PennDesign News

Posted April 12, 2017

Architecture Studio in Parkside Asks What a Library Could Be

As Philadelphia has begun the long process of reinvesting in parks, recreation centers, and libraries in neighborhoods across the city, students in a spring graduate architecture studio are being asked to imagine a major new public amenity for Parkside, the West Philadelphia community that was built up around the Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

Fair Grounds, as the studio is called, includes 63 students split into five sections, and is led by Annette Fierro, Associate Professor of Architecture, Associate Chair of the Department of Architecture. The object of the studio is to design a community library that goes beyond traditional thinking about public archives. Included in the syllabus is a program outlining the physical needs and limitations of the space, including a lobby and cafeteria, reading rooms, administrative offices, storage, and circulation, along with flexible internal space and a large public landscape that are meant to be designed with feedback from community members.

But, according to Fierro, the real challenge of the project is to develop ways of thinking about architecture as a holistic venture undertaken in full partnership with a community. To that end, students are working with members of Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation, a year-and-a-half-old neighborhood group, to talk through what community members would want and need from such a site.

The studio was designed to fit into the larger agenda of the 2016 Venice Biennale of Architecture, Reporting From The Front. In his introduction to the Biennale, curator Alejandro Aravena said, “On the one hand, we would like to widen the range of issues to which architecture is expected to respond, adding explicitly to the cultural and artistic dimensions that already belong to our scope, those that are on the social, political, economical and environmental end of the spectrum. On the other hand, we would like to highlight the fact that architecture is called to respond to more than one dimension at a time, integrating a variety of fields instead of choosing one or another.”

The syllabus for the Fair Grounds studio was also crafted in response to the controversy surrounding the U.S. Biennale pavilion in Detroit. Some of the designers of that exercise were criticized for overemphasizing the architect’s imagination as a tool to address social problems, at the expense of true involvement with “actually existing communities.”

One of the exciting things about the studio, Fierro said, is that it coincides with Philadelphia’s Rebuild initiative, a $500-million effort to refurbish parks, recreation centers, and libraries throughout the city. A collaboration with the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation and PennPraxis, the engagement and consulting arm of PennDesign, the studio includes not only a traditional review, but also an open exhibit and roundtable discussion with students, community members, and city officials. The event, open to the public, will be held at the Christ Community Baptist Church, 1224-30 North 41st Street, Philadelphia, at 6:30pm on Monday, May 1.