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A Conversation With UrbanLab’s Chris Socha on How Design Creates Vibrancy in Public Spaces

Architect and urbanist Chris Socha of TKWA in Milwaukee.
A partner with TKWA, Chris Socha is an architect and urbanist bringing his placemaking vision to life in Milwaukee. | ©The Kubala Washatko Architects

Back in the early 1980s, in downtown Milwaukee, a suburban-style indoor mall arose on Wisconsin Avenue just west of the Milwaukee River. For a decade or so the development prospered. But as the new century began, the Grand Avenue Mall was in decline, and a redesign of the main entrance and a new name (The Shops of Grand Avenue) didn’t help.

The property needed reimagining. For several miles north and south of it, as the mall had emptied out, mixed-use districts humming with fresh energy took shape. Milwaukee had transformed itself from a Rust Belt city with a stagnant downtown to a place whose river-proximate neighborhoods were drawing new businesses and thousands of new residents.

Architect and urbanist Chris Socha, a partner with the Milwaukee firm TKWA and leader of its innovative UrbanLab, has been integral to the city’s reshaping, designing the Milwaukee Public Market, multiple cafes for Colectivo Coffee Roasters, the Zócalo Food Truck Park, and more.

Colectivo Coffee cafe in Milwaukee, designed by Chris Socha.
Colectivo Coffee cafe, designed by Chris Socha. | ©The Kubala Washatko Architects

In 2016, as lead architect on a new project, he unveiled a design aiming to make the former mall part of Milwaukee’s revitalized downtown. A mix of residential, retail, and corporate space, The Avenue—as it’s now called—will feature a vibrant entrance sustaining the street’s dynamism, a ground-floor food hall with an emphasis on local vendors, office floors with interior views down to the bustling hall, and avenue-side roof decks, among other inviting elements.

We talked to Socha about his approach to activating public spaces, the mission of UrbanLab, sustainability in his practice, and what cities most inspire him.

Q. You’ve said, “Architecture is placemaking.” Can you illuminate this concept?

Placemaking moves architecture beyond the walls of buildings to include the spaces between them, as well as the streets, plazas, and parks that bind built fabric together. This more expansive view of creating place recognizes an experiential quality to life and strives to make the environments we pass through and spend time in more meaningful and interconnected.

I’ve come to appreciate the fact that spatial design has the power to shape the way we live our lives. It sets the stage for what is possible and offers the opportunity to bring us closer to one another and ourselves. To that end, the architecture of placemaking is mindful of the dance between recurrent human activities and the geometry of the physical environment best suited to enhance those activities. In other words, certain things work really well in carefully tuned spaces.

As an example, consider the design of a cafe. It can be a simple transactional environment where a customer enters a shop, selects a beverage, purchases the beverage, and leaves. It serves a purpose, but the experience is mostly one-dimensional. As we know, cafes can be so much more. They can be community gathering places, workspaces, a setting for political and intellectual discourse, or a people-watching source of inspiration for the next great novel.

How the cafe is configured, how the seating is arranged, how circulation flows, and how the interior connects to the exterior all create opportunities and invitations. A great cafe invites you to feel comfortable on your own, with a friend, or in a large group. This is placemaking—allowing an environment to become the best form of itself, which in turn invigorates life.

Q. More than simply a studio workspace, UrbanLab seeks to build community. How does the Lab go about this?

Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett at the grand opening of UrbanLab.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (near right) helps open UrbanLab; Chris Socha pictured at near left. | ©The Kubala Washatko Architects

Our studio, located on South Fifth Street in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood, is one of four businesses breathing new life into a former metal-plating facility. The cinder-block building was about as nondescript as you could imagine—few windows or doors facing the street and architecturally generic. We aimed to turn the space on its head by asking one key question: How will our design decisions create more vibrancy, which in turn builds community?

While exploring ways to bring the 20,000-square-foot building to life, we first looked to the street, which was about to undergo reconstruction. Working with city planners, TKWA championed design concepts that would slow down cars and expand the public realm. The generous new sidewalks would create a framework for a more robust pedestrian experience, benefiting the urban vitality of the street as a whole.

From there we looked to create a central gathering place within the building and ensured that our new studio would connect to it in an intuitive way. Our space is surrounded by overhead, garage-style doors that open onto a large outdoor patio anchored by a restaurant. The entrance for yet another business passes straight through the courtyard, ensuring that it acts as the beating heart of the entire complex. And it worked. There’s great energy to the space because of all the different people coming and going. You can build tremendous social capital with the right framework in place, and it results in a lively ecosystem. What excites me is the idea of scaling this approach to more of the city, with UrbanLab serving as a place to tell this story.

Q. You’re the lead architect on a vital downtown project—the reinvention of a mall property in the historic heart of Milwaukee. What elements of this transformation excite you?

Rendering of The Avenue in Milwaukee, designed by Chris Socha.
Rendering of The Avenue entrance at 3rd Street Market Hall. | ©The Kubala Washatko Architects

The Avenue is a project years in the making. Formerly called the Grand Avenue Mall, the three-city-block development was built during a time when people were moving to the suburbs in large numbers. Similar to its peer cities, Milwaukee was looking for a big splashy move that would draw people back to the city center. The project linked existing legacy department stores together with a modern mall, sacrificing blocks of city fabric. In its wake, theaters, shops, restaurants, bars, and more were lost.

The current transformation moves the complex from homogeneous retail center to a more vibrant mix of offices, housing, and retail. All of the new uses will be anchored by a 40,000-square-foot ground-level food hall called the 3rd Street Market Hall. A collection of local food operators surrounding a central bar will deepen Milwaukee’s food scene and create another major attraction within an ecosystem of walkable destinations.

Q. You’ve also designed another major Wisconsin Avenue project nearby—the Vel R. Phillips Plaza, which replaces a large corner parking lot. What was it about Strasbourg’s Place de l’Homme de Fer, a tramway hub / public square, that helped inspire your vision?

Rendering of Vel R. Phillips Plaza, designed by Chris Socha.
3-D rendering of Vel R. Phillips Plaza, designed by Chris Socha. | ©The Kubala Washatko Architects

Milwaukee’s new civic plaza will link a future streetcar extension to a forthcoming bus rapid transit line. The geometry of the multimodal intersect is dynamic and the Place de l’Homme de Fer demonstrates that complexity can be resolved in a beautiful way.

Our proposal seeks to have transit drive place. But it’s not enough to simply have people. You need to ensure the way people move through the space and the opportunities to activate the space on a regular basis work together to add up to something more. When it comes down to what many people love about civic settings, it’s the people-watching.

To enhance the plaza’s diversity and range of possibility, we designed a speculative restaurant building with public bathrooms, created space for kiosks and pop-up events, and ensured a variety of seating options. We’re looking beyond the project boundaries to consider how the new setting can enhance its surroundings. To the south, the plaza will serve as front door to a new multi-use development site. To the north, the plaza will span Wisconsin Avenue, creating what we’ve called a “civic handshake” between transit and the convention center. A shared street would allow the streetcar and pedestrians to move seamlessly between the two environments. The design speaks to a more interconnected and aware Milwaukee that values the public realm and its ability to create experience.

Q. What are some of the lessons you draw from the successful revitalization of downtown Milwaukee and adjacent districts? And what would you like to see going forward?

In 2014, TKWA studied the downtown neighborhood west of the river and found the urban fabric had fundamental issues inhibiting its vibrancy. The length of city blocks, the prevalence of parking structures, and multiple large single-use event buildings impeded street life.

We shared these findings in various forums. Public officials, civic leaders, and business leaders were receptive to our message, which was: If we’re not stewards of the public realm and everything that works to enliven it, we risk stagnation or worse. Since then, a plethora of developments have moved ahead, including The Avenue and the Fiserv Forum district. These new projects are now contributing to a more walkable, lively urban setting.

Moving forward, I would like to see more advocates demanding the city they want and more leaders, locally and beyond, ready to make change happen. It’s up to us to shape the environments we inhabit. Milwaukee’s success is crucial to the region and the state, so we must all agree that our goal is a more vibrant city and then collectively work toward this.

Q. How do you integrate sustainability into your practice?

At TKWA, we embrace a design philosophy of wholeness, where the built environment supports both human activity and natural living systems. Sustainability is inherent in this pursuit and part of our everyday language. We’ve had successes over the years, including the first net-zero project in the country at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Baraboo, WI. It’s really all about seeking aligned partners. We’re fortunate that people are now seeking us out, but we also benefit from the world collectively waking up to the importance of sustainable design. It’s not just a nice thing to incorporate into a project or an abstract concept talked about by academics. It’s fundamental to the resiliency of our communities worldwide.

Q. If you were given a free week and an unlimited travel budget post-COVID, where would you go to find inspiration?

In December of 2019, my wife and I visited Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent in Belgium. When we got home, we immediately began planning a 2020 trip to the Netherlands. Obviously, that didn’t happen. We loved the ease of traversing Belgium by train and Holland offers the same opportunities. Our itinerary would include Rotterdam, Delft, Amsterdam, and Utrecht. Each city is at the forefront of urban design, prioritizing walking, cycling, and transit in their respective city centers.

This past fall I did the next best thing and enrolled in a virtual conference called “Reimagining Streets as Places” hosted by Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and Dutch mobility firm Mobycon. It was great to dream about these places in the absence of being there in person. Someday we’ll get back.

Phil Hanrahan

Author of the book Life After Favre, Phil Hanrahan is a Milwaukee-based writer and editor working on a book sharing the story of a pioneering art college in rural Ireland.

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