University of Pennsylvania

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA


Exploring the Architecture of the Carnival in West Philly

By Weitzman
Feb 8, '21 3:17 PM EST

Each spring, first-year graduate architecture students are introduced to the themes of the ARCH 502 design studio through the Schenk-Woodman Competition. The studio always focuses on a timely spatial challenge in Philadelphia, says Associate Professor of Architecture Annette Fierro, who coordinates the various sections. This year, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, focused attention on West Philadelphia’s 52nd Street Corridor. The corridor has long been the commercial and cultural heart of Black life in the area, and it was the scene, last June, of protests, looting, and violent reprisals by police. For the studio, students will focus on the 52nd Street SEPTA El station on the Market-Frankford line. And for a theme, they’ll focus on the phenomenon of the carnival. 

“An instrument of temporary liberation, the carnival offers a rich conceptual testing ground for the deep questioning and radical refusal of the status quo, a rehearsal of utopia,” reads the competition prompt, written by Eduardo Rega Calvo, one of the studio lecturers. 

Sixteen teams of students spent the last week and a half in January designing carnival floats for a 52nd Street celebration of Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of American slaves on June 19, 1865. Each team designed a float, created both a manual of assembly and a manual of use, and selected a site for the float to be permanently installed after the celebration. They were instructed to design the floats in partnership with, or on behalf of, one of several local neighborhood organizations, though because of the tight time constraints of the competition, they didn’t actually communicate with the groups. Entries were judged by Kordae Henry (MArch, MLA ‘15), a filmmaker, artist, and visual studies faculty member at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles, and Felicia Harris-Williams, an activist and member of the Philadelphia Juneteenth Parade & Festival Committee. As announced last week, the two winning teams received $9,000 each, and honorable mentions received $1,000 each. 

For the remainder of the studio, Fierro’s students will focus on developing a market for the 52nd Street El station, incorporating the carnival theme. The Schenk-Woodman Competition was a chance for students to dive into the themes immediately, she says. 

“[The market] has always had a component of social condenser, but it’s also a celebration stage, if you think about the way Reading Terminal functions, or the Italian market or any kind of classic marketplace around the world,” Fierro says. “There’s a different  function than just shopping. So it’s a way of getting the students to really understand the community, because there’s a kind of transparency with what is bought and sold and what the community is, how the community interacts with itself.”

Image: The Beautiful Color of Blackness, a winning entry designed by Group N, “is inspired by the vivid and radiant presence found in West Philadelphia,” according to the group. “Using the painted murals of West Philadelphia as source material, the proposed project literally reflects the skin of the neighborhood.” It is envisioned, after the parade, as a permanent installation in Malcolm X Park. The group selected the Philadelphia Coalition for Real Justice as a partner. Students: Lachelle Weathers, Joseph Depre, Mo Zihua, and Jingxiao Zhou.