Ivan Valin/Tim Bragan


DuSable Center for Urban Art and Ecological Remediation

This project is based on the assertion that creating another conventional monument-park along Chicago's lakeshore in the hopes of making a significant, immediate, and lasting contribution to the ethnic landscape of the city is flawed. Healing the ethnic and socioeconomic fracturing that has long been a problem in Chicago demands a culturally diverse, inclusive, process-driven approach rather than a static monument. Although Chicago's civic spaces along the lakeshore have long been regarded as places where diverse citizens come together, their ability to significantly improve ethnic division within the city is questionable. The reality of the city's geographically-defined ethnic divide, which manifests itself in the disparity between lakeshore parks in the north and south regions of the city and their patterns of use, points to the fact that a new kind of civic space is needed. Ethnic division is not Chicago’s only problem--the ecology of the Great Lakes region has long suffered from the pollutants of an industrial economy. More recently, suburban sprawl and has only added to ecological problems in local watersheds, increased air pollution and roads, and drawn interests and efforts away from urban centers that once fostered communities. Our culture's ubiquitous exploitation of the land ultimately reconstitutes it as a minority that is as pervasive as it is forgotten.

Chicago's industrial past left many sites throughout the city contaminated by toxic byproducts -- rendering them useless as natural habitat and too dangerous for human inhabitation. These "brownfield" sites, comprising a number of conditions ranging from abandoned millworks to the built-up edges of rivers and canals, demand to be rehabilitated. Scattered throughout the city, these sites constitute an opportunity not only to reclaim sites that have been compromised, but also to make a statement about our fundamental responsibility to the land on a scale that can help to heal the city's fractured socioeconomic landscape. Working at the level of the community, the process of brownfield remediation, if structured in a way that includes local efforts and addresses local concerns, might re-center communities as it heals the environment. Given its prominent location at the mouth of the Chicago River (treading the line between ethnically distinct zones of the city and embedded in the string of civic spaces that line the city's lakeshore) the DuSable site demands a program that will address these issues in monumental and practical terms -- both as a working paradigm of how to approach similar sites and as a catalyst for the process itself. In that regard, the Center for Urban Art and Ecological Remediation attempts to create a place where Chicago's diverse citizenry can work together to make a contribution to the social and environmental landscapes of the city and in doing so learn respect for the environment and each other.

The marriage of artistic and ecological components is an important aspect of the project. Not only does it exemplify and reinforce the notion of juxtaposing diversity in order to foster a community of inclusion, it also provides an opportunity for the center to connect to people on a variety of levels. By including an artistic agenda, remediation sites throughout the city become community projects that address both social and environmental issues. This site in particular will function as an ongoing remediation project as well as civic, pedagogical, and monumental space. The site is broadly divided into three main components: a builtscape of housing, labs, studios, exhibition spaces, and connections into the city; experimental remediation and exhibition fields including a pond/marsh that naturally treats runoff; and a monumental mound of untended earth that rises above the nearby highway. The builtscape and fields are layered with structural connection points and access paths to encourage temporary and spontaneous inhabitation and installations. Thus, through its unique composition and program, the site challenges the conventional relationship between visitor and park.

In keeping with the broad notions of inclusion and participation, the entire site will be open to the public. A grid of connective paths encourages visitors or passers-by on the nearby bike path to explore the experimental fields or examine the vegetative succession reinstating itself on the mound. In addition, a large hoist and associated walkway connects all three zones allowing art installations, temporary shelters, plant matter, and other materials to be moved and created across the site or loaded onto boats and carried to remote sites. While coincidental visits from the public are an important part of the Center, the program is driven mainly by the lab/studios where ecologists, artists, students, and community members work together on installation or remediation projects sited throughout the city. Thus the center would actively engage the public by encouraging local school groups to visit, maintaining an artists or scientists in residence program, allowing students from nearby universities to use the facilities for research, and encouraging volunteers to work on the site on weekends or evenings.

While the builtscape and experimental fields address more practical aspects of the Center, the mound functions in a monumental capacity, reminding us of the intrinsic value of the land and emphasizing the importance of recognizing it on its own terms. In its infancy, the mound will resemble a pile of industrial material, symbolizing the prosperity and subsequent environmental damage experienced by the Great Lakes Region over the last century. Given this potential interpretation, the mound’s presence will force citizens to rethink the ecological and aesthetic consequences of our consumer culture. Over time, the process of succession (the omnipresent force of vegetation reasserting itself that will eventually culminate in a mature forest) will demonstrate the latent regenerative potential of undisturbed land. As a monument, this process of healing will become symbolic not only of the reclamation of Chicago’s environment, but also the healing of its fractured socioeconomic and ethnic landscapes.

Ivan Valin/Tim Bragan
Charlottesville VA