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Theater, farming, play could fill blank canvas of vacant Grand Center lot

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2013 - Like little pieces of opportunity, vacant lots dot the landscape of Rust Belt cities including St. Louis. Tuesday night, local residents glimpsed a trio of possibilities for filling one such three-dimensional blank canvas in Grand Center.

Finalists in the PXSTL project, a design-build competition of The Pulitzer Foundation of the Arts andWashington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, presented their ideas in a public event at The Pulitzer. A question-and-answer session was introduced by Fox School Dean Carmon Colangelo and Pulitzer director Kristina Van Dyke.

The finalists came from New York and California. And the name of the gathering, “charrette,” is an architectural term of French origin for discussing a project. But it was truly a St. Louis night, from the uncertain weather that moved the event inside to the free beer (Schlafly) that flowed along with the ideas.

Freecell Architecture of Brooklyn, San Francisco design collective Rebar, and Los Angeles artist Oscar Tuazon were chosen from among 60 applicants who sought to temporarily transform 3713 and 3719 Washington Blvd., across the street from the Pulitzer and just east of the Bruno David Gallery.

Tuazon’s proposal is for a minimalist, multi-purpose structure. By day, you could admire it as a work of art. Or sit on it and eat your lunch. At night, it would come to life as a performance venue.

“It’s really a very simple concrete-and-steel structure that has an elevated platform and a backdrop,” Tuazon told the Beacon. “When the lights go on, it’s a stage waiting for something to happen.”

‘Activated by people’

Tuazon’s work has been compared to that of sheet-metal sculpture done by Richard Serra and Donald Judd, whose colored works are on display at The Pulitzer through Jan. 4.

Tuazon's “People” sculptures in Brooklyn Bridge Park are a starting point for what he has in mind for the Grand Center lot. “People” includes a namesake piece that’s basically a tree, a concrete slab and basketball backboard and hoop.

“It’s incomplete until it’s activated by people,” Tuazon said. “It’s exciting to think about a structure that is constantly changing with the way it gets used.”

If selected as the PXSTL winner, Tuazon will look for local partners who will brainstorm ways of interacting with the renovated vacant lot.

“It could be a stage for musical performances or theater or any variety of different possibilities,” Tuazon said.

A hub for interaction

Freecell architects also envision the lot as bringing diverse activities and people to a shared spot, under a floating, gauzy tent. One of the space’s many intended uses -- agriculture -- might sound surprising.

But areas such as St. Louis are beginning to see a new breed of city-dwellers, residents who embrace both the pavement and the plow, according to Freecell’s Lauren Crahan.

“People are excited about living in places that have an urban infrastructure but also have a capacity for farming,” Crahan told the Beacon.

Crahan and business partner John Hartmann also see their site as a hub for community bicycle repair, filmmaking and children’s arts and crafts.

These activities could take place side by side, broadening participants’ interests. For example, a tomato-grower might learn to repair bike brakes.

The Freecell project would include elements of its New York City “moistSCAPE,” a 3-D steel matrix featuring living mosses.

It would also incorporate concepts inherent in “Lighthearted,” a fabric valentine whose Times Square display required the collaboration and interaction of a half-dozen people.

“You make eye contact with the group and you interact with one another,” Hartmann explained.

While Crahan and Hartmann lauded St. Louis institutions such as The Pulitzer, the Contemporary Art Museum and the St. Louis Art Museum, the City Museum is the one they feel most closely aligns with their ideas. In the spirit of late City Museum founder Bob Cassilly, but on a much, much smaller scale, St. Louis residents might incorporate elements of the PXSTL competition into their own neighborhood projects.

“Maybe there’s an empty lot next to their home and they could do a version of this, themselves,” Crahan said.


Design firm Rebar will work with social innovation strategist Liz Ogbu if selected for the project. Experimentation is a hallmark of Rebar designs, and the firm’s penchant for whimsy is apparent in prior work including a design in Denmark called “Urban Play.”

Made of repurposed sand and wood, “Urban Play” is designed to encourage running, jumping and tumbling among children, and even mischievous adults. A Rebar activity suggestion board for event guests produced a number of other playtime uses for the lot: dance parties, mini-golf, skate park, giant board games and camping.

Rebar partner Blane Merker told the Beacon that pieces of “Urban Play” can be found not only in ideas for the Washington Avenue lot but at the heart of the competition itself.

“This project is giving St. Louisans the opportunity to play in a very open-ended way that lets the city temporarily adapt the project site to the cultural programs, talents and activities already present in St. Louis,” Merker said.

The winner of the PXSTL (a name representing the Pulitzer, Sam Fox School, and St. Louis) competition will be announced Sept. 5. The chosen designer will work with a $50,000 budget and $10,000 honorarium to create the project, which will be open to the public in summer and fall 2014.