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Preserving the Past, Designing the Future

Lori Aument is the Owner and Conservator at L. R. Aument, LLC.  A preservationist with broad-based expertise, she has worked on several Community Design Collaborative projects, including an innovative open space master plan for Historic Gloria Dei Preservation Corporation in South Philadelphia.  This summer, Lori sat down with the Collaborative’s Stewart Scott to discuss how she got into the preservation field, her experience volunteering, and how she thinks design impacts communities.

What was your first brush with design? Share something from your childhood that pointed you towards the work you are doing now.
I had a seminar in my freshman year of college about medieval history. The professor talked about cathedrals, and not just how they were designed but how they were built—how they quarried the stone, how they moved the stone… where they got the mortar.  That interested me because I liked spaces, but what really interested me was how structures got put together and the building as a cultural artifact.

Explain what you do in a phrase or two. What do you find fascinating about your work? What is challenging?
My specialty is building preservation. I can go from the micro to the macro scale.   I have training in forensics—from taking paint samples and looking at stones and thin sections to looking at entire buildings and developing repairs as needed. And I also have expertise in larger-scale master planning and researching changes in physical development over time.  As I get older, I find the bigger picture more and more interesting: Why is this building important?  What was its value to the people who built it?  What is its value now? 

What aspect of your career or experience got you interested in community design and development?
You don’t get to do as much community development when you’re a profit-driven firm as you might like to.  I wanted to work for the Collaborative because it serves people who often don’t have the funding to formally hire a design firm.

What was your role in your most recent Collaborative project?
I was a preservation specialist on the team for Gloria Dei Church. We were doing a master plan of the whole block, so my role was looking at physical development of the site over time, and how that could inspire the design and the master plan. 

What was the most rewarding aspect of the project?
There was a desire to return part of the site to a wilderness state, a sort of pre-contact woodland. However, the site was essentially a managed wilderness by the Native Peoples, who lived here for many years before the Europeans came. My biggest contribution to the plan was to help everyone understand that urban woodlands can play a really amazing role in the community to help with the urban heat island effect— but to be mindful that we’re not restoring the site to pristine wilderness. The whole reason that the church is there was because it was a trading post with the Lenape. They were there for a long, long time. 

"We undervalue the knowledge we bring to the community.  It seems so much more valuable when you see their reaction to it.  The community sees their project in a completely different light, they see potentials that they’ve never seen before."

The other cool thing was that a Swedish botanist came to the colonies in the 1760’s. He kept a journal and came to the church.  And so, he has notes about being in this area, the plants and the people who live here.  The Swedish [who were settled here at the time] had adopted a lot of native practices, and made a lot of baskets and barks, spoons and dishes, etc. They clearly had adapted native practices based on the plants that they were finding here. 

The botanist used the modern Latin names for plants. This was very new, but the diaries are much easier to follow because you know exactly which plants he was talking about.  So, the volunteer team could use that information when it did conceptual planting plans. We said, “Okay, we should use some of the plants that were mentioned in these diaries.”

What was the most surprising or unexpected thing about your Collaborative experience?
I think it’s how much people appreciate it.  Most people kind of take for granted what they know. When you put it all down and coordinate it, people are so appreciative.  We [as design professionals] undervalue the knowledge we bring to the community.  It seems so much more valuable when you see their reaction to it.  The community sees their project in a completely different light, they see potentials that they’ve never seen before.

What role do you see for design in revitalizing communities?
It helps people reimagine their neighborhoods in completely different ways, and not necessarily big expensive ways. It shifts perceptions, and that can be really powerful.  Rather than thinking something is run down and never going anywhere, I think it can make people see that there’s potential.

As a community, having someone come and say, “What you have is really cool!” can help you rethink things, find a different perspective. Instead of the glass half empty, it now seems half full.  And as a volunteer, you’re working with the groups that live there—understanding who they are and what they need—and laying a path forward. Half the battle is showing, “You can get there… here’s a way.” 




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