An Urban Imperative
By R. Tyler King
Remember the days when architecture school was but chipboard, Elmer’s glue and Le Corbusier fanboys? Those days are not entirely over, but three design professors at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts believe that design education must keep moving forward, out of the classroom and into the streets. For Camden Whitehead, AIA, Kristen Caskey, and John Malinoski, who represent the Interior Design, Fashion Design, and Graphic Design programs at VCU, respectively, two vacant storefronts on Richmond’s East Broad Streetpresent an opportunity for both the city and architectural education.
To fund the renovation of ground level space at 205-207 East Broad, Whitehead, Caskey, and Malinoski have applied for a grant from VCU to create Middle of Broad (MoB), an interdisciplinary studio environment for the school. According to their proposal, the space would employ “wood, thread, ink, steel, muslin, paper, pixels, hammers, sewing machines, hands, and eyes” to raise awareness about urbanism’s lessons for design students. “It would be a new entity that’s full of energy and engaged with the street and both sides of thecity,” said Caskey, referring to the building’s location between VCU’s Monroe Park campus and Richmond’s budding Downtown Design District.
Property owner Walter Parks, a Richmond-based architect and developer who specializes in urban infill and adaptive use, is renovating the entire building for his office. Working with MoB, he plans to leave a habitable shell on the first floor for VCU to rent. “Our students and [Parks’] employees would work on it overtime,” reports Whitehead, “and let the space be a sort of product of the studio.” The coursework would continue to address local design problems, but maintaining an experimental edge is what will keep MoB looking for solutions. At this early stage of planning, Malinoski explains that their approach for the renovation is “less applied and more speculative.”
Even though the storefronts at 205-207 East Broad would serve as business incubators, Caskey emphasizes that, “It’s not as much a model of entrepreneurship,” but about the neighborhood, which is on the cusp of redevelopment. “We’re going into it with sensitivity towards the difficulties and the negative aspects of gentrification,” said Malinoski.
Whitehead, Caskey, and Malinsoki’s plans are not entirely contingent on the grant’s approval, however. Alternatively, Malinsoki suggests the creation of a studio around the building where students could explore identity issues related to temporary uses of space. “We’re dedicated to making it fly in some form or another somewhere,” says Whitehead. If the grant comes through and work is approved for Parks’ property, class will begin in the fall of 2011 or in the spring of 2012 as an elective. While the studio’s syllabus is somewhat vague at this point, a set of keen eyes are really the guts of the course, Malinoski explains. “It’s about going out and finding problems to solve, rather than waiting for the problems to come to us,” he says.
R. Tyler King is an editorial intern at Inform and studies architectural history at Virginia Commonwealth University.