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Inspired from many angles

Architect Michael Spain has contributed his design expertise to several Collaborative projects, including one of our first green schoolyard projects and, recently, a conceptual plan for mixed-use development on Lancaster Avenue.

Michael is Design Director at D2CA, where he is responsible for the design process and design quality of architectural projects. It’s a highly collaborative job.  “I see, touch, and comment on most of the architectural work that we do… I haven’t sketched so much as in the past two years!” But Michael is more than just a designer. He works actively to bring diversity to the profession and serve diverse communities.

“Design gives people a tool to be active in the decisions of their community and see the impact it can have.”

Two mentors and a big brother
Two early mentors and a big brother led Michael Spain to become an architect—and one who gives back to the community. “My older brother was an artist,” Michael says, “I used to follow him around asking him to draw things for me. He finally said, ‘why don’t you draw it yourself?’” Michael followed his brother’s footsteps to Dobbins Tech. “I originally went to study electronics and become a TV camera man. But we had to sample every program in the school.”

Michael was immediately drawn to Dobbins’ architecture and technology program, led by teacher Joe Kuo. “I owe him a lot… he was intent on making sure his students went to college or landed a job placement.” The program offered a mix of academics and trade training such as drafting and model making. Michael still remembers the lettering practice sheets that were due every week.

After graduating from Cornell and getting his first job, Michael volunteered for Philadelphia’s Architecture in Education (AIE), where he taught at four Philadelphia public schools over seven years. There he met another important mentor, Rolaine Copeland, Director of the AIE program.
“She did a lot of mentoring and nurturing. She made me aware of the social contribution one can make through the profession.”

PhilaNOMA + Collaborative 
Michael is an active member of PhilaNOMA, the local chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, founded in 1971 to benefit minorities within the architecture profession and the urban community at large. PhilaNOMA works to enhance the professional of architecture by promoting diversity in practice and by take an active role in the education of aspiring designers.

“The profession has not traditionally promoted itself like business or law,” says Michael,” We need to be more visible and active, especially with people of color.” PhilaNOMA introduces middle-school students to the design professions through its annual Camp SustainAbility program. PhilaNOMA also mentors young design professionals. So it made sense to field a design team from PhilaNOMA for a Collaborative project last year. Michael was part of a PhilaNOMA team led by Kenneth Johnson, AIA of tmh associates, inc. along with intern architects Charnelle Hurst and Uchenna Okere. Chris Methven of Domus, Inc. provided cost estimating.

While there were two intern architects on the team, Michael notes, “This was an opportunity to do community service for an organization in the neighborhood. It was more about the community service than the professional development.”

“The services are not always available. The Collaborative helps in getting these organizations engaged as a first step. It’s important for us to reach out to communities and do this kind of work. Designers need to realize their importance and impact.”

Expanding the New Africa Center
The PhilaNOMA design team worked with the Islamic Cultural Preservation and Information Council (ICPIC ), which currently runs museum and archive dedicated to the history of Philadelphia’s American Muslim community on the Lancaster Avenue Commercial Corridor.

ICPIC is an active organization that is doing much of its cultural programming off-site. “There are a lot of programs coming out of this organization… lectures, exhibits,” says Michael. “Right now, they are not necessarily all happening at this space, but are hosted elsewhere.”

ICPIC ’s director, Abdul-Rahim Muhammed, wants expand the New Africa Center  into a mixed-use development using several adjacent vacant properties. His vision includes the museum and a café, apartments for seniors, and a business and technology center. “There were so many things he wanted to do,” says Michael. “Our challenge was how to combine three uses in limited space and fit them into a commercial corridor.” The team decided, “The museum is the driver. So how do we make that a feature?”

The glass, two-story museum entrance and lobby became the centerpiece of the new façade. The proposed five-story addition would require a variance, but the conceptual design for the façade is carefully composed to fit into a traditional Philly neighborhood retail corridor. Much of the addition is red brick, but the top floor and new stairwell and elevator are clad in light, textured concrete panels.

The director hopes to keep ICPIC’s existing building, originally his father’s store. The team’s work included assessing the feasibility of new construction VS. an addition. “To do the service that the Collaborative does, that was something we had to explore,” says Michael.  

“It’s up to us to help organizations and people understand the process… to see the value of one scheme and the barriers of others.”

Design Inspiration from Islamic Motifs
The American Muslim focus of the project provided a rich trove of motifs for the design. “We didn’t want to be extremely literal in conveying the cultural aspects of the building, but we did bring in motifs and patterns,” says Michael. “Geometry is a big part of the culture’s symbolism and we wanted to apply it in the design.”

This can be seen in the playful rhythm of the facade, where a three-paned window module is mirrored and placed asymmetrically. A repeating five-point star pattern is etched into transom windows at the museum entrance and reappears in room dividers throughout the building.  The concrete panels that clad part of the addition evoke the materiality of traditional  Islamic structures and the foundation of the African-American Muslim experience.

“For the client, this was a good surprise,” says Michael. “He did not ask for this approach, but he did want to have an identity tied to what his organization is about.

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