Like Darning the Elbows of Your Sweater: Mary Lou Arscott seeks an Engaged Design Practice

Interview by: Kellilaurel Mijares

Mary-Lou Arscott is known in Pittsburgh for her alternative architectural practice and active community engagement. Originally from the UK, she has developed a strong understanding of the landscape of her adopted city, encouraging incremental interventions that not only fit within the unique, irregular urban fabric, but also sustain connections between people and place.

Now Associate Department Head at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture, Arscott began her design career as a carpenter and educator, and later transitioned into more conventional architectural practice. In London, she served as a director for the cooperative practice Cullinan Studio and was a founding member of Knox Bhavan Architects.

Since then, Arscott has maintained her commitment to community-based cooperative initiatives. Her renovation of her own home in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood connects to the site’s rich history through a gentle reworking of the existing structure. One of her current projects, Latham St. Commons, which she initiated with Kristin Hughes, Professor in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design, and Nick Liadis, her partner at the Arscott + Liadis Collaborative, reimagines development in the city’s underserved neighborhoods. Over tea, Mary-Lou discusses her thoughts on neighborhood change and building sustainable communities in the face of gentrification.

KelliLaurel Mijares: You have curated and organized a number of arts and architecture events in Pittsburgh. Can you talk a bit about the project you’re currently working on, Latham St. Commons?

Mary-Lou Arscott: Latham St. Commons is a slow-moving community project, just squeaking by from one tiny little piece of funding to another. The plan for the moment is to transform a row of twenty-seven 10 x 19-foot garages into studios—little cellular honeycombs of potentialities for community initiatives. The project is testing the capacity for interest, need, and engagement of the people who live around the buildings. We’re trying to form combinations of different elements to make something which is symbiotic across different sectors, such as art, health, and wellness. We’re striving for this to also be part of an entrepreneurial education opportunity for the community.

Latham St. Commons. Photo: Rae Headrick.

plants in brown bags (some with pink flowers) are lined up in front of a chalkboard sign that advertises HPV vaccine, buying local, and unwinding

So, in this model, you’ve worked with the community to identify its most pressing needs and are now seeking to make an impact through small modular architectural solutions. What are some of the larger issues that you hope to explore on Latham Street?

Sustainable practice is an important part of the Latham St. Commons as well. For instance, we are collecting stormwater and storing it underground to alleviate the overloaded city stormwater system and sustain rooftop agriculture. We’re also experimenting with high-tech agriculture with LEDs and hydroponics, as well as small-scale open air growing. We hope to use the site as an example of practices that people can take home, such as growing upside-down tomatoes all the way around a building and putting rain barrels on their houses. We’ll be giving seedlings to people to go with rain barrels. This promotes greater awareness of what you eat, water dynamics in the city, what the city does with our water, and how climate works. While institutional responses to climate management are part of a larger system, the collective behavior of all of us as individuals matters.

How do you hope to contribute to a more connected community?

I think an important part of building a sustainable community is to see it through individuals rather than through built form. For instance, the ten-year-old who helped us last summer might be part of the building team in two summers, and then in another ten summers might come back with some kind of business idea and use one of the spaces to trial a productive unit. Another community member, a woman in her forties, came two summers ago to help with planting with her granddaughter, daughter, and mother. They began using the plants and herbs to cook and strengthen her mother’s health. There was something really significant in seeing the connection between four generations of amazing women and their take on new approaches to carrying out life’s rituals through this community project. It’s that long thread that I think is really important. It’s about building many points of contact over time, some of them significant, some of them just in passing. It doesn’t prove itself in a single version, you can only make sense of it through the ebbs and flows of community connectivity.

In a similar vein, tomorrow I’m going down to talk with a baker from Allegro Hearth Bakery in Squirrel Hill. We would like to partner with him on a bakery at Latham Street called Night Owl Bakers. The bakery would serve as an employment core for youth, an all-night bakery in a connected block of converted garages. The kitchen facilities could be rented out during the day to organizations that are trying to start food production, helping early-stage companies get established. It’s a stepping stone toward more sustained work in the neighborhood.

Also, Kristin Hughes, the guiding light of Latham St. Commons, is a designer and educator who constantly reimagines new forms of socially engaged practice and is an absolutely brilliant print designer. She is keen to be involved in the bakery’s packaging. Every business gets to consult with her for sustainable and beautifully made product packaging, which creates a kind of studio aspect for the operation. The packing part also provides additional work opportunities within the community.

Event at Latham St. Commons, 2016. Photo: Rae Headrick.

people gather outside a iron gate with tall plants - a brick house is in the background

You seem to be testing a community-based alternative to traditional capitalism.

The thinking is that there is a “pay-it-forward” system that contributes to and supports something in the future that hasn’t necessarily been identified. This helps create momentum for a movement to happen. Part of this system suggests that making a change to the monetary base is necessary to understand and value resources that aren’t necessarily or conventionally measurable. Exposing the resources of a place and recognizing how these resources can be more empowering than just their financial value allows us to construct meaningful community and cultural resources—things that are much more beneficial than money.

This is important in the face of pressures of economic changes which are making it more and more difficult for the locality to remain stable or secure. There’s a lot of gentrification happening in adjacent neighborhoods with big businesses creeping in, but there are also opportunities to play into various Pittsburgh markets in order to generate a kind of self-sufficiency. I think creating and testing an example like Latham Street is the most powerful way that new ideas can emerge.

Above: View from backyard, Arscott in her home studio, 2017. Photo: KelliLaurel Mijares.

a view from the Backyard of Srscott's house - there are two four-story buildings with porches and connecting stairways. Both buildings are brick with wooden stairs and railings, and they paint on them is peeling
interior of Arscott's house - she sits at a desk on a mac, surrounded by shelves of books. light comes in from a window to the right

You recently completed your own house in Polish Hill, another changing neighborhood in Pittsburgh. I know you dealt creatively with every part of the building process. What were some of the methods you’ve used in reworking existing structures and materials?

I was able to find ways to build sustainably with the help of Ernie Sota, a contractor who is interested in sustainable practice and willing to experiment. We stuck to my principles, which included buying as many materials as I could from Construction Junction, an organization in Pittsburgh that manages donations of surplus or demolished building material. There was a kind of a reclaimed principle to this house, like darning the elbows of your sweater.

We only removed what we couldn’t refashion. Before we began construction, I would spend my time walking all over the bricks on site, collecting every paving brick so that we could repave the ground and the steps up the back. Now I’ve got a wall of paving bricks that came out of the dumpster. People used to come by and ask for bricks. We’d open the gate and they’d fill up the back of their car and take them to their yard. This management of the dumpster was an essential part of the renovation.

Another one of my design priorities is that I dislike drywall with a vengeance. I wanted to do something that would give a completely different sense to the walls, so we devised this surface treatment, which is made of eighth-inch plywood, commonly used for carpet underlayment. It’s the cheapest material, pennies cheaper than plasterboard, and yet it better expresses the joints. The layers of plywood, separated by intentional gaps, make the surface something more elegant than just edges abutted to one another—it becomes a visible part of the interior, sort of like a piece of furniture.

Interior, Arscott’s home. Photo: KelliLaurel Mijares.

an aimge of Arscott's kitchen - there are bare, wooden walls where photos, a cutting board, and a wooden spoon hang. The backsplash for the counter area is a bright neon yellow

How does your home reflect the history of Polish Hill and how it has changed?

Well, these buildings were built for working class Irish and then Polish immigrants in the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds, who came to work in the nearby steel mills. However, in the 1950s many of the Polish families moved to the suburbs in an exodus that was in line with the waves of suburban flight of prosperous people across the US at the time.

Most houses in the neighborhood are compartmentalized because they were constructed for multiple families. In this house, the top floor would have housed one family on the left side, another family to the right, and maybe another family in the back as well. There were three front doors on every floor of the building, and the L-shape plan allowed for shared bathrooms inside or water closets in the backyard.

For a long time there were stores up and down the street, including butchers, grocers, and bakeries. It’s so weird to talk to our neighbor next door, who was the butcher of the road, and have him look down the street and say, “That used to be that hardware shop and that was the grocery store.” Now there is only one small grocery store which is often closed, a coffee shop for hipsters, and a few bars. It’s so different if you think of the ghosts of the lives that lived up and down these streets and in these buildings.

Interior, Arscott’s home. Photo: KelliLaurel Mijares.

rare wooden walls hold a framed photo of the united states. underneath is a full bookcase, and a table and set of orange chairs sit in front.

Since you’ve arrived here you’ve seen Polish Hill change, too, I imagine. What opportunities do you envision?

We’ve only been here about three years, but it’s changed a bit. There are buildings that are beginning to be repaired, and I’m really pleased. There’s some privilege in the low value moment we’re in—people who have lived here their whole lives can still afford to live here. It’s also nice to see people coming back. The shift to the suburbs created a discontinuity of family connectedness within the neighborhood. So it really needs new life.

We faced a common challenge with our house: how do you find enough money in the banking system that’s going to be tolerant of the situation? We didn’t have the capacity for a huge down payment, but we had a building that was needing a huge amount of resources to make it habitable and meet regulations. It’s because of these circumstances and the potential for negative equity that banks don’t fund such projects and instead buildings are neglected or taken over by larger developers with assured income.

While it’s great when these buildings are revived, I don’t want it to turn into a neighborhood like Lawrenceville with only high-end business and large-scale, corporate-driven developments. The large condominium model is so inappropriate for the very agate-like, irregular topography of Polish Hill. It’s not a gridded piece of the city. It’s all a bit at angles and the streets interlock in a fantastic geometric pattern. I would really love to see it have more incremental housing, like parts of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood where everything is cheek-by-jowl and some of it is quite tiny. It would be nice to feel like there was a capacity for small projects in the city as a way to unlock some of the limitations we faced when building our home. It requires banks and big money to invest in small-scale projects—it’s not easy to get them through.

Featured Image: Mary-Lou Arscott (second from right) with community members on site at the Latham St. Commons in Pittsburgh. Photo: Rae Headrick.

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