Conversations with Architecture: Building Redmoon’s Forge

Elyse Agnello was one of the inaugural William A. Doebele Fellows in Community Design, awarded through the GSD’s Community Service Fellowship Program.  This summer she worked with Jim Lasko (LF 2013) and his public theater company, Redmoon, to develop a schematic design for their newly acquired 57,000 sq ft warehouse space in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Her report gives the details. 

The first week of my fellowship was spent on a retreat outside of Washington D.C. with several members of Redmoon’s staff and potential collaborators brainstorming how to exploit the potential of Redmoon’s new home in order to facilitate the new and exciting projects the company has underway, such as the Great Chicago Fire Festival. During those first 7 days, the team worked tirelessly on establishing new organizational structure and mapping the process for creating Redmoon’s future public projects.

In the end, the retreat proved effective in unveiling more questions for Redmoon than it answered, but for me it provided essential insight for understanding that the project could not continue on in the traditional architectural sense, where we would first established a scope, budget, & schedule and then proceed onto programming, schematic design, prototyping, etc. To create a good design fit for Redmoon would require a different methodology. I needed to first and foremost understand the many different constituents and factors already at play in the project. To do so, Jim and I devised a plan to divide my time between analysis and the design of a framework to support a future phased construction.

Part 1: Schematic Design - Diagnosis

This was the period of analysis. My efforts here were focused on understanding the elements of architecture that might begin to define an expanded vision and reach for the project.

I began by researching the site and establishing contact with pertinent board members, collaborators, and project team members like Commissioner Michael Merchant of the Chicago Building Department. I analyzed the existing conditions and municipal code requirements. Issues of fireproofing, bathroom fixture count, egress, and HVAC had to be addressed in order to obtain the Public Place of Amusement permit necessary for the proposed use of the warehouse building. I quickly added these code-based issues to the list of mission-specific challenges identified in D.C.

The next step was to work with Jim and an intern from University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business to determine the dynamic relationship between the known issues and synthesize them into a capital campaign document that outlined a new integrated solution for Redmoon to become an “arts machine that’s built to last.”  The production of this document was, for me, an important exercise in system design and phase planning as well as graphic design and marketing. 

This work enabled a holistic understanding of both the opportunities and challenges of building Redmoon’s Forge, the new name given to the warehouse at 2120 South Jefferson. The diagnostic portion of the project led to a clear understanding of Redmoon’s complex ecosystem and the question: "How could the Forge provide a space for the production of civically engaged spectacle and, also, be constructed by the same principles that it strives to sponsor in the public domain?"

Part 2: Schematic Design - Framework

This portion of the process was dedicated to synthesizing the diagnostics with knowledge of architecture to generate a framework for a phased construction.

I began by considering the elements of design that architects have historically used to measure success. In the first century, Vitruvius prescribed with his Triad that architecture must be durable, useful and beautiful. Then in first half of the 20th century, the modernist rearranged these virtues to align with their “Form follows Function” battle cry.  The postmodern movement later attempted to discredit its predecessors by shifting the debate to the relationship between structure and program/context, which in the end were just new names for form and function.

Globalization and the information technologies of the late 20th century have produced an exciting yet complicated forum for exchange across difference - culturally, professionally, and ideologically.  Within this reality, more and more we are enamored with the notion of the collaborative, the interdisciplinary, and the multidimensional.  What this taxonomy of complexities represents is the potential for an expansive and unitized approach to architectural work.

Bearing these contemporary and historical contexts in mind, I began to structure a value-based unitized approach that considered not only form and function, but also politics, finances, communication, and participation.  Along with Jim, I investigated the potential of a system that would equally embrace all six of these elements.  This system relies on active engagement of what John McMorrough calls the “cascade of relations” among all elements in order to mitigate concessions in the design and construction of an architectural project that typically occurs when the conversation expands beyond form and function.

At the intersection of the 6 elements we found both a mode of working and an opportunity for action in ways that were not at all new to the practice of architecture.

The system became a framework for analyzing Redmoon’s mission-specific criteria with respect to the list of diagnostic challenges in order to provide for a front of house, audience seating, VIP areas, storage for spectacle objects, a new façade, and flexible spatial partitioning.

Our first design proposal within the framework was for a retractable seating system that begins with a social media campaign for a mass public donation of chairs to help literally build Redmoon’s new home. This type of permanent installation productively addresses all 6 elements:

  • Finances by attaining the primary components free of cost
  • Communication by beginning with a call at large to the entire city of Chicago
  • Participation by asking Chicagoans to physically come to The Forge to add their chair to the design
  • Politics by addressing a code issue of lowering the required fixture count by creating “fixed” seats
  • Aesthetics by creating an eclectic mix of components fixed to an industrial apparatus
  • Utility by placing the seats on an apparatus that can be raised enabling versatile uses of the space. 

The implementation of a project that is in and of itself an aggregation of many smaller projects - like the seating system - is a technique specific to Redmoon’s non-profit financial reality.  The series of small architectural installations operating in tandem acts as a check on the design process and a guide for necessary alterations.  This non-linear process opposes the traditional architectural model for a linear project trajectory.  It embraces notions of flexibility and iteration in the spirit of harnessing the energy of the many disparate parts that must be in conversation with one another in order to sustain a healthy ecosystem.

In the end, the project served as a testing ground to explore an expanded vision of what architecture seeks to accommodate and resolve. It was an exploration of the conversations that architecture can and should be a part of in the city, which is a concept intimately related to Redmoon’s work and a topic that I will investigate further in my MArch thesis.  As Redmoon’s capital campaign and the build-out at 2120 South Jefferson move forward the fruitfulness of these conversations will be revealed.  It is both my hope and Jim’s that the framework for an architecture of action established this summer will function not only as criteria for Redmoon’s building projects, but will also serve to further facilitate Redmoon’s mission of transforming the experience of the urban landscape, providing opportunities for public engagement and recognizing the possibility of change. 

All images by Elyse Agnello except as noted.

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