It was the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, in late August of 2011, when the banks of the Schoharie Creek rose over 15 feet in under 12 hours and nearly washed away the small Upstate New York town of Prattsville, in Greene County. The flood’s devastation received widespread media coverage, as according to Greene County’s records, the rainwater spilling off the Catskills sent through the town a volume of water that was greater than Niagara Falls.
First settled around 1763 and later named after Zadock Pratt — a prominent citizen that built a tannery larger than any other in the world at the time, helping it become a major town in Upstate New York – it was once a bustling community with an opera house and an academy.
Prattsville’s historic roots have been partially lost over the years, but despite the economic downturn and the flood damage, the town is still rich in landmarks with a clear historical, social and architectural stratification. Based on its geographic proximity to the Catskill Mountains’ ski resorts and its beautiful natural setting, Prattsville has strong potential for a rebirth, but one that should focus on more contemporary design and planning where modern architecture — built above the flood plain — blends with the historical, helping to preserving its heritage, generate a new economy and motivate people to stay. It can be once again an attractive place to live.
In a collaborative effort between residents, architects and town planners, there is a group effort afoot to create a plan for long-term community recovery, addressing not only the flood damage, but Prattsville’s future.
A new art center is one solution that grew out of this planning process and has been one of the early signs of this renewal. It will be the cultural hub for the town and surrounding area, bringing together selected artists, writers, musicians and creative thinkers, graduate art students and faculty from New York University, and locals.
This major planning effort will start with making art the cornerstone of the rebuilding effort. The Prattsville Art Center will offer art residencies and workshops while also focusing on the role the arts can play in redevelopment and investment. The planners hope it will bring arts and culture to a rural area that has previously had little access to these services, and hopefully a new energy and a sense of community. Once established, the new buildings will create a cultural destination within the region in order to attract visitors, generate new business and promote its rebirth — even possibly spurring additional redevelopment within the area.
The project is already underway since the art center was recently awarded a $200,000 grant from ArtPlace America — a collaboration of 13 leading national and regional foundations and six of the nation’s largest banks – for the purpose of restoring a flood-damaged existing building on Main Street listed on the Greene County Historical Register. This building will host a gallery, art classroom space, a café and temporary living quarters for residency.
A positive attitude and vibrancy in the community are qualities that made Prattsville attractive to ArtPlace America, which is continuing its efforts at “creative placemaking.” Also, the Art Center’s mandate of putting rural residents on an equal footing with international avant-garde artists provides a model for inclusiveness and dialogue in rural American communities.
In addition to the existing venue, the center is still in fundraising mode, seeking grants and private sponsors in order to build a new, eco-friendly, state-of-the-art rear building housing artist residencies and programs.
The main focus for the new structure, proposed by Brooklyn-based architect Andrea Salvini in collaboration with architect Nick Matterese, Prattsville Art Center director Nancy Barton, and Kevin Piccoli, director of the Prattsville Relief Fund and chairman of the Prattsville Development Corporation, is providing flexibility for both interior and exterior spaces in order to host different activities in the center simultaneously.
The new building is, in fact, designed to be a modern, live-work environment filled with natural light and an open, column-free interior for maximum usability where art and architecture complement each other.
From an environmental standpoint, the project also sets the goal of designing a high-performance building for energy efficiency, incorporating innovative and sustainable systems, materials and technologies. Ideally it will act as a kind of prototype for new types of structures for rural, flood- prone areas, and even as a sort of laboratory for experimental design and the use of innovative building solutions. The design team is seeking the engagement of schools of advanced technology in architecture, engineering and construction, as well the green building materials industry.
Like any significant, energy-efficient design, the focus is to develop a methodology that meets five criteria: a “smart,” sustainable, aesthetically pleasing, cost-effective, energy-efficient solution for the building.
Apart from its cultural mission, another goal of the center is to empower Prattsville to develop and implement recovery plans for future weather disasters like hurricanes or floods. Designed as a flood-resistant structure, another important role the building can play is serving as a public emergency shelter, aiding evacuations or simply as assembly spot for large groups of people, owing to its open plan. In any event, the purpose of the shelter is to provide a space to feel secure and comfortable in a disaster environment, which is fundamental to the recovery process.
Envisioned as a very simple, revealing steel frame structure that accentuates its lightness and holds together all the other architectural elements made of wood and glass panels, the new building will be a freestanding, three-story structure replacing a decaying barn, presently nestled in the narrow plot of land of the backyard. The barn’s vernacular form is revisited in a contemporary idiom through minimizing and stylizing the lines of its architecture and advancing its design through innovative construction methods, including prefabrication and energy-efficient building technology. Its elevation on pilotis, or “stilts,” creates a ground-floor loggia underneath, both maximizing the space of a very limited plot of land as well as responding to local hurricane and flood-building codes requiring new construction to be elevated from the ground. The inhabitants’ movement will flow easily throughout the building, connecting a large rooftop solarium to the ground-floor loggia, where socialization and interaction will be a main focus.
The loggia under the building extends the courtyard space and can shelter exhibits, installations, café tables and catered events, but also function as an outdoor lab for classes and sculpture fabrication.
Director Nancy Barton provided her personal vision of the design: “I think this means we want to make the building beautiful and tall but keep it from feeling severe so that local people who are often intimidated by the city can feel welcome there … one way for the building to be tall without being intimidating is if we think of it as a kind of treehouse. There are tall trees all around the back of the art center property and three sides of the building will be directly adjacent to these trees. Using organic material like the wood shutters could allow the building to integrate with the trees. They will create shade in summer on the east, west and north sides of the new building and drop their leaves in winter to allow sunlight. I am also thinking it’s important that the building and its materials will look attractive as they age over time.”
Indeed, the approachability of the design is in its minimalism, integrating natural materials with contemporary ones in order to fit in a more traditional context.
Prattsville has no shortage of outdoor spaces, but there is no indoor or sheltered gathering space. The creation of a courtyard between the old and new buildings, accessible from the main street, is part of the plan for the center, acting as a piazza for recreational and cultural activities. Presiding over the courtyard will be the striking architectural geometry of a rotating steel frame connected to the new building within a triangular structure, which can be used as a support for a film screen, art installations or banners. Outdoor staged performance events can utilize the frame as sort of sculptural, abstract proscenium.The pavement of the square adjacent to the building will consist of inclined, triangular sections designed to integrate raised bed planters for vegetable and herb gardens. It can be occasionally covered with a lid surface to accommodate audience members during events or just for weather protection. It will also channel and collect rainwater in an underground water tank — water which can serve the whole center and irrigate the garden.
In a larger sense, the goals of The Prattsville Art Center are linked to what the National Endowment for the Arts’ Director, Rocco Landsman, has called “creative placemaking,” defined as “leveraging the arts to create livable, sustainable neighborhoods with enhanced quality of life, increased creative activity, distinct identities, a sense of place, and vibrant local economies that capitalize on existing local assets.”
As Prattsville is already engaged in a community planning process, bringing artists into this discussion will enable local residents to draw on their expertise to think in new and creative ways about the potential and direction of their town.