On Thursday, March 11, 2021, the Arts + Business Council held the second virtual program of our Industry Intersections series. This time we explored the intersection of art, design, and real estate development and examined how Art and Design might offer solutions to the challenges of creating neighborhoods and communities that foster social connection and economic growth.
Charles Kochka, Executive Vice president, Chief Lending Officer, Meridian Bank, and advisory board member, gave opening remarks and discussed why it is not just important, but critical that companies reserve and support creative spaces in the Greater Philadelphia area.
Diana Lind, Executive Director of the Arts + Business Council, set the tone for the program with the question: As we emerge from a year of pandemic-related shutdowns, how can the [Greater] Philadelphia region double down on compelling architecture, art, and design to ensure the region thrives in the coming decade?
Keynote speaker, architect, urbanist, educator, and author, Vishaan Chakrabarti began his keynote address by challenging the analogy that arts and design are often thought of as the “seasoning on the meal” with economics being the meal and argued that arts and design are actually the entree. He went on to explain how humans, at the heart of who we are, are storytellers and how cities are built from our impulse to tell the stories of our realities. Chakrabarti cited ancient China, India, and Latin America, as examples of places that built their cities around their community gatherings, usually cultural or religious.
“One of the most Important aspects of design today is trying to ground us in place, so we understand our own culture as our cities grow…so our cities don’t feel like every other city in the world, but actually identify with the culture that we’re in.” – Vishaan Chakrabarti
Looking at a more recent example, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where Chakrabarti’s studio is working on its expansion, we saw how culture, arts, and design are anchors for the revitalization of our cities coming out of the pandemic. At the same time, the building itself has gone beyond utilization for economic development to connect residents to the history and identity of the community that surrounds it. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is seen as more than just a museum, but is an education center where local students can go to learn more about the rich history between rock music, race, and their community. It served as a vehicle for transformation and cross interaction between seemingly different groups of people. Everything from the colors and material used to design structures to their mass are thoughtful aspects that ground us in place and speak to the culture of our community.
Chakrabarti also acknowledged that changes are needed in how we develop housing to ensure that our cultural communities can afford to live there long enough to grow the city into the cultural hubs we want them to be. Not only is the cultural sector important for the development of community identity, but also for how the story of environmental sustainability is told, which will dictate how we improve our climate and environment.
Following Chakrabarti, our panelists gave a quick introduction of themselves and the work their organizations are doing before we got into the discussion focused on how art and design may offer solutions to the challenges of creating neighborhoods and communities that foster social connection and economic growth. Panelists included:
Lind opened up the conversation with a question: How should cities show that they value art and culture beyond presenting big museums as trophies of the cities?
Chakrabati began with a powerful statement about how arts and culture are not these rarefied things that we visit but are part of everyday life. It is what we touch and what relates us back to the places we are in, whether we are grabbing groceries, dropping off a loved one at an appointment, or on our way to work. The pandemic and social media have created this sense of geographical collapse, so there is a need to find a balance between our physical and online cultural communities again.
Sven Schroeter expanded on this thought and talked about the power of hyper locality and authenticity, and what it means to be of a place. He brought up a project his organization is currently working on at UPenn where theoretically every occupant can work alone and asked why do they need a building here in Philadelphia? He went on to explain how at the end of the day we are human beings who value presence, collaboration, and desire the experience of getting together in a physical space to create.
“Art has the unique interpretive power at the Intersection of the practical and visionary, to be able to condense these ideas down into unique expressions of a time and place.” – Sven Schroeter
Lind added another question to the conversation: How can we think about planning with artists, designers, and the creative community as part of the process of these kinds of places?
Rachel Zimmerman talked about the need for a more holistic approach to how we look at art and design and how we want the space we are creating to function. Too many times have artists been viewed as an afterthought in a development project – the pepper or salt, which has led to dissonance in the intended functionality and experience of the space being created. We have to think about the people living and working in those spaces and understand how they are affected by the functionality and scale of space. This means that real estate developments, on a big and small scale, that plan to invest in the community, artists, and create value beyond living there, need to be built from the ground up and include the art and design community from the start.
Lindsey Scannapieco reminded us that life comes from the people, not the building. While not something that has always been encouraged in our current organizational structures, we have to make room and allow for the unexpected to happen in spaces. Spaces such as the Bok Building, formerly a high school turned workplace that is full of diverse businesses, makers, and artists was an example of how different people transformed a grand, exclusive school building into spaces that are open to interpretation in terms of how they are used. Scannapieco acknowledged that we need more spaces where adaptability is allowed and enabled.
Chakrabarti agreed and believed that it is that sense of surprise and serendipity that creates the most interesting places and innovation districts in cities. With that, he brought to light an issue with how we build communities. In our current system, we are taught to place and understand things as they are intended. Housing is meant for housing, commercial buildings are meant for business, schools are meant for teaching students, and so on. But, what is really needed is flexibility in our communities and building stock that allow people to breathe beyond what a financier planned for these spaces to be.
Lind then brought up gentrification and how artists living in the area non-permanently are seen as a temporary economic stimulus for neighborhoods rather than a building block for long-term transformation. So, how do we think about economic development differently to make sure that creatives are the end-users in the spaces they take up or that these spaces are readapted, while also mitigating exploitation?
Scannapieco believed that there needs to be more long-term value. This is where affordability came into play. There are not a lot of protected spaces and on a city scale, we need to think about how we can help our cultural communities afford to live in the city. This could mean, for example, assisting artists with qualifying for a mortgage so that they have more incentive to stay. There must be support from all levels of the city’s ecosystem to make sure the Greater Philadelphia region is livable for those who have a hand in creating community.
Zimmerman added that what has begun to happen is that with the cost of living increasing and standard of living stagnated, there is this vicious cycle of locals moving away from the city to more affordable places while people from more affluent backgrounds are moving into the city, but are not contributing to the community here.
As a former city official in New York, Chakrabati recognized that this is an almost impossible problem to solve locally and stated that this cycle will continue until we have a different federal housing policy. Since the 1986 tax reform and Faircloth amendment in the 90s, it has been illegal for the federal government to build public housing of any kind, which in turn has brought us far behind every developed nation, including some third world countries, with providing public housing. He declared that these policies need to be a part of the equation of the transformation taking place in Washington D.C.
To close, we heard from Jessica Calter, Vice President, Marketing and Communications, PIDC, and member of the advisory board, who reiterated the importance of utilizing art and design to ensure our cities remain vibrant. Anchoring art within our daily lives is how we build and strengthen our communities’ character and identity. In order to spur revitalization in our neighborhoods, we must foster developments with a holistic approach that includes the cultural community from the start. We have to start thinking of art and design as not the seasoning, but the entree.