To most of us, the 135-acre swath of mostly abandoned land in Southwest Philadelphia is the sort of urban blight we try to avoid seeing—or thinking about—too closely. Situated in the poverty-dense neighborhood of Eastwick, the land is environmentally messy; it’s near the airport, I-95, the industrial strip of 291 and the Heinz National Refuge; much of it is vacant because of houses demolished in 1957 and never rebuilt. It is like a neighborhood cut off, abruptly.
To Danielle DiLeo Kim and Sylvia Palms, of Locus Partners, it is a swath of land with exactly the challenges—architectural and otherwise—that drives them. DiLeo, an architect, and Palms, a landscape architect, are in the midst of preparing a bid to be the designers chosen by the Redevelopment Authority to refurbish the 135 acre property. But already, they have spent hours touring and photographing Eastwick, researching its long history, and meeting with some residents, whom Kim describes as “excited and cautious and angry and hopeful and demanding.” They are a small firm, just four people, up against big players; they offer 20 years of experience, and (often unlike larger firms) the full attention of its most senior people—Kim and Palms. But they stand out in another way too: They design to build communities, not just buildings.
“Our whole approach is to not decide on our own what we think the critical issues are in a place,” Palms says. “We want the community to tell us what’s really needed, and respond to that. It is about inclusivity—not just serving our own interests, but broader community interests.”
To the designers, Bridesburg’s old industrial past was like archaeology—fascinating relics of a vibrant history. To the residents, they were an ugly mess left behind from what used to be. It was a reminder, to Kim and Palms, of why asking the right questions of the right people matters.
The notion of architecture as a force for public good goes back as far as architecture; and the most prestigious architecture programs often have a socially-conscious focus, teaching their students that design can be used to better a community. But in practice, most graduates these days go on to work at firms that do the traditional types of architecture—houses, office buildings, malls—for private clients. Those companies grow their portfolios—and their profits—on the commercial work; they may also have a nonprofit arm, siphoning 5 or 10 percent of their profit for pro bono work.
Locus Partners does not design residential or office buildings, and nor is it a nonprofit. Most of its clients are community development corporations, schools, churches, city or state agencies, including: Beacon Church in West Kensington; South of South Neighborhood Association; and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, for whom they designed a garden walk on Broad Street just north of City Hall. Three years in, they are profitable, if not exactly getting rich. “We haven’t figured out if there’s a way to maintain a traditional design practice and still focus the work from a community-oriented perspective,” Kim admits. “We’re trying to straddle those two worlds.”
Locus focuses on projects that combine the two disciplines of its founders. DiLeo followed an architecture undergraduate degree at Virginia Tech with a job at the locally-based national firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (known now for designing Apple stores). She then went to Harvard for a masters in urban design, before returning to Philly, where she was a consultant to the city. Palms studied social psychology at William and Mary, and got a masters in landscape architecture from Penn. She later helped create a garden community at Penn Alexander School, an early foray into melding the needs of differing parties. They met three years ago on a Community Design Collaborative project and recognized a kindred spirit they invoke in their company name: Locus, Latin for place; Partners, meaning them and the community in which they work.
Their biggest project to date speaks to this ethos. Last year, Locus was hired by the Delaware River City Corporation to concept a riverfront park for 10 acres of brownfield land in Bridesburg, a former industrial pocket of Northeast Philadelphia surrounded by the river, I-95, and the curve of Route 90 as it heads towards the Betsy Ross Bridge. That forgotten part of the river will be a link on the North Delaware Riverfront Trail; as such, Locus was tasked with designing a park that would appeal to outsiders and also meet the needs of the community.
As part of their process, Locus held three well-attended public meetings with Bridesburg residents. What they learned changed their work. Evidence of Bridesburg’s old industrial past is everywhere in the neighborhood—shards of rusting metal, ramps, the residue of concrete and asphalt dumping that creates a swirl at the river’s edge. To Kim and Palms, it was like archaeology—fascinating relics of a vibrant history. To the residents, they were an ugly mess left behind from what used to be. It was a reminder, to Kim and Palms, of why asking the right questions of the right people matters. “We listened,” says Palms. Rather than celebrate the industrial remnants, the finished design—with greenery, an event pavilion, and a riverfront boardwalk—downplays those pieces.
As much as possible, Locus identifies community stewards who can best represent the neighborhood’s needs—what Kim calls “engagement from within”; they open their discussions with a broad call for ideas, dreams even; and they step in with their expertise when communities are flummoxed, or clients limited. “As designers, we don’t want to come in with all these ideas from our Center City office,” Kim says. “We want them to tell us. Sometimes they don’t know what they want, and that’s okay, but we push for real community involvement with every client.”
There is a growing sense that architecture as a force for public good is the future. The Pritzker Prize for Architecture this year went to Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, for what he calls “participatory design,” which he has described as starting with problems from pollution to segregation. “Then you contribute with design to try to offer a possibility,” he says.
This is not design for design’s sake, for splash and beauty alone—though beauty, certainly, is a universal good. It’s design with a conscience, as an “expression of values,” as another architect, Norman Foster, once put it. And there may be, in the world of architecture, a growing sense that this is the future. The Pritzker Prize for Architecture this year went to Alejandro Aravena, a Chilean architect known for what he calls “participatory design,” which he has described as starting with “problems that every single citizen understands; I mean insecurity in the city, pollution, segregation, congestion, the kind of things where your daily life is affected. Then you contribute with design to try to offer a possibility.”
This impulse also drives Locus Partners, whose philosophy reflects who they are, as people—community-focused. It’s the same philosophy that led them to launch Philly Girls Do Good at the same time they started Locus: To bring together a community of diverse women who are working to make Philly a better city through community development, social and environmental justice, and design. It is a natural extension of the work that Locus does, a passion project that the architects see as designing something greater than a building. “If we didn’t have Locus, we could do this full time,” says Palms.
Starting in 2014, PGDG has selected an annual cohort of women nominated from different fields who gather several times a year for networking and conversations about improving urban life—like one in June about planning and development featuring Emily Bittenbender, the city’s only female construction company owner, and Bok Building developer Lindsey Scannapieco. Past classes have included MilkCrate’s Morgan Berman; architect Kiki Bolender; and Jane Golden—women across the spectrum of generation and field. (“Jane doesn’t need to be in the group,” Kim notes, “but it’s a benefit to other members to get to know her.”) PGDG will announce the 2017 class in November.
PGDG and Locus are intertwined by mission and philosophy: The women in the room are potential clients for Locus, and they reinforce its underlying—even simple—notion, as Kim puts it: “Design can be a means of doing social good.”Header photo courtesy of Locus Partners