Kids play on a playground in Braddock, PA.

In North Braddock, Residents are Reviving a Forgotten Playground

Al Borde is a collective of young architects based in Quito, Ecuador, where they have found innovative ways of building shared spaces for underserved communities in both urban and rural settings. In Spanish, the name Al Borde means “at the edge,” which reflects the ethos of the group’s practice. Known for grafting new concepts onto existing architectural structures, working on projects with limited budgets, and recruiting the community to help, the collective has been praised for its populist approach to architectural design. It’s what inspired Raymund Ryan, curator of architecture at Carnegie Museum of Art, to include Al Borde in the exhibition Building Optimism: Public Space in South America, which investigates ways that emerging architects and designers instigate change through design in public space.

As an extension of the exhibition, Al Borde is also working in the neighborhood of North Braddock, just outside of Pittsburgh, helping with an ongoing project called Recycle Park—a once-vibrant playground that residents have been rehabilitating with reusable materials in recent years. Working closely with community groups in the neighborhood—including Braddock Tiles, Gardweeno, North Braddock Borough, North Braddock Cares, Project RE_, and Recycle Park Friends—Al Borde have proposed a set of interventions in Recycle Park. Al Borde’s suggestions include a set of terraces made from recycled bricks (the material common to many neighborhood houses), a playful structure of netlike canopies, and the use of tiles designed by local schoolchildren. On April 25, 2016, we spoke with Al Borde’s Malu Borja in the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art. Included below is an excerpt of that conversation.

Matthew Newton: So how did you become involved with the Recycle Park project?

Malu Borja: We became involved when the Heinz Architectural Center began planning this exhibition about public space in South America. Al Borde’s work focuses on community involvement. We believe that public space is very interesting and we wondered if we could do a project in the Pittsburgh region. It was difficult to start, at the beginning, since we are not based here. We thought the best way is to support an existing project and people already working in the place. Our role is to basically support the existing process.

MN: What were your impressions of the kids’ ideas for the park?

MB: The idea of the workshops is to use drawing, conversation, spending time in the park to understand how the kids feel and to see how they interact with one another. When they say “we’d like a pool,” maybe it’s because they like water, as in the summer it’s very hot. It is not necessarily a pool—it could be something that splashes water sometime. Our idea is to see what lies behind the object. What are the real needs of the kids? Maybe it’s more complicated than simply a pool or a swing. Yesterday some kid told me: we want swings, because then you can fly…we want big swings to fly as high as possible. That’s very nice, because it opens a lot more possibilities.

MN: What was the reaction of the kids to being asked to reuse materials from the community?

MB: Very positive. They have already talked about these things with the people from the Braddock Carnegie Library and [local artist collective] Transformazium. So it’s not an imposed idea or some new idea. For example, people have already painted the wall where you enter the park and there are a few benches and swings made from recycled material. It’s one of the strategies they already have in mind for the park.

MN: Is there a particular story that a kid told you that helped you realize the importance of the park?

MB: It’s interesting to see that the kids don’t use the park much. The park used to be a really nice place with a playground and so on. But now there’s not much there. The kids have been telling me it would be nice to have swings, or places for sliding and climbing. It’s recurrent in their comments.

Three photos, all showing members of the community and Al Borde having a discussion about public parks.
Clockwise from top: 1. Marialuisa “Malu” Borja, a principal in the Ecuadorian architecture firm Al Borde, talks with neighborhood youth during a Recycle Park planning session held at Braddock Carnegie Library on April 21, 2016. 2. A young woman suggests that lights would be a welcome addition to the park, improving safety. 3. “I used to run around that park with my friends and chill,” said Devon Washington, a 15-year-old resident of North Braddock. “But then they took out the swings and there was nothing left to play on.” (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

Tom Fisher: Can you talk about the importance of making the park-planning activities themselves a fun, playful thing?

MB: For the first meeting we had to figure out what kinds of games or activities to do. Such activities depend on the group you interact with. With adults you can have very long talks, which are sometimes pretty intense. But the kids distract very easily. So we thought of activities that are fun as the kids like playing and we can catch their attention this way.

TF: What are some of the ideas the kids came up with?

MB: We gave them ropes to draw their ideas in the physical space of the park. The zip line is interesting because they used the old wooden structure and connected it with a tree that is already there. Others proposed making swings also using this wooden structure, like a tree house with different levels and different places for kids of different ages. They also have the idea of a pool in the middle to use the water. It was a big universe of ideas there in the park!

MN: How can your firm’s past experience working on parks be applied to this experience?

MB: We have experience with public spaces in Ecuador. The methodology of asking the people what they want is more or less the strategy we need for making designs. But it’s never the same, because it’s never the same community. And that’s why I need a lot of information, many people to talk to; and that’s why it’s very important to work with people who have already gone through such processes here in the neighborhood. As foreigners, it takes time to understand all the dynamics.

TF: What can you say about our community and the groups of people who are fixing this park together? Have you enjoyed working with them?

MB: Yeah, of course. One of our goals is to figure out who plays which role, because we are working with very different actors in this project. So it’s like trying to define phases of the project and to understand who is best for doing which activity—even ourselves: what is our role here? But it has been very nice. It’s new for me and I like it—another country with another language. It’s been quite an experience. It’s important to approach each project as a new opportunity, and to understand the tools, the resources and the people. We try to put our subjectivity, perhaps even our knowledge, to one side before we understand the conditions in each case.

Three photos (clockwise): in the top one, Malu Borja discusses Al Borde's initiatives with local children. In the right and left photos, kids play in the park and sit on the metal merry-go-round.
Clockwise from top: 1. Malu Borja talks with neighborhood kids from North Braddock as Transformazium's Dana Bishop-Root looks on. At a brainstorming session, kids were asked to envision the playground that Ecuadorian architecture firm Al Borde will help build. 2. A young boy demonstrates his idea for a zip line. Malu Borja from Al Borde gave neon string to the children to help them visualize their play concepts. 3. Neighborhood kids talk and play on the merry-go-round at Recycle Park. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

MN: Does working within a tight budget for projects inform your creativity?

MB: Working with the resources you have at hand helps a lot. Knowing the materials, the resources, the people, the place: you get a more real idea of the things you have to work with. Here with Recycle Park, we try to identify the resources at hand. They have a lot of bricks, because of the houses they’ve had to tear down. So it seems like a way to get things done, to recycle the bricks we have at hand. People are already familiar with the material, they know how to work with brick, and that facilitates the building process.

TF: Are the drawings the kids’ contributed going to directly influence the final designs?

MB: We don’t know yet. Every decision we make we have to share with the rest of the group. There is already a project for tiles there in the neighborhood, with the kids and the youth—they are going to do some designs and put them on the wall.

MN: Why did you and your colleagues start Al Borde?

MB: It was a very natural process. Pasquale and David started doing some projects together back in 2007; and then in 2010 Esteban and I joined them. We never had an idea of making an office as such. The interesting thing is that we ask ourselves all the time how the office is looking like, how we feel in this office, and this is very close to our way of living: we cannot separate one with the other. So we have all these activities, like cooking or planting our vegetables or building that are very close—part of the dynamic of the studio—we make time for these activities during working hours.

TF: How does the Recycle Park project relate to the idea of Building Optimism?

MB: The first reason for me doing architecture is to support processes that the community itself is pushing. These are very valuable in society. It’s so hard to get a group of people organized, to talk and make projects, yet in such ways we feel like our practice has meaning. So, I think there is an optimism. It’s very nice to live in a place like this, to share with people who are very interested in their environment, in the neighborhoods and who are doing things like this. If you want to change things, you have to start with changing your own environment in the ways you are able to.

TF: Do you think something as small as a park can make an entire community more optimistic about where they live?

MB: I think so. A small park can be the result of people talking and trying to figure out what to do with their own community. When that happens, when you find people trying to do things, you have to give it all the support. That’s a very important issue in any city and any country.

The exhibition Building Optimism: Public Space in South America is on view in the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art from September 10, 2016 to February 13, 2017.