. And they asked big questions about what a library could be, tossing out ideas for uses as diverse as a laundromat, community gardening, and beekeeping.

“Can architecture create a resilient space of learning that would actively engage with the neighborhood?” said Mariela Hernandez. “Can architecture be speculative and resist the change of gentrification? How could architecture exhibit its own contingent nature and complex relationship to a community?”

After the student presentations, residents wanted to know how likely the City was to actually build a new facility in Parkside. While the Rebuild initiative is focused on updating existing facilities, Councilwoman Blackwell said she would advocate for a Parkside library with the Kenney administration. The meeting adjourned with community members agreeing it was incumbent on them to keep pressure on the city if they want the project to be realized.

Chris Spahr, the executive director of Centennial Parkside CDC, said he wasn’t sure what to expect when the studio began, but the collaboration turned out to be a good experience for the community as well as the students.

“What we hoped to get out of it was a discussion about whether a library is something that we want in East Parkside? And if so, what do we want it to be?” Spahr said. 

Spahr said he was personally most intrigued by the nontraditional library ideas put forth by the students, a building or series of buildings that could provide a range of benefits to the community beyond just a computer lab and books. And as important as it will be for Parkside residents to push for more public amenities, Spahr said it was also crucial for the CDC to continue building its relationship with the University. Whether or not the neighborhood gets a new library, Spahr said, Parkside hopes to continue to leverage Penn’s presence in the area for important community research and services.

“We were a little nervous about how we were going to meet the needs of the design studio as well as meet the need of our community, because that's a tricky line to walk,” Spahr said. “We felt very satisfied.”