In 2005 the Syracuse University School of Architecture, under the new leadership of dean Mark Robbins, established UPSTATE, an interdisciplinary center focusing on design, research and real estate, with the goal of expanding the impact of architecture and planning in the post-industrial city.
Under the direction of associate professor of architecture Julia Czerniak since 2008, UPSTATE has pursued diverse projects and activities. It has partnered with regional non-profits and university centers to sponsor From the Ground Up, a multi-phase project focusing on innovative green residential design as a catalyst for neighborhood redevelopment; the project so far has comprised a competition, exhibition and symposium, and also the construction of the winning proposals. UPSTATE is participating in ongoing university-city collaborations including the Connective Corridor, an effort to revitalize the major avenues that link the campus with downtown, and the Near Westside Initiative, which is using various strategies, including the LEED Neighborhood Development guidelines, to reinvigorate an inner-city district.
UPSTATE has organized conferences, including UPSTATE: Downtown, UPSTATE: Public-Private and Formerly Urban: Projecting Rust Belt Futures, which explored the challenges facing Syracuse and other cities “whose character has devolved radically due to economic, demographic and physical change.” It has extended its programs via exhibitions such as Syracuse Builds: After the Masterplan and begun a publication series called New City Books, with From the Ground Up and Formerly Urban forthcoming this fall. And to pump up the volume of design debate on campus and in the city, the center hosts local mixers where developers, architects, city officials, faculty and students meet to discuss the future of the city.
As part of our series of profiles of university design centers, Places Journal editor Nancy Levinson talked recently with Julia Czerniak and UPSTATE assistant director Joe Sisko.
Nancy Levinson: How did UPSTATE get started?
Julia Czerniak: In the past few years Syracuse University has been pursuing a broad set of initiatives spurred by chancellor Nancy Cantor’s vision of “scholarship in action.” Earlier the university had more or less co-existed, rather than cooperated, with the city. You could see this relationship even in the local geography: The school was a couple of miles from downtown, up on a hill, removed from the political and civic center of the city. This made for the kind of separate academic space which supported the production of disciplinary knowledge, but which called into question how the university could best prepare students to take on local and global challenges.
So UPSTATE was created by architecture dean Mark Robbins in response to the institutional goal of creating a framework for sustained collaboration with the community and the city — in our case a post-industrial city in upstate New York that’s been grappling with a shrinking population, eroding tax base, crumbling infrastructure, underfunded schools, cash-strapped services. The challenges aren’t new — they’re the challenges of cities all across the rust belt — but they’re real, and they’re intensifying.
NL: How was the city responding to these challenges? What structures were in place when you started?
Joe Sisko: Syracuse doesn’t have an independent urban planning department. Planning has instead been a function of other department like economic development or engineering. Lately it’s part of sustainability.
NL: What are your chief goals?
JC: No matter the particular project, we work to address both environmental and economic challenges, and to assert the potential for more activist practices — to show that designers can have expertise and prestige within the discipline and also function as advocates in the practical world of city politics and public budgets. And always, our goal is to promote innovative design and development and make the case that good design matters. Which requires constant vigilance!
In a brief for our project “Catalyzing Shrinking Neighborhoods,” Mark Robbins and I stress the importance of design innovation in revitalizing the postindustrial city. 1 We argue that activating urban life in shrinking cities will mean developing design strategies that achieve more with less. This will mean the reuse of older urban areas with less expansion of costly infrastructure and more development of smaller, intensive and cost-effective projects that can help generate future development. These kinds of projects are fundamentally opportunistic; they’re modeled on the asset-based approach of social service projects, which sees existing conditions as resources to be mined. And of course, the impact of such modest interventions will be more readily apparent in a city the size of Syracuse.
JS: A good example is From the Ground Up, the competition we held a couple of years ago. Here our goal was to encourage the design and development of affordable residential options for the city’s Near Westside, which had been losing population for years; we sought to demonstrate the value-added factor of design and offer a new vision for an inner-city neighborhood.
Many Places readers will be familiar with the competition. The challenge was to design prototypes for cost-efficient and green single-family houses of 1,100- to 1500-square-feet. In response we received more than 50 entries. We selected seven finalists to develop detailed proposals that included construction estimates, and we named three winners. To spur public discussion, we held a symposium in Syracuse and an exhibition at the Van Alen Institute in New York and here in Syracuse. We then asked the winning teams to develop their proposals into real projects.
In fact, right from the start the goal of the competition — in which we partnered with local non-profits, including Home Headquarters, the Central New York Community Foundation and the Community Preservation Corporation — was not only to inspire new design thinking but also to get the projects built. To that end the challenge included a budget and schedule: it stipulated that the houses could cost no more than $150,000 and that winners would have four months to take the design from schematics to construction documents.
NL: That’s ambitious! For the most part, competitions organized by architecture schools result in visually rich publications but not bricks and mortar — or in this case, SIPs and solar panels.
JC: It’s been a rewarding process — though not always easy. And here again, the local partnerships were crucial to getting the houses built. So was community discussion. In fact, during the selection process, there was a lively public debate about the look of the houses, and how they would fit amid the older residential architecture of the Near Westside. And to be sure, the houses — R-House, by ARO and Della Valle Bernheimer; Live Work Home, by Cook + Fox; and TED, by Onion Flats— didn’t look all that traditional.
JS: But ultimately people in the neighborhood responded positively. The TED House, for instance, was bought by a young couple who had lived in apartments most of their adult lives. They thought that their dream house would be a fixer-upper with clapboard siding and a gable roof. But there was something about the TED House that attracted them — I had the sense that they surprised themselves by how much they liked it.
JC: And in the end style isn’t really the main issue. It’s easy to categorize the winning designs as elitist; that’s an old story. But this misses the larger point, which is the value of providing well built, inexpensive and efficient houses for a community that’s been underserved by the architecture profession — the value of underscoring that good design shouldn’t be affordable only to the affluent.
JS: Nor should green design. ARO and Delle Valle Bernheimer designed R-House to meet the Passivhaus standards — basically, a house you can heat with a blow dryer. But all the houses use various technologies and systems — active and passive solar, daylighting, super insulation, stormwater recycling, etc — and this past fall all received LEED certification.
JC: From the Ground Up exemplifies not just our commitment to the city but also our effort to hybridize environmental and civic agendas. This runs through almost everything we do, which in addition to the residential work includes projects at the urban scale. For instance, we’ve participated in the Connective Corridor, a long-range city-campus project that uses landscape planning and design strategies to revitalize the streets that connect the university and its many resources — again, up on the hill — with the city’s downtown and its major civic institutions, including the Everson Museum of Art, the Erie Canal Museum, the convention and performing arts centers, and so on.
This is truly city-scale work, and it involves a partnership among the university and city as well as local business and institutional leaders. The goal is to redevelop and reactivate a mile and a half of major streets via diverse strategies and programs, including transit options such as bikeways, a free shuttle bus and pedestrian paths; new and enhanced lighting and benches; coordinated graphics and digital technology; green spaces; traffic calming; and seasonal programs, like cafés, to activate the public spaces along the length of the corridor.
Currently we are beginning work on a series of installations we call “info-spots,” which are meant to activate the corridor with new information technologies, bringing a level of interactive design and innovation to key moments along the corridor.
JS: Another urban-scale project is the Near Westside Neighborhood Plan. Like the Connective Corridor, it’s a broad-based partnership that aims to renew an historic neighborhood west of downtown — a section of town that’s suffered from a half century of disinvestment and yet enjoys proximity to a revitalizing downtown. UPSTATE developed a neighborhood plan — which is not intended to be a fixed master plan but instead a responsive framework for change — for what neighborhood leaders have dubbed the SALT District, with “SALT” standing for “Syracuse Arts, Literacy, Technology.”
We see this as a great opportunity to test the idea that art and culture can reinvigorate a community and an urban economy, and we approached the neighborhood plan incrementally, trying to provide civic program in ways that capitalize on work likely to get funded, such as providing storm-water infrastructure.
NL: Julia, you became director of UPSTATE several years ago, in the last year of the Bush administration and before the economic crash, and this year you’ll step down as director. Now it’s another election year, and despite efforts by the Obama administration, we haven’t made significant headway, as a nation, in developing an urban agenda. Cities and states are struggling more than ever with declining budgets, resorting to measures like removing streetlights, on the one hand, to abolishing redevelopment agencies, on the other. Given the political and economic context, what do you think are the chief challenges for UPSTATE in the next few years?
JC: The chief challenge is to remain optimistic despite the obstacles, the delays and the funding shortages. There’s a lot of positive thinking and forward momentum here, but enabling change requires extraordinary patience. We will continue to do what we can do well — to advocate for good design, facilitate projects and discussions, bridge funding sources and vision, innovate territory for our disciplines.