NORTH LAWNDALE — A West Side community garden will soon host a functional art installation that will merge a structure meant for people with the ecological environment surrounding it.
A pavilion, designed to be a haven for people, plants, animals and fungi, is expected to be completed Friday as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the largest international expo for contemporary design and architecture in North America. The project is known as The Living Room.
The installation is part of the ongoing development of a permaculture food forest at six formerly vacant lots at 1320 S. Pulaski Rd., owned and managed by the Chicago Christian Alternative Academy in North Lawndale. The sustainable food forest has vegetable plants, edible shrubs and fruit trees that grow apples, pears, persimmons and pawpaws so any member of the neighborhood can access fresh produce for free.
The food forest is a few years old and it will take at least seven years to fully establish the permaculture. The dozens of species of edible plants are naturally suited to thrive in Chicago’s climate, said Dr. Myra Sampson, the founding principal for the high school.
“It’s an attempt to help restore the earth as we restore ourselves,” Sampson said. “We are so used to trying to mold things to our environment and our needs, instead of letting the earth mold us and tell us what to do, what to plant there. That’s a part of permaculture that I just really love, that we’re not in control of everything, but we are a part of everything.”
Like the rest of the food forest, the pavilion is being designed to follow principles of permaculture — working with nature rather than against it. The structure is being created by Antonio Torres and Michael Loverich, founders of the Bittertang Farm architecture firm, to “play with permaculture processes so that they can also start to become part of the architecture of the pavilion,” Torres said.
The pavilion will include several 20-foot totems made from raw, natural materials, including untreated wood designed to naturally evolve over the lifespan of the installation. The materials also will allow students and residents to grow edible mushrooms on portions of the totems.
Birds and insects will be able to nest in the different layers of the structure, which are intended to “create a lot of different spaces for either people to hang out in, but also for animals to live in and inhabit,” Loverich said.
It will also include 8-foot-high baskets made from layers of woven willow branches, as well as live willow trees that will grow in and around the pavilion, giving it an “interconnectivity of all of these different elements to kind of create this self-sustaining ecosystem,” Loverich said.
“It becomes a scaffolding for people to interact differently with the nature around them. That was the thing that was really exciting for us architecturally,” Loverich said.
The Chicago Christian Alternative Academy hosts community education programs, such as beekeeping lessons and soil bio-nutrient classes at the food forest. Residents can also use the pavilion for their own purposes, like for performances and meetings.
“Our students need concrete things. Urban agriculture and ecology is just a way of teaching them to take care of the earth, how to be responsible, how to be in community with one another. And at the same time, to provide food and nourishment for the body,” Sampson said.
The events, programs and other ways residents will utilize the pavilion will also be an invitation for people to think differently about ecology, food and health, said David Brown, artistic director for the Chicago Architecture Biennial.
“Coming there for other activities, it encourages, inadvertently, the awareness of growing healthy food and healthy eating,” Brown said. “Those that aren’t necessarily interested in gardening, through the space… may discover gardening.”
The Living Room pavilion stays true to this year’s theme of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Brown said: The Available City. The projects in this year’s expo are meant to inspire people to radically reimagine the possibilities of what could exist in open and public spaces, especially on the thousands of vacant lots around the city.
Like the permaculture forests that are built to evolve alongside nature, this year’s featured architecture projects are meant to highlight “improvisational” designs that “kind of build over time,” Brown said.
“Urban design isn’t meant to be something that has direction from the start. The specific and particular aspects are not known until you really start to work with community organizations, and they can evolve over time,” Brown said.
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