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Issue 3: Education for Community Building

Photo by Terrence Curry

Architecture as Ministry: Detroit Community Design Center

Terrence Curry

Buildings, streets, landscapes and neighborhoods all shape how we perceive the world, how we interact with our neighbors, and how we re-affirm our personal and communal self-worth. The making of places is about power, self-definition, and identity. Because of this, those who determine how these places are made exercise tremendous influence over those who live in or use them. As a priest, architect, teacher, and craftsperson, I have come to believe that what you must focus on is not so much what is designed but how the design responds to the needs, aspirations, and life of those who will use it.

This belief has evolved as I have tried to make places worthy of the students, friends, and neighbors I have met and worked with over the past 20 years. I witnessed the impact of place visiting students in their tenement apartments on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, organizing a youth group in the projects on the South-West Side of Chicago, hanging-out on the stoop late into the night in Harlem, and teaching junior high school students from Milwaukee how to build a cabin in Oma, Wisconsin. Founding the Detroit Community Design Center allowed me to integrate my multiple vocations. Making places has become more than a profession, it has become a ministry.

The focus of my work with the Design Center is exploring systems and techniques for quality design that promote the dignity of the people who use them; be it a one-room school house in the Bronx or a 40,000 square foot community service center in Detroit.

One-room schoolhouse

Completed in the summer of 1995, the Bronx project was one of our first Design Center projects. Father Joe Towle had been working in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx for 10 years when he finally decided that it was time to start the school that many people had talked about. After several unsuccessful attempts to secure a site that could house an entire junior high school, he decided to start St. Ignatius School as a one-room schoolhouse in a former storefront grocery store on Hunts Point Boulevard. We worked with Towle to establish programmatic requirements and develop a schematic design. The four key design criteria for the project were: operational effectiveness, cost-consciousness, cultural appropriateness, and student participation.

The 830 square-foot store front had to serve not only as a classroom, but also needed to accommodate administrative offices, a community meeting room, and a place for the junior high school students to socialize and study before and after school hours. In collaboration with New York architect Eric Daniels, we developed a design solution that required minimum changes to the existing space. Advanced digital modeling made it easy to present the design in graphic and video media to staff, students, and parents. It also made it possible to use CNC laser technology to cut templates to facilitate the cabinetry fabrication. The classroom, office, pantry, restroom, and recreation/study spaces were defined by a freestanding wall, a bank of lockers, and movable custom cabinetry. Intersecting forms, exposed elements, bold colors, natural materials, and refined proportions gave the space a high-quality feeling.

To enable student participation, the custom cabinetry was designed as a kit of parts to be assembled and finished on site by students applying to the school. Made of cherry and maple plywood with exposed fasteners, the cabinetry was designed and fabricated at the Design Center in Detroit. Design Center intern David Garnett and other staff and students fabricated all the parts in the School of Architecture wood shop, loaded it into a truck, and drove it to the Bronx. Students then worked together with Design Center staff over a one-week period to assemble, finish, and install the work.

It was a wonderful experience, working on the sidewalk outside the storefront, sanding, assembling, and finishing custom casework with neighborhood boys curious and enthusiastic to help out. People walked by and stopped to talk, wondering who this "fancy woodwork" was for. After carefully examining a shoji screen in the storefront window, a women on her way home from work asked us if we could build an entertainment center for her apartment. Students commented on the smell of the cherry and how smooth it felt as they rubbed on the oil. One boy stepped inside, caressed the finished work, looked around and asked, with amazement, "Is this for us?" Anther boy who had been helping over the past few days exclaimed from inside, "Yes, isnąt it cool!" In addition to his praise, the project received honor awards from the American Institute of Architects and was awarded "Best School" by Interiors in 1996.

the exterior of the st. vincent de paul service center in detroit

Photo by Terrence Curry

Community service center

In the spring of 1997 the Society of St. Vincent de Paul asked the Design Center to help build a new community service center. Through the Neighborhood Design Studio, the Design Center had worked with several of the local agencies and community organizations which SVDP hoped to serve with this new center.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) is best known for its multitude of thrift stores in urban centers throughout the world, however, SVDP also provides a variety of other services to help the poor. In December 1995, a fire destroyed the organization's Detroit warehouse and store. With an outpouring of community support, SVDP bounced back and began to make plans to rebuild on the same site to show its commitment to the neighborhood.

However, the organization's vision for the new building stretched beyond simply replacing the thrift store. SVPD wanted to take a holistic approach to serving local needs by creating a center for the community. The project was to include a thrift store, childcare center, community medical center, job training, employment offices, an emergency food depot, and other referral and community services. To realize this vision, the organization formed partnerships with other service agencies, and garnered support from corporate, philanthropic, and individual benefactors.

The project offered several levels of participation:

  • Owner and stakeholder participation in establishing design criteria
  • Collaborative partnership with a local architecture/engineering firm  (Smith Group, Inc.)
  • Intern architect participation in design process
  • Student participation through service/learning design/build studio

The Design Center was responsible for facilitating a community participation process to establish design criteria, conceptual design, interior design, and design consultation throughout the project and was the primary contact with SVPD. The Smith Group was responsible for code/zoning review, conceptual engineering, and establishing a cost model during conceptual design and acting as project architect throughout the project.

This collaboration afforded multiple advantages. The Design Center brought a commitment to meaningful community participation, conceptual design, and advanced design technology. The Smith Group brought architecture, project delivery systems, technical and engineering resources, and construction administration, bringing a level of professional services typically out of reach to non-profit community development organizations.

An interactive workshop process was developed to involve SVPD and other project stakeholders. The process included visioning sessions, defining visual and experiential character, defining technical design criteria, programming, and cost modeling.

the interior of the st. vincent de paul center in detroit, designed by the detriot community design 

Photo by Terrence Curry

Key criteria determined by the workshop process were: the building should be "a tool for ministry;" it was to be "uplifting, warm, friendly, colorful, and a sign of hope"; the holistic design should carefully integrate public spaces, diverse uses, and organizational mission; the design must be budget-conscious; it needed to be secure and easy to maintain; it should create a strong neighborhood presence and be responsive to its urban context, acting as a model and catalyst for future development.

As with most community design projects, this project required a careful balancing of scope, budget, quality, and design. To maximize resources and provide an opportunity for community service, the Design Center organized a design/build studio where 15 upper-level students from the School of Architecture, University of Detroit Mercy, developed the design for 20 individual pieces, managed production, fabricated parts, assembled and installed the more than 200 linear feet of custom cabinetry in the new building. Titled "On Making," the studio's objective was to provide a service/learning opportunity for architecture students that would pose the question: "What does it mean (personally, spiritually, philosophically and practically) to make something, to bring a thing into existence?" Throughout the semester, students responded to real-life circumstances and worked in teams on reception desks, the thrift store sales counter, benches for the childcare center, and a donor recognition wall.

Before installation, the work of the studio was put on display in the exhibition space of the School of Architecture. Service providers, faculty, and students were invited to review the final work. In response to comments about the well-developed detailing of his craftsmanship, Keith Russeau, a fifth-year student, reflected, "Only the maker knows the little fraction of an inch quirks that define the spirit of his creation." As a summary of his studio experience Art Theuch, a forth-year student, commented, "To make something is to leave your mark, to make something beautiful is like leaving an exclamation point."

university of detroit mercy architecture students at work on the st. vincent de paul center.

Photo by Terrence Curry

Obviously moved by the quality of the work and the generosity of the students, SVDP Director, Roger Playwin, referred to the students as "significant benefactors" and promised to list each by name on the donor wall. The resulting building is a successful collaboration between a community service organization, a university-based community design center, students, professionals, the local community, and the building trades. It is a playful amalgamation of functions, shapes, and textures that expresses new hope and houses much-needed services for a struggling community. It is a witness to the power of architecture to connect people with a place and provide spatial experiences that uplift each person.

Winston Churchill is credited with observing that, first we shape our buildings and from then on they shape us. It is my hope, that by paying closer attention to not only the what, but also the how and who of design, those who use the buildings will have a stronger say in determining how they are shaped by their environments.

Terrence Curry, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, educator, architect, and craftsman. He studied architecture at Pratt Institute and received the 1999 AIA National Young Architect Award. In addition to his graduate work in philosophy and theology, Terry was a 2001 Loeb Fellow at Harvard University. Terry has taught architecture at UC Berkeley and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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