Story, photos by Brittany Harlow
This year, the Philadelphia Chapter of American Institute Architects hosted the Edmund N. Bacon Awards at architectural rarity, and recently repurposed former technical school, BOK, in South Philadelphia. At this event, Edmund N. Bacon, former city planner of Philadelphia, is remembered for his work and dedication to the city of Philadelphia. His success lives on throughout the city of Philadelphia in various projects surrounding community unity. Every year, the award is given to someone who models Edmund Bacon’s dream to unite communities through public space. The Rail Park teamed up with AIA Philadelphia for the event, and designed a student competition with this quest for city wide unification through public space in mind. The event also selected Chicago artist, designer, and community revitalizer, Theaster Gates as recipient of their 2017 award. The event was a night centered on the concepts of community strengthening through design. The event buzzed of creativity, optimism for community strength and appreciation for artistic integrity.
The hosts of the event, AIA Philadelphia members and workers at The Rail Park, began the evening introducing the student projects and presenting their challenge. Student architectural programs throughout the region were invited to compete in the challenge to design a functional, communal and enticing portion of the massive tunnel portion of the proposed Rail Park. There were obvious challenges for the students who were tasked to make an abandoned rail tunnel transform into an exciting and safe community attraction, but many teams rose to the challenge nonetheless.
The Philadelphia local team Connect Philly, combined the efforts and abilities of students from Drexel and Philadelphia University for their submission. Connect Philly was awarded third place and the second place award went to the team Rail Park Roots of Cornell University. In first place, came the one-man-show of Dual Scape of Manitoba University in Quebec. Each of the winner’s designs were focused around various ways to develop the previously industrial complex in order to foster community engagement in a healthy, useful, and beautiful way. It was fascinating to see all of the different ways the students paid homage to the history of the tracks and their surrounding neighborhoods, and the methods the students used to entice public engagement.
After the student awards and the display of a promising architectural future were recognized, the event called forward their guest speak Theaster Gates. He was awarded for his incredible artistic contributions to the Stony Island neighborhood in south Chicago. In his acceptance speech, is Theaster illustrated the ways he has transformed his neighborhood in Chicago for the better, through his incorporation of art, history, and home pride through locally conscious and socially intentional design.
Theaster is multi-medium artist who uses art and history to influence and encourage healthy community spaces. He is the founder of the Rebuild Foundation. He spoke about a few of his successful projects, how he got his start, and how he found his drive. He explains that, “It’s not enough to have a degree, you must have shrewdness, a charm, a business ability to negotiate messy and nasty work, language unlike a fine arts student would have.” He demonstrates the dedication and the “after 5 pm work” that went into achieving his goals. He spoke about the importance of his type of work, work that believes in community and supports culture. The projects Theaster and his Rebuild Foundation create are significant to their community and significant in their purpose. He said, “The arts are asked to do significant things, be the caregiver for all, the scapegoat for all.”
His talk went on to express the importance the shape of a community will have on its people and the influence the people truly have on their community. His Rebuild Foundation operates around the hope and promise of building a great environment and community through art and celebration. In a time of gentrification horrors, he spoke of his foundation’s ethical redevelopment, neighborhood stability, and neighborhood rebuilding that is sustainable, considerate and social. He closed his impassioned, free styled speech with a prayer to all those passionate about development, design and communities. He wished us all “luck, ethos, and righteousness”.