Building architecture, building community

Sam Fox School’s CityStudioSTL completes inaugural projects; Oct. 19 lecture by Theaster Gates Jr.

Built in 1906, Patrick Henry Academy is an historic elementary school located in St. Louis’ Columbus Square neighborhood, within view of the Gateway Arch and the Edward Jones Dome.

But returning for the start of fall classes, students and teachers found a sight that, for downtown residents, is perhaps even more unusual: a thriving urban garden, complete with corn, peppers and tomato plants.

Over the summer, architecture students and faculty from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis completed work on “Learning Landscapes,” a 10,000-square-foot outdoor classroom situated on what had been a cracking asphalt lot.

“This all grew out of a student design-build project,” says Forrest Fulton, visiting assistant professor of architecture, who led the class of 16. “Students met with the principal, looked at case studies, worked on design proposals and then developed the master plan.

“The idea was to create a flexible green space with distinct spaces for learning, discussion and active play.”

Divided into three sections, the completed landscape features rolling earthen mounds covered in native grasses and linked by pathways of European-style crushed limestone. A series of raised planting beds overflow with herbs, eggplants and other crops. The dedicated seating area boasts rough-hewn limestone benches and a raised wooden walkway that doubles as a low stage.

“Students often imagine that an artist or architect is someone who has a vision and then others just figure it out,” Fulton says. “But it’s not really like that. It’s about solving problems. It’s about addressing technical issues and working with partners and managing available resources.

“In many ways, ‘Learning Landscape’ became an exercise in recruiting and facilitating help from the broader St. Louis construction industry,” Fulton says.

He notes that students raised more than $60,000 in donated goods and services. For example, a portion of the grading was done by McLaren Grading and Excavation, while Clayco, a St. Louis construction company, provided a large cash grant. Other donations included pavers, topsoil and trees. Jim Fetterman, a lecturer in landscape architecture, provided critical advice and industry contacts.

“This kind of project becomes an anchor,” Fulton says. “It allows people from around St. Louis to re-engage with their community.”



“Learning Landscape” is the first project completed under the auspices of CityStudioSTL, a new program that, over the next five years, will offer community engagement and outreach projects throughout the St. Louis area.

Co-sponsored by the Sam Fox School and the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies — with additional support from Gina and Bill Wischmeyer — CityStudioSTL builds on a long tradition of community-focused architectural classes and projects.

For example, Carl Safe, professor emeritus of architecture, has directed design-build studios in the University City Loop, Heman Park, Grand Center and elsewhere. Gay Lorberbaum, senior lecturer in architecture, has led a series of architecture workshops for K-12 students, including a mentoring program at Patrick Henry. Last spring and summer, a digital fabrication studio led by Ken Tracy, visiting assistant professor of architecture, designed and constructed Plasti(k) Pavilion, a collaboration with architect Marc Fornes, in Botanical Heights.

“This kind of work has been going on at the Sam Fox School for a long time,” says Bruce Lindsey, dean of architecture and E. Desmond Lee Professor for Community Collaboration.

“CityStudioSTL is meant to gather these sorts of projects under an umbrella that can provide both support and a conceptual foundation,” Lindsey says. “The idea is to create a space within the curriculum that allows things to happen that might not happen otherwise.”

Stan Strembicki

Students at work in Hyde Park, as part of the CityStudioSTL project “Somethingness: Ways of Seeing and Building,” led by visiting artist Theaster Gates, Jr.


In addition to “Learning Landscapes,” this past summer CityStudioSTL sponsored a second project, titled “Somethingness: Ways of Seeing and Building.”

Offered in partnership with the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, the intensive three-week design-build course was led by Theaster Gates Jr., a visiting artist whose social-based practice combines art, urban planning and community activism.

As founder of Rebuild Foundation, Gates has spent much of the last year in St. Louis’ Hyde Park neighborhood, working to transform a dilapidated mixed-use building into a small art center for students at nearby Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church and School.

Despite the course’s three-week timeframe, “It was really important to us all that we try to create something that was high-impact,” Gates says. “So we took the back part of the building, which was in pretty bad shape, and made that the focus of our CityStudio project.”

Working with Gates, master builder John Preus, and Belinda Lee, the Sam Fox School’s coordinator of special undergraduate programs, the class of 12 undergraduate and graduate students — representing art, architecture, social work and other disciplines — began by interviewing Trinity students and other local residents. They then developed a series of design proposals and, ultimately, constructed a small amphitheater in the rear of the property.

“Most of the first week was spent shoring up the building,” says Lee, noting that much of the work was completed with recycled materials. Students also replaced a large section of wall with a garage-style door, thus allowing the building’s interior to be opened to the outside.

“This project was all about community service,” Lee says. “We wanted to make changes that would have lasting affects.”

Gates, who also serves as director of arts and public life for the University of Chicago, will speak about “Somethingess” and his practice for the Sam Fox School’s Public Lecture Series at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 19. The talk is free and open to the public and takes place in Steinberg Hall Auditorium. For more information, visit

What the place can become

Next spring, CityStudioSTL — and Fulton — will return to Columbus Square in order to continue building on the relationships established by “Learning Landscapes.”

CityStudioSTL projects, “should occur organically, through understanding, engaging and organizing within the neighborhood,” Fulton says. Some projects may be conceived, designed and completed within the course of a single semester. Others may require work over the longer term.

In either case, Fulton says, “We will listen to what residents, officials, experts and planners have to tell us about the place, and about what the place can become.”