The Power of Place
AIA DESIGN THEORY – March 2015
Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography by Sarah Beard Buckley
Architect Gabrielle Russell’s vision for her hometown is rooted in a deep sense of place and a desire to be daring with design.
Gabrielle Russell was about four years old when her dad began taking her for walks around Lewiston-Auburn. On these childhood explorations, he introduced her to the downtown area and pointed out important parts of history. A pilot with an engineering degree and originally from New York City, her dad would tell her about the mills—why they were here and how they worked, why the railroad ran through town, how water could be used to provide electricity. Russell believes these walks were the beginning of her understanding of sense of place. Today, Russell works for Platz Associates and is a board member of Grow L+A, the grassroots organization she and a small group founded to save and revitalize Bates Mill No. 5, where her grandparents worked decades ago. MH+D asked Russell to tell us more.
Q. How did those early conversations with your parents influence your career as an architect? A. I think the walks with my dad and the conversations I had with my mom were the most influential in my life. My mom was the one who helped me develop an eye for design and aesthetics. Her mother was a “fashionista,” and my mom grew up with that influence, which helped her establish her own sense of design and an appreciation of the historic fabric of her home, Lewiston and Auburn. My parents both gave me a broader understanding about space and urban design. They helped me understand— what I think is most important—how these elements impact people’s sense of their community and how design can influence and create social impact. When I was in my second year of architecture school in New Orleans, my young professor Ashley Schaffer said, “If you are comfortable with what you are designing, you are probably not pushing yourself hard enough…so get out of your comfort zone.” That statement resonated with me immediately. Many of my college professors believed in exploration, adventure, and pushing boundaries too, just like my parents did. It was at this point that I began to look for the beauty in everything; what the sources were that created an edge between comfort, boredom, and fear; contrast versus balance; and how design could create excitement in the way people experience space. You may love it, hate it, or it may take your breath away, but if it bores you or fails to stir some sort of emotional response, it probably isn’t worth its salt. Q. How did your studies and appreciation for good, daring design change the way you looked at Maine? A. When I returned home from college, a few important things stuck out to me: even though New Orleans is a very different place from Lewiston-Auburn, Maine, I recognized similarities—like how each city developed in a way appropriate to their natural landscape, how the stock of older buildings was in different phases of renewal and deterioration, and that a beautiful mix of styles of architecture exist. I also saw our skyline of churches, schools, and mills burning or being torn down. These were the buildings that gave our landscape unique definition and could easily last centuries. The municipality and private development were beginning to reestablish downtown, and I found there was an ability to get involved in the groundwork to help guide a way forward. Although scared to do it, I respectfully spoke up about my beliefs, and I found many other friends who felt similarly. Q. How do you work through differing visions for a city? A. It seems easy to think there is only room for one vision. In reality, many visions can work together beautifully to produce a much stronger solution than a singular approach. I try to keep my mind open to possibilities, listen to the stakeholders, synthesize the information, and incorporate some of what each person or group finds important. Of course, sometimes there are pieces that don’t seem to fit, but then that can surprise you and lead to a new, wonderful method to consider. Q. How has this translated into your work at Bates Mill No. 5? A. I recently had a conversation with my mom and she said, “You have developed a responsibility to renew history through design.” I believe this is true. I think about all of those explorations with my dad into hidden courtyards, along canals, train tracks, across railroad trestles…and I find myself repeating some of those explorations with interested community members. I want people to have the same opportunity I did: to be able to understand why a place developed the way it did, appreciate where they are, understand how influential these spaces were in informing the creativity and aesthetic of their community, and find the relevancy of those spaces for today. I did not understand good design versus bad design when I was a kid. Now I do. Design affects people’s feelings of comfort, engagement, excitement, creativity, loss of creativity, and alienation. So my explorations continue, which is why the Bates Mill No. 5 project is so exciting to me. Although still in the development phase, the plan will support existing businesses and entrepreneurs and help attract new ones, increase access to healthy food, support physical well-being, and provide space for community interaction and engagement. It has the potential to be the largest socially impactful project recently undertaken there, and I am grateful to be a part of it.