Good Fences?

By John Steele
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 20, 2009

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Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Everett A. Gillison irritated opponents by splitting hairs.

On Front Street, between Norris and Montgomery, there is a seven-acre brownfield that faces the Berks stop of the Market-Frankford El.

Running down the center of the site is a wall made of concrete slab. The neighborhoods on either side--Fishtown to the east and East Kenso to the west--have long been at odds due to old school racial tension between whites on one side and latinos on the other. But two Temple students might have an idea to breath a new wind of prosperity through this backward scene.

Jeremy Kaltreider and Hanif Azly are the winners of the 2008 Delaware
Valley Green Building Council's Sustainable Design Competition. Now in its fifth year, the competition has traditionally focused on design ideas for actual companies hoping to potentially use the designs created. This year, students were more free to dream.

They were charged with building an agricultural high school, designed to mirror the teachings of W.B. Saul High School, an agricultural sciences school in Roxborough. But since Saul never planned to remodel, students were given different sites across the city, presenting them with unique urban challenges not present in the Wissahickon Valley. First order of business for Jeremy and Hanif when they got their site? Build a footpath through the historic dividing wall.

"I guess our intent was to fuse these communities together," Jeremy says. "That was really the centerpiece of this project for us."

But the pair didn't stop with just a footpath. Because what is access to a new neighborhood if you don't know anyone who lives there? They created a construction design that employs a pre-constructed wooden framework topped with corrugated panels that fit together like puzzle pieces. This combination of a sturdy, professional frame and the addition of these add-on panels allow for community members and students to participate in the construction of the school building, bringing parents and students together for the greater good.

Sally Harrison is a Professor of Architecture at Temple University. Her students have won the DVGBC competition the last 3 years. She credits the student's attention to neighborhood dynamics as the secret to their success.

"There has been strife between these two communities and this long, linear site has helped to maintain that seperation," Harrison says. "If you can find something where the people can work together...it sounds idealistic but its not a bad idea."

More than just a school proposal, Kaltreider and Azly's design was set apart by a full neighborhood vision, complete with a recycling center, a commercial marketplace and a rainwater collection system that would provide the school water supply for the entire school year. The north end of the site would be punctuated by a massive farming tower, complete with crop gardens on each level, serving as a learning tool for students and as a new source for saleable produce, creating a new industry for a community desperately in need of a grocer.

Co-Designer Hanif Azly agrees that it was the complete vision that set their design apart.

"The biggest factor, I think that the jury was impressed with was the idea that this school and its collective spaces created a "whole" environment," Azly says. "What I mean by this is that the project's focus was not so much in design of what the school looked like, but in principality, what the school's ideals were in regards to its environment."

Apart from the design of their proposal, Kaltreider and Azly had to take into account many factors that one would not traditionally associate with an architect. Community organization, physics, botany, geothermal engineering--all facets of the modern architect in the 21st century.

"There is a demand out there for better energy use, and intelligent measures to save the client money so we are preparing students to meet that demand," says Bud Wolf, head of the Architecture and Design studio program at Community College of Philadelphia. "The more specialized you become, the more likely you are to be at the forefront of that research and development. We try to get students to think more aggressively about these innovations so they are more than just an add-on or an afterthought."

Across the country, colleges and universities are expanding to meet the demand of a changing world. Earlier this year, students at the University of Kansas launched the Studio 804 program, putting architecture students to work rebuilding Greensburg, a part of Kansas damaged by a hurricane last year.

Like Kaltreider and Azly's project, the Studio 804 team is using reclaimed materials from an abandoned ammunitions plant, connecting community members to Kansas' long tradition of propellant manufacturing. The design work is meant to be fully sustainable, not because of some environmental fad but because using what you have available, and reinvigorating the ghosts of your past helps reconnect you to your community.

Which is why, in the end, Hanif Azly and Jeremy Kaltreider decided not to knock down the concrete slab wall that represents so much division and bad blood in northeast Philadelphia; that would go against their entire vision.

"We started to discuss how the wall was an important element to the site," Azly says. "The small break in the wall is a major threshold through which people move through the site; this lends us to see the wall as a major event in which the threshold supports the entrance of the school's compound."

For better or worse, your past will always float through everything you put in your community. Sustainable architecture is more than just a few solar panels and renewable buy-backs. It is embracing the strife of the past in creating the future.

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