WAHS Alumnus, Architect’s Work On Exhibit At The Venice Architecture Biennale

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WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — When she was young, Williamsport Area High School alumnus Kristy Balliet developed an interest in a field of work that has now launched her from the small town to the world stage.

The 1994 grad, now co-founder of BairBalliet, an architectural firm based in Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, recently contributed her talents to the U.S. Pavilion’s “Architectural Imagination Project,” an exhibit now on display at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy. 

U.S. Pavilion curators Cynthia Davidson and Monica Ponce de León led the speculative revitalization project that includes four sites in Detroit. Using the power of architecture, the curators envisioned renewal for a city that “once embodied invention,” but now is “coping with dramatic population loss, desolate neighborhoods, abandoned buildings, and sharp racial divides,” according to the project’s website.

Davidson and Ponce de Leon selected 22 architects from 12 firms around the U.S. — Balliet among them — “to produce new work that demonstrates the creativity and resourcefulness of architecture to address the social and environmental issues of the 21st century,” the project website’s states.

The “Architectural Imagination Project” includes four city locations: a vacant land along Dequindre Cut near the Eastern Market, an abandoned light industrial building and paved surroundings in Southwest Detroit, a United States Postal Service sorting facility and vacant block riverfront, and the Packard Automotive Plant.

Balliet and her team were assigned the post office property that includes a 1-million-square-foot distribution center and 10-story administration building, a structural footprint that takes up half of the 26-acre site.

 “The distribution center is operating at 25-percent capacity, as most of the facility has been relocating to other facilities outside the city,” she said. “We repurposed the distribution center as a creative incubator and maker space to connect with the light industry in the neighborhood. We proposed a series of pavilion-like buildings to fill the empty space between the existing building and the riverfront. We imagine these buildings would be related to waterfront leisure and public transportation to connect the site to downtown.”

Balliet said it was great to use her design skills to offer ideas about how dormant buildings or underused recreational resources, such as riverfronts, could contribute to the evolution of a great city, a concept project leaders hope “The Architecture Imagination” models offer for cities facing similar challenges.

“Many cities need to develop tactics for aging infrastructure and the changing use of buildings,” she said. “It is an interesting architectural problem: How can an underutilized building contribute in new ways to an evolving community? We must invest resources and design energy to renew and redevelop instead of just tearing things down. Detroit, a city that is shrinking, requires unique ideas for infill and models of densification.”

There are no current plans to develop the sites as designed by the teams, as the projects were commissioned as speculative proposals, Balliet said.

“The idea of the exhibition was to develop ideas and make them physical,” she said. “It is easier for people to see an idea rather than just talk or view the bottom line. However, we have interfaced with many members of the community throughout the process and these people are in different positions to enact change. We met with city planning offices, regional groups, such as the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, and neighbors of the site.”

Balliet and her family recently returned from Venice, where they visited the exhibition that has since garnered the attention of The New York Times Style Magazine as one if its six not-to-miss shows.

In addition to the 12 projects on display, the exhibit also includes 20 postcard designs showing Detroit through the eyes of residents and visiting photographers.

It remains open until Nov. 27. Balliet said she hopes to return for the closing events.

Balliet said her early education in Williamsport had an influence on her career choice, particularly in her formative years in shop classes at the then-Lycoming Valley Middle School.  When she moved up to the high school, she had mentors who positively pushed her to continue exploring and developing that interest.

She took several electives related to the field, such as mechanical, electrical, and architectural drafting classes. That sequence of courses sharpened her skills and cultivated a talent that landed her in a position to pursue her passion.

“Architecture provokes the imagination while having the capacity to address the issues of our daily lives,” she said of the field. “It simultaneously requires precision and the ability to reconsider how we inhabit our world.”

Balliet earned her bachelor’s degree in architecture at Philadelphia University and her master’s degree at the UCLA Department of Architecture and Urban Design, Los Angeles.

She has been in the architectural field for 17 years — practicing in Philadelphia for seven years and teaching as an assistant professor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria, and most recently at The Ohio State University’s Knowlton School of Architecture. She has lectured and exhibited work in San Diego, Philadelphia, Skopje, Vienna, Innsbruck, Berlin, Ann Arbor, New York and Los Angeles.


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