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Dynamic Tension: A Design Approach to an Art Community in Birmingham, Alabama Open Access

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Geographically, historically, and socioeconomically, Birmingham, Alabama is a study in dichotomies. The story begins with the land. It tracks the dueling forces between cultural process and industrial progress that resulted in a divided community with a waffling sense of identity. And it ends with a city on the brink of economic promise unsure of how to navigate the landscape of modern day singularity.Historically speaking, Birmingham, Alabama is also a publicity nightmare. And, so, it is the exploration and recommendation of this paper that Birmingham stops trying to “say” what it wants to be and rather “shows” what it wants to be. The best way for Birmingham to do this is through a medium that promotes diversity of people and unity of ideas; abstraction of meaning and articulation of identity; and reconciliation between emotional feelings and historical events. The best way for Birmingham to do this is through a medium like art. And even more specifically, the best way for Birmingham to do this is through an artist community that supports artists and artistic expression.Despite an active creative industry, there are very few artist-in-residence programs in the South, and, in fact, none in the state of Alabama. Likewise, existing artist residency programs are largely located in rural, picturesque settings with a focus on retreat, nature and the serene. Although this approach is one way to nurture artistic development, there are few programs offered for artists who’s creative approach requires a louder, more discursive method that is better supported by urban environments. Certain urban environments emit a dynamic tension that provides artists with an irritation that challenges their ideas and pushes them to the next level. This tension can be a white noise, an extremely uncomfortable place, but as the nature of duality suggests, perhaps also place of exploding productivity.Three different typologies provide insight into existing design applications for the conceptual and schematic manifestations of physical and social tension, healing and unity. One addresses previously constructed artist communities, their program structures, building facilities, and community involvement. Each of these programs provide compelling examples of best practices for supporting the artistic needs of residents while also developing powerful connections to the greater community. Another typology addresses experience-oriented architecture implemented in buildings that commemorate violent histories. These buildings, located in Berlin and Pretoria, South Africa, acknowledge the divisive, ugly side of human nature and seek to provide visitors with a tension-filled, uncomfortable experience to fully pay homage to their respective tension-filled, uncomfortable events in history. And the third typology concentrates on buildings that schematically and conceptually represents collision, tension and unity. While these buildings are not steeped in controversial subject matters, each wonderfully seeks to promote collaboration and unity in unique ways. Finally, to round out and better explain how tension, collaboration and unity play a part in social interaction and creative endeavors, it is also important to explore the dominating psychological explanations ranging from the social identity approach to the source of the Beatle’s power.The different artistic methods human’s have used to portray and explain duplicitous tension and industrial injustices give insight and precedence for the design implementation of an artist community in Birmingham. Unlike most artist communities in the country, a Birmingham artist community needs to embody the existing tension in the community, rather than hiding it, so as to encourage open and honest dialogue between community members. This thesis proposes a design solution that implements adaptive reuse of an industrial park to include design methodology that brings artists and community members together while harnessing their frictional energy. Utilizing the very geographical and socioeconomic factors that physically divide the community, this project aims to redirect that tension into a more positive, but still explosive, creative environment.

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