The Imbued Potential of Vacant Land

The Imbued Potential of Vacant Land

Vacant land is a looming problem for many cities, especially when it remains undeveloped for years or is transformed into garbage dumps and parking lots. But when designers begin to notice these voids within the activity of a city they are able to unlock the inherent potential in the land. That is precisely what “Not a Vacant Lot”, as part of DesignPhiladephia, did this October. Philadelphia’s 40,000 vacant lots are both a challenge and an opportunity for young designers, artists and architects to tranform these under-utilized spaces into experiences within the fabric of the urban environment. The focal point of the design intervention was at the University of the Arts lot on 313 S. Broad Street, just a few blocks from Philadelphia’s center. It featured a reinterpreted map of Philadelphia by PennDesign students and Marianne Bernstein’s Play House, an 8′x8′ aluminum cube which, in its simplicity, could unlock the potential of this particular lot. But this engagement of vacant land was just one such intervention in a series artist installations throughout Philadelphia. Another such intervention, GroundPaper, was designed by two collaborating artists, Mike Ski and KT Butterfield. The site of their choosing was along the banks of the Delaware River in Fishtown, a neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Read on to see what artists can accomplish with no budget, a vacant lot and an inspired idea.

The University of the Arts lot on Broad Street could not be categorized as any one particular public space. By virtue of Marianne Bernstein’s installation, the activity within the lot could transform based on how it was engaged. The Playhouse turned into a performance stage that became a four-sided, three-dimensional video that was a register of the transformation of other vacant lots throughout the city. The same site was occupied by 250-pvc tubes that were placed as a mapping of Philadelphia’s 40,000 vacant lots , represented as white, among its monuments, represented as blue. The effect is striking – with so many unused properties outnumbering the public and historic monuments that contribute to the culture of the city.

Courtesy of

DesignPhiladelphia gave artists the opportunity to acknowledge these vacant spaces and reintroduce them into the urban fabric.  There are many ways to approach this kind of problem.  In order to re-engage such a space there needs to be a draw – it needs to become a physical destination or a visually stimulating product that adds to the life of the city.  GroundPaper, by Mike Ski and KT Butterfield, took on the inherent characteristics of their chosen site.

Courtesy of Mike Ski and KT Butterfield

The project was three-fold. The banks of the Delaware River was once the commercial heart of Philadelphia, but as with most waterfronts, it was soon abandoned as other forms of transportation gained in popularity. The site as Ski and Butterfield discovered it was overgrown and littered with trash but had elements of the historic layering that interested the two artists. The first step was to clear the site of the debris to provide a fresh canvas upon which to work. Next, because of their mutual interest in the themes of layering and the building up of matter, “the goal was to create layers which followed the naturally occurring cracks and lines to convert them into bold graphics, creating stark contrasts against nature’s elements in order to draw attention to them”, as Ski writes. Nautical themes and historical waterfront imagery were used in the designs of the tactile textiles that covered the property.

Courtesy of Mike Ski and KT Butterfield

The final stage was to let nature do its work, and so Ski and Butterfield watched as the water crept back in onto the site and took over their design. The three stages reflect a subtle intervention that respects the site, its characteristics and the nature of its transformations. ”It was a reminder of how temporary our techniques and tactics of building can be and how our desires to live in contrast of nature can be futile”, writes Ski. This project was awarded the Artist Residency for MuraLab, a collaboration between the Mural Arts Program and BreadBoard. This pilot program explores the future of Muralism by pairing artists with cutting edge technologies and tools in hopes of engaging communities in new and creative ways. Watch the project unfold in the video below.

Courtesy of Mike Ski and KT Butterfield

Sources: DesignPhiladelphia Next American City “Playhouse” images courtesy of GroundPaper images and text courtesy of Mike Ski and KT Butterfield.

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Cite: Irina Vinnitskaya. "The Imbued Potential of Vacant Land" 04 Jan 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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