August 08, 2009

Green Architecture: Building for the People?

In response to my recent post “This land wasn’t made for you and me”, my fellow columnist, Anuradha Vikram asked me for examples of humanizing green building projects to compare to my critique of both the San Francisco’s Federal Building’s “public” plaza and the houses built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation (MIR) in New Orleans that I wrote about back in June. Over the past couple of days I’ve been trying hard to think of green building projects in the Bay Area that incorporate a functional shared public space.  Due to my lack of expertise in architecture, I’d like to open up Anu’s comment as a question for others to respond to:  What are good examples of humanizing green building projects in the Bay Area?

In contrast to building projects previously discussed, I’d like to briefly mention The Heidelberg Project started by Tyree Guyton in Detroit, Michigan. Back in 1986, East Detroit struggled to recover from the aftermath of the Detroit riots and faced a depleted economy and racially segregated neighborhoods. Guyton, a resident of Heidelberg Street since the age of 12, began cleaning up his increasingly abandoned and blighted neighborhood with an enclave of children who lived nearby. With the materials they gathered from the vacated residences and lots, Guyton and the neighborhood kids collaborated to create art environments and installations in the vacant lots, on street posts, and the facades of homes. The city of Detroit resisted, of course, demolishing a portion of the project in 1991 and then again in 1999.  However, The Heidelberg Project persisted and now operates as a non-profit arts organization, hosting a series of year round workshops and educational programs for schools and youth in the area.

Heidelberg, Detroit

The Heidelberg Project, installation of discarded vaccuum cleaners in a vacant lot on Heidelberg Street, Detroit, Michigan

Clearly, the context of The Heidelberg Project and the public plaza of the San Francisco Federal Building or MIR differ greatly and the comparison is a stretch, at best. However, I mention The Heidelberg Project as a way to push the possibilities of our collective spaces and as an example of a community-driven public art project that not only functions in the context of an urban neighborhood facing poverty and disenfranchisement, but employs the creative reuse of material and space—a thread that runs through many of my recent blog postings.

On that note, I look forward to hearing from Open Space readers about green building projects and public spaces in the Bay Area.

Heidelberg, Detroit

The Heidelberg Project, decorated home on Heidelberg Street, Detroit, Michigan

Comments (8)

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  • Julian Myers says:

    I did provide, in post 1, three architecture/design-related projects connected to Detroit that might respond to Anu’s question (as much as I understand it – I don’t fully grasp the “humanizing” bit, but as you note I care about word choice).

    Kyong Park/International Center for Urban Ecology

    Detroit Collaborative Design Center, at the University of Detroit Mercy

    Shrinking Cities

  • The Heidelberg Project is not an answer to Anu’s question. It is not even in the Bay Area. As I have already mentioned, I included the project as a sort of aside to generate thoughts around the use of space. The title of the blog posting was about Anu’s question and not the Heidelberg Project.

    Perhaps including The Heidelberg Project in the same post as the request for answers to Anu’s question was too confusing.

    My post was a brief acknowledgment of something that I thought would be interesting to our readers. Regardless as to the specific successes or failures of the Heidelberg Project I think it can, at least conceptually or abstractly, inspire some thoughts about what our capabilities are as residents of a city responding to the needs of our neighborhood. I know it did for me.

    Clearly you are knowledgable on this topic. Maybe you can share more about your experience of The Heidelberg Project. I am particularly interested in the response from the local community. It would be great if our discussion here can move from particularities of word choices and what I got wrong, to that direction and perhaps, even a response or two about Anu’s initial question.

  • Julian Myers says:

    My argument with your post wasn’t that it was summary, but that in getting several details not quite right (Guyton’s name, the nature of his inspiring efforts, the history of the project and the particular character of its community engagement) you misrepresent aspects of the project.

    To answer your parenthetical, your title implies that the Heidelberg is a potential example of “Green Architecture.” Since Guyton, alongside the “enclave of children” (I don’t see this on their site; it’s a funny phrase, as “enclave” (“a distinct social unit in foreign territory”) seems to imply they live on their own – indeed they have parents…), is responsible for this “building,” your post seems to put him forward as “builder” and yes, “architect.”

    My point was to say it isn’t an architectural project, exactly, and it isn’t “green” in any unproblematic way. Anu’s question was, “Are there any good examples of humanizing green building that you can point to for comparison?” Even leaving aside her tricky adjective “humanizing,” it is not clear that the Heidelberg can serve as an answer.

  • Adrienne Skye Roberts says:


    Thank you for notifying me of the misspelling of Guyton’s name.

    As I said, I mentioned The Heidelberg Project as a way of furthering the ideas of community driven art projects that respond to urban spaces, as I have been discussing recently in several posts and as I acknowledged it is “a stretch, at best.” Clearly, Guyton is an artist, not an architect (did I say he was an architect?) and the function and context of the project differs greatly from the Federal Building. It was mentioned, as I said, to spark some ideas around the larger issues of how public, urban space can function. Obviously the Heidelberg Project deserves a lengthier and more nuanced description, however in an effort to keep the conversation centered around the question that Anu raised and the Bay Area, I kept it brief, hoping it would relate to the broader context.

    And you have The Heidelberg Project website to thank for the “dargeresque” image.

  • Julian Myers says:

    Another clarification: when you say, “The city of Detroit resisted, of course…” it makes them sound like the wicked anti-art anti-communitarian bastards acting from above – which is how they are portrayed in The Heidelberg’s narrative. But the story is maybe more complex than this. The community as a whole did not then univocally support Guyton’s practice: Resistance came equally from the community, who were not universally behind Guyton’s appropriations of space or junk aesthetics. This has changed somewhat in recent years, of course, as Guyton’s star rises and not least as the neighborhood slowly depopulates and abandoned houses are cleared. But it’s more nuanced than “the city of Detroit resisted…”

  • Julian Myers says:

    Sorry BTW for the slightly fragmentary nature of the above – I’m about to board a plane.

  • Julian Myers says:

    A missive from Detroit…Well, Adrienne, you say it’s a stretch and indeed it is. Let me correct a few errors: it’s not “Gayton” but “Guyton”; the “enclave of children” you mention – lovely Dargeresque image there – appears for the most part later in the story, when the Project reformats itself from Merzbau to nonprofit (with the help and collaboration of Jennene Whitfield, Tyree’s partner and the nonprofit’s voice and other principal). It will do Guyton no disservice to say that he is an artist rather than an architect, and so the problems faced by Mayne et al. in the Federal Building simply aren’t faced here. Tyree doesn’t design these buildings but decorate and decollage on top of existing structures. I also wonder about the question of use, which you bring up in your earlier post. Some of these buildings are inhabited, but many are not. So it’s apples and oranges I think. The Heidelberg, which requires for its culture of reuse, the massive environmental havoc of post-urban Detroit, has many virtues; being “green” in any way I understand it, is not exactly one of them.

    Detroit is a hub for this kind of thinking and activity. Detroit Collaborative Design Center at Detroit Mercy, Kyong Park, Shrinking Cities and others, do pursue in various ways the kinds of ideas you discuss above.

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