August 25, 2008

Students will go on the road for class project

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. — For anyone who thought architecture was just about buildings and blueprint designs, five minutes with the students and professors of ARC451 -- Architectural Design V: Urban Design and Community -- might rearrange those perceptions.


Media Advisory

Reporters, camera crews and photographers may contact any of the professors connected to the architectural studies urban design project before the group leaves for Memphis and New Orleans for individual interviews. Contact Craig Anz at 618/453-3734 or Contact Michael D. Brazley at 618/453-1120 or Contact Robert Swenson at 618/453-3734 or


For this group, building is about community and the people in that community. It’s about improving communities by providing structures and planned spaces that emphasize the heart of the community. In this course, students won’t just sit in a classroom, working with computerized models and virtual but synthetic scenarios. They will go on tour.

This year’s class has three sections. All students will take a bus trip through Memphis to New Orleans. Students in Michael Brazley’s section of the course will focus on the Holy Cross area of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Students who are in Craig Anz’s section have Memphis in their sights. And those in Robert Swenson’s section will pay special attention to Cairo, Ill.

The students will spend the first several weeks of the semester preparing by using some of the academic tools of the trade such as maps, aerial photographs and survey data. Next month, they’ll go on the road so they can get a first-hand look at the selected cities. The final step is to create master plan proposals for public presentation.

The master plans will take into consideration a wide array of factors, Swenson said. For example, there are advantages to incorporating residential areas into business districts, but what is a good way to do that? If a TIF (tax increment financing) district would provide incentives to bring businesses and industry, where are the best areas for those districts in terms of existing structure, traffic flow patterns and neighborhood integrity? What are ways to increase sustainability? What are ways to utilize vacant lots? These questions, he said, must be researched first-hand, with input from the relevant communities.

The architectural studies team chose the three cities because they are all part of the Delta Regional Authority, connected by similar cultural, ecological, geographical and architectural histories as part of the Mississippi River Delta. Anz said focus on the Mississippi Delta is appropriate for SIUC because the University is in the greater Delta region.

“We’re trying to emphasize our connection to the Delta,” he said. “And we’re trying to give back to these communities. We don’t want just to take from them for academic purposes.”

For all of the similarities, the three cities also present different challenges for the students. In Memphis, residents are protective of the unique identity of the city even while they may concede that the city needs structural changes to connect isolated neighborhoods with the city. In Cairo, lack of industry contributes to a cycle of job loss and migration away from the city, leaving sections of it virtually abandoned. And in New Orleans, the effects of Hurricane Katrina are still much in evidence.

Some of the students signed on for specific sections of the class for their own individual reasons.

“Cairo is close -- I can go there more often on my own and get to know the area better,” Bennett Bossfert, from Minnetonka, Minn., said, explaining his choice. “You can’t re-build the city unless you know what it was like when it was thriving. There was something there -- it wasn’t always a ghost town.”

The Cairo group will work with the Cairo Vision 20-20 Committee as previous classes have done. Cairo 20-20 is a civic-based organization that seeks to turn the tide for Cairo and restore the city at least to its former population by improving its infrastructure and attracting an employment base.

Members of the New Orleans and Memphis groups said the history of the two cities attracted their interest -- in particular the overwhelming factor of the hurricane damage in New Orleans.

“It’s a real situation with real problems, and it is something that happened within our lifetimes,” Jason Kubichan, from Gurnee, said. “Most of us were here at SIUC during Hurricane Katrina.”

The New Orleans group is, by request from New Orleans citizens, focusing on the Holy Cross section of the Lower Ninth Ward rather than the whole ward, as they did last time. Brazley said citizens specifically asked the SIUC group to look at options for vacant lots -- including the creation of a flea market -- and to get an idea of how demolition is occurring in that area, particularly because some of the city’s most historic homes are in the Holy Cross section. SIUC students will work with students from Tulane University during their stay in New Orleans. In addition, SIUC anthropology professor Roberto Barrios is on board with the project to share his extensive personal and professional knowledge of New Orleans, both pre- and post-Katrina.

Anz said SIUC students on the Memphis project will work with University of Memphis students. This is the first year architectural studies students from SIUC will work on a Memphis project, he said.

The final test, apart from any final examination or grade, for the students comes from the feedback they will get from the communities after the presentation of their master plan proposals.

“You can’t just step into a city and start designing,” Anz said. “You develop information until you have a project.”