The ReBuilding Life

This weekend, I found myself on the South Side of Chicago, dodging rain and doing a little construction for the Rebuild Foundation.  Saturday, I was up fairly early, digesting the headlines and trying to get in the laundry room before the rest of the building snapped up the machines.  After some breakfast and chores around the apartment, I loaded my tools into the 'rolla and wound my way to the highway.  The Dan Ryan Expressway is a miserable piece of urban engineering: it slices the city in half, and, despite seven lanes in each direction, was moving at less than twenty miles an hour on a Saturday.  During the week, it is a nightmare, beat to a standstill for about six hours a day.  As Kevin Costner once asserted, if you build it, they will come -- the worst scenario for a highway, as each expansion in lane width merely attracts more traffic and compounds the problem.

At any rate, after about forty-five minutes, I made it to the Chicago HQ of the Rebuild Foundation, started by Theaster Gates, artist, educator, and all-around renaissance man.  I couldn't figure out the gate to the place (typical), and I didn't have the phone number (also typical) of my contact there, Charlie Vinz.  So, in (typically) bewildered fashion, I wandered around the alley for a minute until Charlie appeared at the fence and let me in.  I felt an immediate, powerful sense of place -- the house was a sense memory of Greensboro, radiating the same scents, sights, and scenes as my old home.  It was deeply reminiscent of PieLab, built as it was out of old lumber and odd bits of imagination.

The Dorchester Street house of the Rebuild Foundation, with facade of salvaged wood.

I was there to help out Charlie in building a pavilion for Torkwase Dyson, an artist-in-residence at the Dorchester Street house.  The pavilion was be made of old wood and Tyvek, and Torkwase was planning to use it for a multimedia installation that she has been working on.  But, first things first, I got a tour of the place, which was pretty incredible.  Theaster, over the years, has collected a series of archives: the former University of Illinois Chicago fine art and architecture slide library; a massive amount of architecture and design books bought from the now-defunct Prairie Avenue Bookshop; and, in the smaller brick building next door, a huge amount of vintage vinyl.

Book and slide storage upstairs, with a piece of Theaster's artwork made from old fire hoses on the wall to the left.
Book storage downstairs.

One of the slide drawers.
After the tour, we looked at some sketches and mulled things over.  Charlie had designed a sort of "half-Quonset" structure, looking something like a letter "D".  We discussed dimensions, construction techniques, and Torkwase's goals, then got down to it.  It was  a bit of a chore getting the lumber out of the basement, as a new deck on the back of the house blocked off the former cellar door.  Each piece had to be negotiated through a series of tight turns, which was tricky given the length of some of them.  Once we got the stuff out the door, we started laying out the structure on a little patch of ground in the backyard.

Back of the Dorchester House, with sweet upcycled scrap deck and array of solar panels for Torkwase's project.  

Rough layout of D-frame.
Before we started on the walls, we needed a level base, so we set some string lines to get a level plane, then placed a flagstone on a pea-gravel base in each corner.  We scrounged up nearly enough 2" x 6"s to act as joists, and laminated together some deck boards to use as scrap joists when we ran out of lumber.  At that point, some pizza and wine were in order, and, after a nice meal on the back deck in the last of the day's sun, we slapped together the platform as the light faded.  In the nick of time, friend of Rebuild Foundation and all-round swell guy Ryan Wilson showed up to give us a hand.  

Unfortunately, rain cut us off from continuing today, but it was great to meet some folks doing deep, intensive, community-based design/build in an attempt generate positive, long-term change in an underserved community.  I hope to collaborate some more with them in the future, and learn as much as I can from them and their story.  Always glad to meet some fellow guerilla designers, scrappin' it out and livin' it up . . .