The Creative Underground
Here’s the challenge: You are given your choice of vacant lots in downtown Cincinnati and told to create something that will help revitalize the city. What do you do?
In 2012 I teamed up with two of my classmates, Justin Kaden and Jennifer Huang, to participate in the FiveDesign Challenge and answer exactly that question. We had had 5 weeks to find a problem and design a solution for it. This was even trickier because none of us were familiar with Cincinnati.
First we had to frame the problem. What makes a center of a city lively? People, of course. You need to get people living, working, and playing downtown. This means there needs to be something interesting for them to do there, and it has to be something unique, that you won’t find in exactly the same flavor in exactly the same place. If you are going to make an investment, then it ought to also be something that will bring in money, either directly or by spurring surrounding development. Even better if you can brag about it. We wanted something that was repeatable – a prototype that could be used over and over to spread the success and respond to systemic issues. We were also looking at this in the perspective of the Great Recession. Cities tend to pin themselves to one or two major employers, and if those collapse or decide to move… there goes the economy. We agreed with Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class and saw the solution in not just people, but in artists and entrepreneurs specifically. A network of smaller companies and individuals is far more resilient – and far more interesting – than one large company.
The vacant lot we chose as a prototype for the Creative Underground was on Race Street, and happens to be one of several throughout the city that link with another underused and nearly-forgotten space, the Cincinnati subway, which was mostly constructed but never completed. The lot happens to be adjacent to the largest station and across from an arts school.
The vacant lot on Race Street becomes the first of a series of media parks located outside the subway stations. They are like any other urban park, creating lively spaces and improving city life with open space for the surrounding neighborhoods. A part of each is dedicated to display or performance: amphitheaters for performances, video projections onto walls, etc. They also have ways to get people involved in the spontaneous creation or adaptation of their environment. Parks are connected by soundless video screens, windows on another part of the city (much like the Telectroscope art installation in New York and London in 2008), or sound boxes, like a municipal soup can telephone. Twitter walls near station entrances display messages with certain hashtags, letting people comment and see what others (who may not even be present) are thinking – a digital community bulletin board.
The subway tunnels themselves get filled along their entire length with a ribbon of rentable creative spaces like sound and film studios, darkrooms, workshops, computer labs, and any other type of space an artist could use, all in a variety of sizes for either one person or a small group of people working together. The tunnels are accessed through the stations themselves, which hold community spaces like break rooms, galleries, and gathering areas. They are practical locations for the administrative and collaborative centers of the Creative Underground. We imagined it as the type of place members of a group like hitRECord, an “open collaborative production company,” would love.
We hoped to highlight what was going on underground along the length of the subway line through street interventions. Even though a pedestrian would not know exactly what was underneath them, the creations would be displayed aboveground in ways sometimes obvious, sometimes surprising. Blank walls become projection screens. Old payphone banks play music. Projects could be displayed on billboards throughout the region. The Creative Underground would also have an online presence, either through a dedicated website or existing ones, which would allow Cincinnati artists to collaborate with others across the globe.
By providing space for idea workers, artists, and designers, Cincinnati’s creative and entrepreneurial spirit would be unleashed. The new collaboration areas would form a web of small-scale support for the city economy. The Creative Underground would be a unique attraction for both city residents and visitors, transforming Cincinnati into a creative magnet and a destination.
Although our project did not win the competition, it placed in the top 16. We also published it in KTISMAjournal, the University of Oregon’s student-run architectural journal.