The Making of Paths to Pier 42: An Interview with Leroy Street Studio-round 2

Leroy Street Studio (LSS) is one of four commissioned artist groups in 2015 who, in collaboration with project partners, advisory committee, volunteers and most importantly, local feedback and support, is transforming Pier 42 into a vibrant accessible waterfront park for the community.

In 2013, Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) interviewed Kate Bedford, architectural designer at Leroy Street Studio (LSS), about the firm’s experience as a Paths to Pier 42 site adviser during the project’s first year. Now with Paths to Pier 42 in its third year, HSC had the opportunity to talk to Bedford again – this time about the firm’s work as an artist group. Building on two years of past work as site advisers, the LSS team created Water’s Edge Canopy, a space that captures the power of the park’s waterfront. This spring, conversations and meetings with local community organizations revealed a shared interest in creating an outdoor learning and gathering space near the water’s edge. Workshops at the Pier with Henry Street Settlement’s GED Class at the Boys and Girls Republic explored specific uses and how the sun, sound, wind and views can play a part in the design.

PartnerHenry Street Settlement

Leroy Street Studio

Leroy Street Studio, July 2014. Photo courtesy of Scott Frances.

What was your firm’s approach to the Paths to Pier 42 project? How is the project connected to past projects and the values that motivate your firm?

This year as an artist group at Pier 42, we focused a lot of our effort on community engagement. We spent the spring speaking with different community groups to see what they were interested in. This led our programming and even some of our creative direction. Of course we had some curiosities of our own, but the process of building relationships with local groups broadened those curiosities. In the end, we were able to find an overlap between the interests of the community groups we worked with and our own that we were excited to explore.

What issues on site most interested you? What strategies did you use to maximize time, space, materials and community participation?

Along with the huge need for shade at the site, we were interested in exploring the edge at which park meets the water. In our firm, we talk a lot about how structural form can become architectural and spatially thought-provoking. Through our explorations in community build workshops, we identified that the Pier 42 site has a certain character to it – industrial and raw. We thought it would be practical to source everything from the local hardware store. The challenge then was finding a way to use readily available building supplies in a unique way, to create a tall structure that was architecturally interesting (the higher in the air the better, both visually and for creating shade). After testing out a series of iterations with rebar, fence posts and pipe clamps, we found a solution for the Water’s Edge Canopy.

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Water’s Edge Canopy at the Summer Launch Celebration, July 2015.

How did the various components of your project (workshops, installation) develop?

Through a series of conversations at the beginning of the project, we built a relationship with BGR/Henry Street Settlement, and arranged for a preliminary workshop with their GED class and Instructor Arleyah Morris. We wanted them to help us see what they saw, how they envisioned themselves and the community using a space by the water. Ms. Morris was interested in science and math related topics for the students, so in the first workshop we talked about the sun’s path and how this affects shade patterns, environmental sound and masking unwanted noise, and microclimates. Later, when the students explored these issues through model-building, they took those things into account.

How did this year’s work build upon the work the firm has done for Paths to Pier 42 in the past?

In our studio, we talk a lot about Paths to Pier 42 as a testing ground for engaging communities in the development of parks and public spaces. Having had the opportunity to work on this project for three consecutive years has allowed us to explore a number of different things: the tunnel helped us experiment with circulation patterns, the shade structure the idea of an iconic space and beacon visible from afar. We also explored ways of turning less desirable elements of the site, such as the frequent high winds, into an asset: the shade structure’s flags moved freely in the wind to make a soothing sound and mask the noise of the adjacent freeway.

This final year, we chose to place our emphasis on the edge where the park meets the river below as an area we felt was underutilized. We wanted to discover how the community could best use a space near the water.

Leroy Street Studio was the master site adviser in the past, how has that role changed and evolved this year as an artist group?

This year as an artist group, I think we’ve seen firsthand how community engagement can deeply inform architectural design. Success with involving the community in a planning and design process is no easy task, though we have developed many important tools with HSC. It doesn’t follow any prescribed formula. Rather, it is a relationship where each step is a unique consideration – it keeps you on your toes!

We also strove this year to involve our studio more as a collective, and similar patterns surfaced. 15 of us would sit in a room, and sketch ideas on napkins for 10 minutes – then we talked about them all together. There were a lot of different ideas, and we had to work our way through the design process, reacting to each new consideration until we found something that responded well to the multitude of needs and opportunities.

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Enjoying the water’s edge in moveable concrete chairs, August 2015.

What did you learn working with the Henry Street Settlement’s GED class that you incorporated in the final design process?

The class was really great to work with and had a powerful impact on the design. The students were very open and willing to share their ideas. In our workshops, they talked a lot about how they saw themselves using a space by the water: relaxing and reading a book in the shade while enjoying the sound and smell of the water, or watching kids play in the park from the chairs under the canopy. We also discussed how other community groups would use a space like this, such as the Youth Poetry group at Grand Street Settlement, or those participating in a LES Ecology Center workshop. It was surprising — in conversations in our studio we have often focused on the need for shade in the park because we’re always thinking of the hot, midday summer sun. But we had our workshops with the GED class in the spring, when everyone was tired of winter and eager to soak up a little sunshine. We were surprised to hear the students talk about wanting to have the choice to be in the shade or sun; one student even had an idea for a retractable canopy that would allow you to choose, shade or sun. In the end, we designed the chairs under the canopy with oversized rope pulls, so that they could be moved into sunny or shady places. They can also be turned to enjoy the view of the East River, or reversed to keep an eye on kids playing in the park.

Can you talk a little bit about the design process and the influence of community input for the final design?

All of the elements of our design process – the ideas from the GED class, our studio charrettes with napkin sketches and models, and our full size test mockups at the Pier worked to inform each other and influence the final design. The GED students created some fantastic scale models in our third workshop. One of the students, Sam, made a series of large vertical flags in her model that created shade for an outdoor classroom right at the edge of the park. We really liked the idea of a series of repeated elements, and also how a flag-like structure could show movement from the wind.  We constantly referred back to all of the program data and design directives collected through the workshops. We think it is critical to express the input of multiple hands together in a unified space.

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Scale models by the Spring 2015 GED students, BGR/Henry Street Settlement

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Scale models by the Spring 2015 GED students, BGR/Henry Street Settlement

How did the site strategy evolve over time? In what ways did advisory committee meetings, planning meetings with artists and community build days contribute to the final site strategy?

The site strategy was certainly an evolution. Each year with dlandstudio as a design partner, we were able to add more groundwork. By the third year, it was just a matter of the artists’ installations nesting into the framework we had built with support from the Parks Department, Build-it-Green and all the volunteer help over the past two years.

In our first workshop with the GED class this year, we conducted an experiment to illustrate the sun’s path. One person held an umbrella over their head, while another traced their shadow. A couple hours later, we returned to the same place, with the same ‘umbrella holders,’ and traced one more time, to see how the sun’s movement affected the size and location of the shadow. We tested how the shadow changed if the umbrella was held at different heights and angles.

I think this was an illustration that we enjoyed as much as the GED class did. We often do these types of studies with digital models in the office. It was a unique experience to be able to study this on site, and directly visualize how the shape of our canopy and the shade it made would be affected by the sun’s path. It also directly engaged the students in the process of design, which informed their subsequent design explorations and made a major impact on the final built space.

I think one of my favorite community build moments happened in our first year. There is a running track with park benches behind Sara D. Roosevelt Park that is frequently filled with kids and adults out exercising, playing games, and socializing. It is also where our studio often goes to eat lunch. That first year, we used the open field at the track to spread out recycled vinyl billboards and cut them down, in preparation for making the hundreds of flags to hang on the shade structure that year. The kids out playing while we were there were all so interested in what we were doing, and one by one, jumped in to help. By the time we were finished, we probably had 20 volunteers helping us fold and cut, and a great opportunity to spread the word about the park!

Is there a favorite moment or anecdote from the project that you’d like to share?

The raising of the tall steel ‘fronds’ as we call them, turned out to be quite thrilling moments. We would assemble each of them on the ground, prepare all the connections, and then gather everyone together to help raise them into place. They were very heavy and unwieldy because they were so tall; we even developed specialized ‘tools’ (imagine a 15’ long fork!) to help lift them into place. By the end, the process was so well orchestrated, almost like a performance by itself.

That being said, in our opinion, the best moment is yet to come – this fall the GED students are going to use the space they helped build for their classes (weather permitting, of course).

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“Making of Paths to Pier 42″ is a series of interviews with the artists and designers behind the creation of the Pier 42 park.

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