Canopy Tactics


Courtesy Freecell Architecture

Swathes of vacant land populate St. Louis, but by next spring, one such empty lot in the city’s Grand Center cultural district will be occupied by a new dynamic structure that will serve as a gathering space for performances and public programming. Today, the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University announced that they have selected Brooklyn-based collaborative, Freecell Architecture, as the winner of their urban design competition, PXSTL.

“They presented an idea that could really transform your understanding of that space and the larger neighborhood—and at any time of day,” said Kristina Van Dyke, the director of the Pulitzer Foundation. “The space requires something very monumental to give it some structure and a presence. And what they proposed was both monumental and ephemeral at the same time.”


Launched this past March, the competition invited artists, designers, and architects to submit ideas for activating a vacant lot across the street from the foundation. Three finalists were selected from a pool of 60 applicants earlier this summer, including Freecell Architecture, artist Oscar Tuazon, and San Francisco–based interdisciplinary design studio Rebar.

For the panel—made up of members from Sam Fox and the Pulitzer Foundation—Freecell’s proposal accomplished what the competition set out to do: to effectively use tactical urbanism to revamp a barren site. The temporary structure engages the local community while also remaining harmonious with the foundation’s contemplative concrete building designed by Tadao Ando.

“They most-utilized the site in terms of lighting and architectural structure, especially in response to the Tadao Ando building across the way,” said Carmon Colangelo, dean of the Sam Fox School. “This [Freecell’s structure] being light and flexible in comparison but still very architectonic.”


The structure proposed by Freecell consists of a platform topped by a canopy made of semi-translucent fabric shaped into adjustable funnels that can be arranged above or below the frame according to programmatic demands. The space will serve as a center for a variety of programming from dance to bike repair initiatives for kids. Lit up at night, the construction will also emerge as a visual landmark and “beacon” within the Grand Center landscape.

“In St. Louis, we were struck by the surprising polarity of the urban scape. There are zones and areas that were really de-populated post-war. We went in there and began to meet with these community organizations that were re-stitching and re-fortifying the people to move into the city,” said John Hartmann, creative director at Freecell. “We knew we needed to draw from a diverse radius of people to activate the lot.”


Hartmann and Lauren Crahan, the principal and founder of the winning architecture collaborative, are no strangers to the efficacy of spontaneous urbanism. They recently participated in the design of the exhibition, Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good, which earned a Special Mention from the Golden Lion jury at the Venice Biennial.

“As architects, it was important for us to see how people interact and inhabit it. Anything could be existing beneath the canopy but we knew that the canopy had to be activated by particular user groups,” said Crahan.

The next step is figuring out the logistics and execution of the installation as well as solidifying programming. The project is planned to open to the public in early summer of 2014 for a six-month period.

“There will be a lot of intense discussion with community partners about what they want,” said Hartmann. “We don’t want it to be just representative of a good cause, we want it to be good proper action to activate the space in a real way.”

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