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Leila Hamroun, Finding the Future in the Past

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As a preservationist, architect, and Algerian immigrant, Leila Hamroun has devoted her life to learning about the history and identity of places. For her, the challenge is how to create architecture that both contributes to its present community and represents its history. In Leila’s firm, Past Forward Architecture, and Collaborative volunteer work, she manages this delicate balancing act by incorporating the past into the design of the future.

“You’re not betraying history by acknowledging that it’s transforming,” she says. “Transformation is what made everything that we consider today historic. If you don’t do preservation and adaptive reuse, you lose the story of the transformation and you lose part of the identity."

Bringing the Story to Life

In 2012, Leila was part of the volunteer team looking at Fourth Street Historic Fabric Row, and was instrumental in defining a personality for the corridor – one that maintains its traditions but would not limit its potential. She studied the neighborhood’s rich textile past, and then shifted the narrative from solely fabric to a broader identity focused on design and creativity. This gave the volunteer team the basis for a sculptural, textile- inspired streetscape design of Fourth Street.

Leila said, “Once you frame the story, and you understand what it means to the community, you have a framework for the architectural design. My part in the team, I’ve found, is to bring that story to life.”

The background story makes the resulting design even more valuable to communities. Leila explained, “You wind up with a final product that goes much beyond telling the client, ‘here’s the design and here’s the cost.’ You wind up setting a narrative, so that they can use this as a springboard to getting other things.”

In 2012, Leila volunteered with the Friends Housing Cooperative project, and she ultimately recommended that the affordable housing group apply for the National Register of Historic Places. When the Friends Co-op later decided to follow her advice, they reached out to her to prepare the documentation, a determination of eligibility. This was an exciting moment for Leila, not just because it was a professional opportunity, but because it was a chance for her to “keep digging” into research that would help this neighborhood.

“I’ve never had the sense that we’re giving a report that’s just going to be put on a shelf and is just going to sit there. There’s always a sense that there’s going to be some steps happening afterward. And if you’re lucky, maybe you have the opportunity to be part of those steps.”

The Heartbeat in Community Design

When Leila volunteers, it is not only as a preservationist, but also as a designer and strong advocate for community design. “I mean I love buildings - I hug my buildings.” She laughs, but also admits that, “the buildings are nothing if they don’t have the people who inhabit them. I can protect my stone, my wood, my brick, my roof. But if I don’t have people using it, I have something that’s mothballed or a museum piece. And that’s dead. Urban fabric is vibrant, it lives, it decays, it’s reborn.” By working with the community, architecture can bring this story of transformation to life.

“In Philly, you need to engage many different groups of people into what’s going to be the future of the city,” she adds. “By doing the community work that’s done here at the Collaborative, you’re going to ensure that the whole city moves together.”

Community design in Philadelphia is much more structured than it was in Algeria, where Leila was first exposed to it. Now, she dreams of spreading the Collaborative community design model to her home country. “The heartbeat in community work is palpable. It’s there, it’s immediate. It engages multiple generations and you see it. And that’s why it’s so critical, that’s why it must be encouraged.”

by Kim Bernardin, 2014 Collaborative Intern





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