If you had driven down West Fayette Street in Syracuse on Sunday morning a few weeks ago, you would have passed the parking lot without noticing it. An expanse of cracking asphalt between former factories and half-occupied warehouses, it blended into the deindustrialized ambiance of this stretch bordering the train tracks. By day’s end the lot accommodated a verdant lawn punctuated by islands of wood decking with benches and a picnic table. A flash park had popped up in the Near Westside.
This small-scale intervention keyed into a larger set of urban transformations in Syracuse and particularly in its Near Westside neighborhood. An article in the current issue of Metropolis reviews the “opportunistic urbanism” generated by coalitions among city government, local nonprofits, community groups, and Syracuse University, including its School of Architecture, where I teach and chair the Bachelor of Architecture program. Projects range from the creation of a transit and streetscape armature called the Connective Corridor to the renovation of abandoned buildings and the construction of new houses and institutional buildings.
These public-private partnerships dovetail with academic initiatives at the university such as community engagement courses, design-build studios, and conferences. Faculty and students have designed and built new houses, house renovations, warehouse conversions, streetscape improvements, and many other elements of urban transformation. At 601 Tully Street, for instance, art and architecture students are currently using Joseph Beuys’s principles of social sculpture to turn an abandoned house into an incubator for the art and entrepreneurship ideas of local high school students.
The architecture school recently hosted “Formerly Urban,” a two-day conference on strategies of development and design in shrinking cities around the globe. Syracuse served as the model for the postwar American city in some of the 194X scenarios outlined by the architecture profession during World War II. In like fashion, the city is currently serving as one of the testbeds for redevelopment in the age of bigness and the generic city.
The culture of community engagement and revitalization now characterizes the architecture student organizations, too. The flash park on Fayette Avenue was built by students from architecture schools throughout the region during a conference hosted by the Syracuse chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students. Inspired by Parking Day, they expanded the concept from a single space to a section of parking, as a way of culminating four days of lectures, panels, workshops, and site visits on the subject of reconfiguring the role of the architect in a more entrepreneurial and activist mode. The school’s AIAS chapter has also sponsored the design and construction of wheelchair ramps as part of its Freedom by Design initiative, as well as a project aiming to animate empty storefronts throughout downtown Syracuse. Last spring, a multicultural student group ran a symposium on architects working as activists in the developing world.
Several of the students most deeply involved in student organizations have joined with others to test a new approach to the B.Arch thesis. Through linked blogs, joint reviews, and group meetings that run the gamut from exhilarating to exasperating, these ten students are trying to translate their activist energies and collaborative spirit into the culminating challenge of their professional degree program. With 194X as a half-conscious model, they are extrapolating Syracuse as a model for future architecture and urbanism. They call it Crisis City.