Graduate Student Team Honored in American Institute of Architects Competition

Underground railroad

Frank Sleegers, landscape architecture and regional planning, and a team of graduate students were given honorable mention for their submission to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Philadelphia Chapter competition, Transforming the Tunnel: The Rail Park.

This competition, founded in 2006 in memory of the famous city planner, Ed Bacon, challenges students to address real-world urban design issues in Philadelphia. More than 2,000 teams from around the world registered for the competition.

The graduate student team working on this project was comprised of master’s students Abhinav Bhargava, Chris Counihan, Ambica Chadha, Shuo Li, Yuan-Fen Lo and Diance Tian. Their project was called Underground Railroad.

Participants were asked to develop a vision for a 3-mile linear park and multi-modal transportation corridor on the network of unused rail lines that connects 10 neighborhoods. The AIA was looking for ideas to improve access to pedestrian and bicycle transit, lighting and programming for the Rail Park Tunnel, making the covered section a useful, fun and safe public space.

To prepare for the competition, Sleegers and his team spent two days on site, investigating the tunnel and the neighborhood. They also spent time exploring other sites in and around Philadelphia that were either leftover spaces with spontaneous and unorganized reuses, or followed principles of tactical urbanism (a strategy that embraces low-cost interventions with a maximum of visibility and diverse human interaction).

The team made sure to incorporate aspects of Philadelphia’s rich history when coming up with a design. Sleegers explains, “Philadelphia was a vital stop along the underground railroad during the 1800s. There is a lasting legacy of former slaves that directly influences modern African American culture. Our proposal embraces and celebrates this legacy through a museum that documents this important migratory experience.”

From this, the idea of honoring the underground railroad emerged, and became the title of the project.

Describing the concept, Sleegers says, “The tunnel creates a journey of hope – moments of light and dark that become sensitive experiences. The final design is seeking to embrace all kinds of African American culture, from the past to the present. You will find examples of the quilt signage or texts from artist such as Billie Holiday directly applied as physical artifacts.”

Jury members remarked that the project “would make a fantastic museum exhibition for an under-told story of Philadelphia's history.”

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