Just Places? CRP Field Trip Investigates Creative Place-Making
Students in Assistant Professor Jennifer Minner's spring seminar class gained a new appreciation of how creative practices can impact the preservation and adaptation of communities with a field trip to Buffalo, New York, that included a tour of Assembly House 150, a repurposed church that houses an innovative building arts training program.
The class, titled Just Places? Community Preservation, Art, and Equity, reflects Minner's interest in creative place-making. "I want students to think about all of the important and interesting issues around community preservation and the role of art, and also equitable planning," says Minner. "How do artistic practices and arts organizations shape, interpret, and help us remember a city's past?"
She cites the Society for the Advancement of Construction Related Art (SACRA), run by the Assembly House organization, established and directed by Dennis Maher (B.Arch. '99) in a converted church, as a prime example of this collaboration between creativity and community preservation. SACRA offers a 15-week training initiative focused on the building arts that serves members of under-resourced communities in Buffalo. It was developed in collaboration with the Innovation Lab of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, with a project-based curriculum that teaches skills in carpentry and woodworking while incorporating design arts.
Participants are trained to make windows, cabinets, porches, and other amenities that contribute to preserving historic homes and other historic buildings throughout the city. They are prepared for careers in construction-related fields through hands-on instruction, workshops by specialists, visits to significant architectural landmarks, exposure to career paths through field trips and presentations by invited guests, and job readiness coaching and job placement services.
"Visiting Assembly House gives you a sense of time," Minner says. "What other place in the country has an arts-based training program like this? It has implications for preservationists and urban planners who are thinking about community economic development. It gives students a sense of time and place, and how art contributes to that. And planners who are thinking about community economic development can learn from that."
Central features of Assembly House were designed by architecture's Associate Professor John Zissovici and Ethan Davis (M.Arch. '18), in collaboration with Maher. That included the creation of two "buildings within the building," establishing a new crossing within the transept of the church. The two tower-like structures were assembled from prefabricated structural insulated panels and designed to receive augmentations and enhancements by future Assembly House collaborators, including SACRA participants, university students, and other collaborators. The interiors of the towers provide environments for a building arts library and a presentation space. Daniel Salomon (B.Arch. '12) provided construction assistance for the project and served as lead instructor for the SACRA program in 2018, supervising and facilitating the build-out of the towers by the first class of the SACRA program.
Minner adds, "There's a lot that preservationists and planners can learn from artists, and vice versa." That includes examining the relationship between creative practices and an expanded view of community preservation. "It's about preserving the communities that are in place — the existing physical environment and the social environment, creating healthy partnerships and connections between historic preservation, artists, and community development organizations."
Minner first learned of Maher's creative endeavors in 2013 through an article in the New York Times. At the time she was living and studying in Austin, Texas. She rediscovered his artwork when she began teaching at Cornell and his sculpture, Common Cosmos: 287 F-14853, was featured in the Sibley Dome. In 2017, Maher's Fargo House was included on a field trip for Minner's Equity Preservation workshop. In that class, students mapped community-based preservation and building reuse efforts in Buffalo.
Today, says Minner, many people have lost touch with the beautiful, creative ways of maintaining and preserving objects in the built environment — of preserving place. "We have all these changing technologies, and ways of producing the built environment, and too often we don't think about how to take care of that environment," she says. "What I love about SACRA is that it shows how the arts and craft can be integral to taking care of a built environment, which is continually evolving. It takes creative imagination to address the issues involved with sustaining communities."
By Jay Wrolstad