Installation view of "Between States" at the Chicago Architecture Foundation Credit: Michael Courier

Garfield Park is a neighborhood filled with elevated train tracks, ornate residential facades, vacant lots, broken windows, and storefront churches, all of which sit adjacent to 170 acres of parkland. To some people, this underserved section of the city speaks to decades of civic and economic disinvestment. A more opportunistic and less altruistic observer might see neglected real estate assets that could bring new wealth to the area, albeit at the expense of its current residents.

The architecture firm CannonDesign saw Garfield Park as a place to be cultivated. As its contribution to the exhibit “Between States—50 Designers Transform Chicago’s Neighborhoods,” at the Chicago Architecture Foundation (where, full disclosure, I once worked), Cannon proposes to transform Garfield Park into a Planned Agricultural District. The city already has Planned Manufacturing Districts, geographical areas governed by zoning regulations implemented to protect manufacturing facilities and industry. Cannon’s plan would concentrate redevelopment efforts on food production by using rezoning to create viable farmland and spaces for food storage and transportation.

Cannon’s proposal is one of the most promising in “Between States,” in which some of Chicago’s largest firms have taken up the challenge to propose converting underused existing infrastructure into a community asset—to identify a pressing community need and provide a design-based means of addressing it. The exhibit, which includes 50 proposals—one for each city ward—was curated by architect Martin Felsen of UrbanLab, known for work in public interest design. Felsen believes the title “Between States” poses two questions: First, how can the physical state of these sites be transformed? Second, are there successful community-based projects or institutions that can serve as case studies for local redevelopment?

Each design solution is presented on a suspended board: one side displays the architectural rendering; on the opposite side, the architects post their locally relevant case studies. In the case of Cannon’s project, the team shows a rendering of Seoullo 7017, from Seoul, in which the firm MVRDV turned a decommissioned inner-city highway into a garden.

Cannon’s plan demonstrates an attempt to ground the exhibit in reality. The bulk of “Between States” functions more as a playground for design thinking than as a laboratory for solutions. Other proposals include Bridgeport­-based Future Firm’s plan to create an Office of the Public Architect. Like the Office of the Public Defender (the firm’s real-world model), the OPA would provide free service to those in need—in this case, people who hit bureaucratic snags (such as work-permit issues) or are renting a home with unsafe elements (like wobbly back porches or missing railings). Future Firm’s project envisions the OPA operating out of functioning U.S. post offices, utilizing unused or unoccupied service windows.

Less compelling is a proposal by Woodhouse Tinucci Architects for the Congress Theater—the shuttered Logan Square venue is already under renovation, and moribund movie palaces aren’t typically repurposed in innovative ways to begin with. The firm JGMA presents a plan for a “mural park” in the Pilsen-Little Village area, near the soon-to-be-constructed Paseo Trail—it seems less like a boon for the community than a white flag of surrender to the developers who are currently destroying Pilsen’s extraordinary murals.

Most of the proposals in “Between States” are infused with utopian idealism, yet the exhibit lacks a basic level of awareness that’s necessary in architecture and design—especially when the objective is to strengthen vulnerable communities. Instead of showcasing renderings of blithe people enjoying a new public amenity where there was once little more than an eyesore, a more interesting exhibition would allow audiences to learn how architects can work with communities to create mutually meaningful spaces. Cannon’s designs for Garfield Park show large swathes of green gardens, but don’t include the food-manufacturing facilities that would be required to make the proposal reality. In many ways, “Between States” reinforces how difficult it can be to make urban planning and architecture public processes; more often than not residents have little say in what their empty lots become.  v