SPOKE – ST. LOUIS DESIGN WEEK

Poster and branding for STLDW was created by Carlos Zamora of Kiku Obata.

It was about a year ago that I returned to St. Louis after graduating. Know that there weren’t many jobs out there for recent graduates I thought I might be able to get a leg up on the competition by getting involved. So with that in mind I went to my local AIA office and asked how I could help or if there was anything that I should be doing as a recent grad. The reply I got was more than I ever bargained for but I found out about a few local groups like the Young Architects Forum, Design Speak, among many others. But most important of these were STL Design Week, as I was invited to do an event for AIA from the idea they had. What was the idea? It was an architectural bike tour of the city. Now I haven’t owned or ridden a bike in a few years so my first instinct was, “Sure, why not? How hard could it be.” I had no idea what I was doing or what I had just gotten myself into, but I wouldn’t have changed a single thing because it was one of the best experiences I have had so far.

The entire week was a huge success with nine different events happening across seven days all in the amazing city we call home. We had events that featured anything and everything design, between lectures with award winning chiefs like Gerard Craft that discussed the impact design has on a restaurant to DART, which is an interactive project that you to throw a dart at a board and discover that space over the following month through the art of photography. There was a student competition and industrial design show called FUSION, a functional object show and lecture series put on called FORM. An event named ARTeffect that was a charity auction to benefit a children’s art program run through the Contemporary Art Museum. With the entire week being finished on Sunday morning with the architecture bike tour aptly named SPOKE.

Riding the route with the docents before the day.

So I could take you through the long tedious process that my team and I went through to create SPOKE, or I could just let you know the results. I think for the sake of time and holding your interest we will stick to just the results, as it was a very long process filled with team members stepping away, road blocks with streets departments, new teams members getting caught up, insurance concerns, safety precautions, and trying to find enough docents to make this event a success.

We started the tour at a place called BWorks located in the Soulard neighborhood. I met the amazing people behind this organization in December and when I learned what they do I had to include them in this plan. A brief history of BWorks is that they are a nonprofit organization that host 3 children’s programs that included: book works, byte works, and bike works. Their bike program lasts 5 weeks and teaches the kids bike safety, bike maintenance, and in the end the child earns a bike and a helmet that they can continue to use. The day of the ride we were able to raise a couple hundred dollars in donations, a few of the riders even gave up their old bikes after the ride, or signed up to be a volunteer with one of their programs. Oh did I forget to mention that BWorks receives donated bikes and is run by volunteers? This group is certainly something you need to see to believe, or even better it is a great cause to support.

As your starting to see this wasn’t just about the architecture of St. Louis but also abut the amazing programs and organizations doing work in our community. The second stop along the tour was a new place in town, called Climb So Ill. They are a very outgoing group of guys who had a dream to open the best climbing gym in the Midwest, and personally I think they have done an amazing job and not just from the stand point of the facilities, because the a certainly raising the bar, but because of the passion they have. I was very happy to feature them along the route and show off another adaptive reuse project with a great deal of success. The guys who run the gym know all of their regulars by name and will go out of the way to make sure your are comfortable. Climb So Ill is a great place to check out in St. Louis and a wonderful addition to the tour.

The third stop along the way was the architecture office of Cannon Design. This project was completed only a few years ago, and with it being a private office the opportunity for the public to experience the space is very limited. We received so many compliments about this space because of the quality if light and just the overall work environment that they have been blessed with. Needless to say this space made a lot of people jealous when compared to their office.

 

 

The fourth stop along the tour was a place called the Kerr Foundation. They are a non-profit organization that focuses on education and helping to better the community. This building was selected not only for the organization behind the building, but the structure itself. This building is a LEED platinum building and originally started as a bathhouse many years ago. This stop allowed participants to get up close with various “green” technologies, and the gain a getter understanding of how they can be used. The building utilizes solar and wind power, along with natural light, permeable paving for the parking along with a bio swale and rain garden to collect runoff on site. This was a great place to bring the technical side or sustainability to the tangible and approachable for those touring the facility

The stencils I put down on the streets to mark the course for riders.

In the end the tour had over 150 people involved between the volunteers, riders, and docents leading. There were no accidents or major catastrophes through the day, despite having heavy traffic because of the baseball and football games starting at noon and one. Overall everyone had a good time, enjoyed them selves, and was able to experience a little more of St. Louis than usual. It’s a magical thing that happens when you get on a bike and slow down from your car, you take the time to look around and think about what was there and not just rush by things and take them for granted. I know I shouldn’t be thinking about it, but I have already started to plan for next year, meeting with the docents and people involved and seeing what we can improve for next year. This has been an amazing yearlong journey that allowed me the meet so many tremendous people along the way and I can’t wait to do it again next year.

One of the groups before they departed.

One of the many points of interest along the tour.

The final tour route.

THE FRONT PORCH

Have you ever wondered what happened to the sense of community we had in our neighborhoods? Do you remember the feelings that were evoked in a time when you could sit on your front porch and see the entire neighborhood? Where the kids would play in the street, and when you could hear from down the block a mother call out “car!” and the children would all step on to the side of the road and wave as the vehicle passed by.  Do you remember when you would invite your neighbors over on a cool summer evening and sit out on the front porch together enjoying a beverage?

I believe we have put so much emphasis lately on sustainability and being environmentally friendly with the systems and materials we are using, but in the process, we have lost focus on the community aspect. What if we cared for our neighbors and the communities we lived in? I believe we have stopped caring, and I think I know when that point was… it was when we traded our front porch for a private back patio.

So what do we do now? We spend our time in our own individual fenced-in yards, with our own personal families, and we occasionally shout across the street to say “Hi” to our neighbors. Builders began to create false porches as a way to create the illusion of community so that we may appear welcoming to those around us. In all reality, how often do we use that little four foot deep porch tacked onto the front of our dream homes covered in vinyl siding? I would venture a guess that we don’t do much on it, that is except for the few minutes we might greet a stranger when they come to knock on our door.

So what is the solution? Is there a solution? Does adding an extra two feet to the slab we pour in front of our homes count as getting back the front pouch we lost? Does an extra two or three feet instantly generate a sense of community, or does it create more impervious surfaces in the world and wasted space we never use? I don’t think just adding a few more feet will create any real change. We as architects have the ability to impact and change the way individuals engage the built environment. We can educate our clients and we can help them to understand what they are buying into when they select model homes and what they thought was the “American dream” of white picket fences and those two cars in the drive way. How much longer can that way of life be sustained? I, for one, would be happy to trade the car for a bike, and the large home for a modest walk up. I know that this is only my perspective and I don’t have a family to raise or any of those concerns, I am simply a young adult alone in the city that can make the statements because these are simply my reflections on the future I can see ahead.

So what has to change to make that all possible? How do we begin to create environments that cater to the public? What if we began creating communities and neighborhoods again that allowed us to walk to our destination, or get on our bike and ride to a friend’s place or the local market? What happens when we stop complaining about the price of gas and start to buy into a sustainable public transportation system that could run efficiently? When will we begin creating spaces that promote mixed use on a regular basis, environments that aren’t restrictive in zoning, and communities that encourage growth? I can see the glimmers of hope on the horizon and the sparks of the ideas taking hold and it leaves me excited for the future, but I hope to see more of this continue.

QUESTIONS FROM A YOUNG ARCHITECT

There is something I mentioned in a previous post and I wanted to come back to the topic of urban sprawl…. We have all heard it and are increasingly aware of the problem we face. Gas continues to go up in price and I believe that we should see the density start to rise again in our major cities. But many of us will continue to say that the time we spend in the car and the amount we spend on gas is just part of the daily grind. I think that train of thought will begin to change, or I can at least hope that it will change.

Speaking for myself, I don’t like to waste my time and I don’t know many young people who do. Currently, I live forty-five minutes from the office where I work.  That means I spend between an hour and half and two hours in my car a day with traffic. Take that over a week, and that’s between six and half to ten hours. Over a month that means I will spend approximately twenty six to forty hours in my car, that’s nearly a week of work every month I am missing out on while sitting in my car.

Let’s say for the sake of this article we keep the math simple, and say I make ten dollars an hour. So in a month I waste nearly four hundred dollars in my time, and another two in the gas I burn on my way to and from the office. Now I realize we don’t get paid for the time we aren’t working but for this argument let’s say we put a value on our time like our employers do. So in the span of one month I will spend nearly six hundred dollars in time and resources going back forth to work.

Now what happens when I move closer to the city, and if I only lived a mile and a half from the office? What if I bought a bike and I could actually ride to work. I could save 95% of my time to and from the office; I would get exercise daily, and save a large amount of money. Now what if that six hundred a month I was spending could actually get invested in something more valuable? Now I realize I am only a drop in a much larger bucket, but what happens when the majority of those living more than 15 minutes from work did the same. What impact would that have on our cities? How much would the density rise, how much better could our cities be? Would we start to see a rebirth in our cities? What would we do with the money are spending on gas?

I would like to believe if we made our cities into walk able environments and reduced our dependence on our cars and trucks we could start to see pride take hold again and a concern for the built environment. What if we could walk to wherever we needed to go, would we stop being lazy? Could we start to see an increase in our activity? What about an increase in our sense of community? What if we started to invest in public space and the built environment, instead of our own private spaces with fences that make our boundaries very clear to the public? What happens when start to enjoy housing with a shared courtyard, a place where we can get to know our neighbors beyond saying hi at the mail box, a place for a community garden that could yield as much as you put into it? What if the amount we spend on gas goes down and we could spend it with our families, or giving back to amazing nonprofits that do incredible work, or taking a class or that trip we have been dreaming of?

What happens when we stop increasing the size of our homes? When we have a modest dwelling we begin to set priorities to what we actually need versus what we think we need. A close friend of mine reminds me that designing small means simply designing smart. I look around and have to ask, do we really live in a time of surplus? I have always thought that modesty is a good thing.  How is it that we are impressed by the square footage of our homes and not by how charitable we are, or what we are doing for the community?

I know that I have posed a lot of questions and not offered many solutions, but I hope that these thoughts and these ideas might wake something up inside of you and that you begin thinking about how this relates to your life. I feel like a hypocrite while writing about all of this, knowing that I am living in suburbia with my parents and doing nothing to change that. I know that I am just starting out and don’t have the ability to go out on my own, so I am fortunate to have the support of my family and will never take that for granted. For now I know that the drive might be long but I wouldn’t be able to make it without them in my life, a big thank you to my friends and family who are always there to support me in all that I do.

LEADERSPEAK: IS YOUR CHECK ENGINE LIGHT ON?

Have you ever been driving down the road and all of a sudden a little sport car goes flying past you? I started thinking about that car the other day after I was wrapping up a day in the office. I was picturing that car cruising along, oblivious to the fact that it was blowing a whole lot of smoke and causing a mess for everyone else to navigate through. I smiled when I passed that car pulled over on the side of the road, realizing if only they had taken better care of their car it wouldn’t have happened. For the purpose of this piece, let’s just say they ran out of gas.

I normally don’t like using analogies to make my point but this time I am going to make an exception. For the past year I have been in and out of so many offices searching for a place to start my career, just like every other recent graduate out there . Through that time, I have had the opportunity to see various offices and the character and culture of each.  This has allowed me to gain a better understanding of what an office environment is really like compared to anything my professors tried to explain. The analogy came to me when I was reflecting back over my experiences from the past several months and the thought of that little car came to mind.

I’m sure you’re wondering where I am going with this, right? Well, what I mean by that is that an engine runs on gas and oil. If you consider the oil as the collaborative and creative side of an office, while the gas in the tank as the productive side that keeps the office running, you’ll get this analogy. The point is that you need both of those to keep the car operating, so keep that in mind when you start the engine on your firm.

Think about this; if you run with too much oil and not enough gas, you just end up in a big cloud of smoke while you’re stranded on the side of the road. This means when you spend all your time thinking and playing without proper production, you just end up breaking down and on the side of the road with your thumb out asking for a ride. The opposite is equally devastating, too much gas and not enough oil, you end up going really far but burn out after that recommended oil change. What I mean is if you are only productive and don’t take time to play, then you lose your passion for what you do and quickly stop caring about the task at hand.

The right balance for everyone is different. Each firm has their own ratio that works for the culture they have created. A particular amount of oil to every gallon of gas is critical, some work better with a drop and some take it by the quart. Every firm is unique and there is no exact science to the right ratio but there does need to be balance. Finding that balance and individuals who believe in the culture of the office will keep it running smoothly and it is those firms that will stand the test of time. Now there will always be other factors to consider, but when the firm has a shared vision and believe in what they are doing they will always find a way to make it work.

THROUGH THE EYES OF A YOUNG ARCHITECT

With every profession applying the term architect to a title, what does it really mean to be an architect? It seems funny to me that for the past few months, several publications have revealed architecture has the highest unemployment rate as a degree. So I started asking questions, why would somebody want to be an architect during these times? Is the title of architect becoming just another buzz word or are we more than the latest profession in the spotlight? It took a minute to ponder, so I rubbed my eyes in an attempt to wake up and thought if I would rather be anywhere else. I knew the answer to that question before I even finished that thought; there is no other profession out there for me. Maybe I am strange but I love the long hours, sleepless nights, and more cups of coffee than any one person should drink in a lifetime.

Architect used to mean “master builder”, but what does it stand for today? Are we still considered a master builder or just simply a luxury item, when aesthetics are concerned? Now I will admit that we don’t know everything about something, but we do know something about everything. The goal of an architect should be to create sexy solutions for everyday issues, through the collaboration and knowledge of various disciplines. The critical part of our job it to be able to cast a vision on the end result of the project and develop a plan for getting there.

The key in the success of any project is communication. Our ability to bridge the gap between professions and find a solution that works for everyone is critical. An architect understands the rules of thumb and generalities of each discipline, but doesn’t have a full technical knowledge of everything. This is why collaboration is critical, and why bringing everyone to the conversation is so beneficial. We must be a leader, but in order to be a great leader we must surround ourselves with individuals that possess the strengths we do not.

A typical scene down a side street of Boston, featuring walk up housing.

Not only is the architect the leader of the design team, but they also help to lead change. With gas continuing to rise in price, I believe we will start to see the decline of suburbia. My hope would be to watch density rise and a rebirth of our cities. The days of spending hours in our cars is coming to an end. As an architect we have the ability to re-imagine our urban spaces and create places that enrich our daily lives. We must remember that design doesn’t have to be force fed to the public, but can be done in a subtle way that compliments the existing situation, whatever the conditions may be. The greenest buildings are the ones already standing, but we must find ways which facilitate the functions those buildings never anticipated.

I could not be more excited for the challenges we will face ahead. They  will not be easy, but they will begin to challenge the way we think. From the places we choose to dwell, the way we look at our cities, to the way we design our landscapes; these will be changing. It is up to us to decide if they will change for the better.

5 THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND AFTER GRADUATION

Every school has a different way of teaching their students, some take an approach focused on theory, some do it on practical experience, and some try to take a balanced approach. Each of these has their advantages and disadvantages, but im not looking to discuss the curriculum. I’d like to discuss some of the things that were left out. Sometimes there are just things that only real world experience can teach you. Now I am far from knowing everything but I have a seen a few glimmers of hope on the horizon and that continues to keep me motivated as I have found we are all searching for our place in this ever changing world.

1.  NETWORKING
A very important aspect to connect with the design community is getting out and meeting new people that share your passion. There are groups all around the area, each of them with their own focus and agendas, but their common goal is to promote the awareness of design in the community. Some of the best conversations I have had are at various speaking events and happy hours. These conversations could range anywhere from talking about what could be done for housing in an urban environment to an hour and half conversation about a brick, and what it means to the city. These conversations are a great way to get connected and meet new people that might be able to help you along your way. This is not to say you should expect anybody to just give you something but it helps to create a personal relationship with others in the industry, because you never know what it may lead to.

2. STAY PASSIONATE
This one is simple, you wouldn’t have made it through 5 years of architecture school if you didn’t love what you were doing. So be sure to maintain that passion when you leave school. This could be something as simple as creating theoretical projects for yourself to work on, studying for exams, sketching for an hour a day, learning a new program, or build something. A lot of young architects are still looking for work or have been let go, and while the average age of the firm continues to rise staying passionate about architecture can be tough. So while you might be out of work you might want to stay active, because you know the question that will come up in an interview is “what have you been doing lately?” how you answer that question has an effect of how you are perceived so keep that in mind.

3. GET INVOLVED
This is a big city, there are plenty of groups out there and lots of events for you to be involved in. I always get asked how I know when there is something going on, and a lot of it has to do with being connected. There are lots of groups out there that broadcast when they have an event coming up or are getting together, and that’s because they want people to come out and get involved in what they are doing. This could be something as simple as going out to a lecture at the local college, grabbing a drink at a bar with other professionals in the industry to talk about a proposed project, or even just find a cause or organization that you care about and asking how you can help. Your options are limitless, but they are what you make of them and sitting at home on a Wednesday night in front of the tv isn’t doing much for your career.

4. INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEWS ARE A GOOD THING
The simple truth is if your fresh out of school and you don’t have much experience if you have any at all. After a few months of sending out resumes and cover letters, I was starting to get exhausted by it all. I had to start thinking harder about what I was doing and if it were really the right thing, and I realized I’m only sending a piece of paper. I wanted them to get to know me, and although I am able to get a bit of that across when sending out that cover letter it isn’t completely me. There are a lot of factors that go in to getting that first job, not only are they looking at your education and your professional experience, but they want to know you and make sure your the right fit for the firm. Each firm has its own personality, culture, and identity so finding the right individual for the firm requires a balance of skills and personality. The informational interview is what allows them to get to know you on that personal level and hopefully get your foot in the door.

5. COFFEE IS YOUR FRIEND
This should be pretty self explanatory, that added boost of caffeine will keep you going hour after hour you sit at your desk late at night or early in the morning when you have to get that last detail done before the deadline. But going out to get that cup of coffee will get you up from your desk, get some fresh air, and brings you back with a renewed spirit and increased energy so you can focus on the task at hand. So enjoy that cup and get back to work.