Get to Know the Folks who Activated Union Station - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Get to Know the Folks who Activated Union Station

Activate Union Station, MPC's 2013 Placemaking Contest that ran Aug. 24 through Sept. 2 at Chicago's Union Station, proved an exciting and engaging event for everyone who passed through—and paused—to stop and enjoy it. Here, we hear from the forces behind the two projects, Blah Blah Blob!'s Katherine Darnstadt and trainYARD's Graham Grilli.

Katherine in front of the Blah Blah Blob!

Project: Blah Blah Blob!
Location: Plaza of Fifth Third Center
Designers: Latent Design and Kent State University

Name: Katherine Darnstadt
Occupation: Architect

How long have you lived in Chicago?
Over a decade, around 12 years.

What was your first job?
Secretary for a lawyer and a telemarketer in the same summer. One of those people you never want to talk to.

What was your dream job when you were a kid?
I think writer or librarian, by my mom claims I wanted to be an architect all along.

What are you reading now, or who is a your go-to author?
The Economist. Or anything by Paul Virilio.

What's your favorite season and seasonal activity?
Winter! I’m a cold-weather person. I love tumbling through the snow, making snow angels.

What color have you been most inspired by?
Blue and purple, anything royal or regal. They have a way of calming things down and creating balance. Even in the Blob!

What is your greatest source of inspiration?
My students at the School of the Art Institute and Northwestern. I love getting to teach, even when it’s not about architecture directly.

Do you have a material that has been an inspiration in your design?
I’d love to work more with papers and compressed paper products. There’s great potential for layers , carving and creating mass. Paper is so abundant, there must be a way to incorporate our use and reuse of it in our designs more.

What are 3 verbs you would use in association with your project for Activate Union Station?
Juxtapose. Instigate. Welcome.

What was your favorite memory from Activate Union Station?
Unintended conversations with individuals during set-up and tear-down. You really got to interact with human nature directly. It was interesting to see the strength of routines and habits that people have in places and spaces. Conversations ranged from “Where is this train…?” to “What is art? And why are there corporate sponsors?”

What advice would you give to other people who want to activate spaces but don’t know where to start?
Start by making and doing. We are the experts of our places and spaces. Small-scale activation is enough to get the conversation started and have people engage. We often put a lot of emphasis on the leader, but it is the first follower that makes an idea a movement, so find who is already pushing forward and join them.


Graham enjoys the view at the trainYARD.

Project: trainYARD
Location: Union Station Great Hall
Designers: SPACE Architects and Planners

Name: Graham Grilli
Occupation: Architect

How long have you lived in Chicago? 
Five years.

Where do you retreat to when you just need to get away? 
Somewhere off the beaten path. Outdoors and away from people and the city.

What was your dream job when you were a kid?
Archeologist. I always wanted to go to Machu Picchu. Still do.

What is your favorite place to hang out/eat out/be entertained in Chicago?
Logan Square. My whole life is there right now, even our offices are moving there. In fact, the picnic tables in the trainYARD were borrowed from Logan Square and we returned them to the Square on Monday.

What are you reading now, or who is your go-to author?
Anything by Italo Calvino.

What's your favorite season and seasonal activity?
Fall. Ever since I lived in California and realized what I was missing. However, my favorite seasonal activity is surfing, which definitely can only be done in summer.

What color have you been most inspired by?
Cyan, or anything between blue and green. In nature, things that are cyan tend to be very powerful, like algae.

Do you have a material that has been an inspiration in your design? 
Natural materials. Something soft, not rigid. Things that change over time, show some wear, and are indicators of history.

What are three verbs you would use in association with your project for Activate Union Station?
Play. Relax. Jump.

What was your favorite memory from Activate Union Station?
Just before closing up the last time, there was this kid running around trying to get others to play tetherball, so I joined him and few others. Everyone was laughing at me playing with the kids.

What advice would you give to other people who want to activate spaces but don’t know where to start?
Think simple. Do something you actually understand. People are interested in something they can actually get.  That's why our project was busy all the time.

Thanks to Katherine, Graham and all the others that helped out with Activate Union Station and made it a success, including Fifth Third Bank, Fitness Formula Clubs, Amtrak and all of the passengers and passersby at Union Station in the past week. If you were in the crowd, you helped too! We hope this has been a fun and inviting way to reimagine the spaces around us. Stay tuned to see what comes of these experiments of place!

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