CultureHouse: Creating a Public Space Inside

CultureHouse: Creating a Public Space Inside


Last summer, we had the pleasure of Aaron Greiner interning with us. During his time with us, he started hatching a plan for creating a public space back home in Boston. Over the course of the past few months, he gathered a team, feedback, funds, and support, and opened CultureHouse. Read on for how he brought his idea to life.

CultureHouse started out with a question, “What would a pop-up indoor public space look like?”

This question came from experiences I had while studying in Denmark. In Copenhagen, I saw a dedication to public life that I had not previously experienced. Though I had worked on projects to bring people together, seeing how urban design could be used to create public gathering spaces finally connected all the dots. I saw how creating spaces that are accessible to all can increase livability and joy in an area.

After returning to the United States, I spent a summer working at Better Block. During my time at Better Block, I saw how using temporary pop-up and tactical urbanism techniques could help to prove urban design ideas in a place that was unfamiliar with the concept. At the same time, I noticed a significant lack of public spaces in the U.S., especially ones that were indoors.

With this initial seed of an idea, I went in search of the answer.

The team started by looking at places we had experienced that we thought captured the essence of CultureHouse. We connected with the concept of a public space you didn’t have to pay to enter in Studenterhuset, a student center in Copenhagen. It acted as a third space among home, school, and work. In Better Block, we saw how a temporary framing could work to our advantage and how CultureHouse could act as an urban design test kitchen for design principles by using tactical urbanism.

At the same time, we went in search of mentors who could provide us guidance and advice on how to turn this dream into reality. We first went to Better Block with the idea and they happily agreed to advise us on the project. We then went to Jeff Goldenson at Olin College, who also agreed to serve as a mentor to CultureHouse. From the beginning, having advisers like these allowed us to workshop the idea with people who had experience starting projects like CultureHouse. Our mentors stressed the importance of programming in the space, so we decided that CultureHouse would be a host for regular programming to create an area that gave people a reason to visit.

We also started to look at touchstones that would allow the general public to access our idea. We realized that public parks are a great example of the kind of space we were imagining CultureHouse could be. However, public parks, especially in Boston, are only really nice to be in for a few months out of the year. We had encountered the mentality that we can’t have year-round public life in Boston because it’s too cold and dark. We doubted that mentality, because as cold and dark as Boston is, Copenhagen is colder and darker. With this in mind, we started describing ourselves as an indoor public park. Another touchstone we looked at was the living room. A living room is a communal space in a house that serves as a meeting place, a social space, and much more. We saw the potential for CultureHouse to serve as all of these things, and began to see ourselves as a living room for the community.

We gathered all our research, conversations with mentors, and inspirations, and crafted our mission. This living document served as the foundation upon which we built CultureHouse.

We had an idea and partners, but we didn’t have a location. While there was a lot of interest when we were still five months out from the opening, property owners were hesitant to give us the space in case they were able to sell it in the meantime (even if the space had been vacant for a long time). As we got closer to the opening, they became much more open to the idea of a CultureHouse pop-up.

Eventually, we found a partnership with a main streets director who had a vacant storefront space we could use. With the space locked down, or so we thought, we began to move forward on community engagement and design. Three weeks before opening day, we got some bad news: the property owner of the space we were planning on using was in litigation with the fire department, and no one could use the space until the legal issues were resolved. Not good. After a brief moment of feeling sorry for ourselves, we refocused.

During this time, we worked mostly out of libraries, though not everyone around us was always excited to hear our loud phone conversations about the square footage of vacant storefronts. If only we had a space where we could work without paying that would allow us to talk and gather!

Luckily, we had amazing relationships with our partners and contacts. We eventually got connected with Bow Market in Union Square, where we found people who believed in our idea and could work on the quick timeframe we needed. Five days before our scheduled opening day, we signed the lease for the space and had our location.

When it came time to construct, we held a few build days where we invited partners and community members to come help out. We got a lot of extra hands, and it made everything go a lot more quickly. We turned to open source and cheap (but good-looking!) construction methods to build out the space. We used Better Block’s Wikiblock library to get designs for chairs that we could cut ourselves on a CNC machine. We also developed new furniture such as a cube stool that can also serve as a coffee table, a storage bin, or a shelf. We ended up using this building block so much in the space that we had to make more!

Play elements were an important part of the space. We put up swings and installed mini trampolines as a way to visually communicate the idea of an indoor public park. We also made HUGE cornhole boards that created a fun and silly atmosphere. These elements were unexpected and thus served both as a memorable moment and also as a way to get people to let their guard down when they entered the space.

We created a coffee bar where we served free coffee and tea, which also gave people a central point to come to in the space. Our stage served as a platform for performances and a natural focal point of the room during events. We created two large tables that we imagined would be used for work. We bought some snap-on ping pong nets along with some paddles and balls, thinking it could be fun to have games once in a while. The ping pong tables ended up being incredibly successful, and people often played late into the night.

On Saturday, the day before opening, the space looked–well–like a construction zone. Everything was covered in a thin layer of sawdust, and even moving around the space was difficult. Somehow, by the time the day came to a close, the pieces fell into place. We went home for a quick wink of sleep before opening day.

Before, during, and after build out. The last two photos were taken on the same day (really).

Opening day was a surreal experience. This concept we had been working on for the past year finally existed. The first day brought a lot of friends of family, but as the month went on, we started seeing more and more new people staying in the space as well as regulars who came back often. Initially, our scope of the pop-up was that we would open for a month and then close. However, in just the first week, we had gotten such positive reactions from the community that we decided we would work to do another CultureHouse pop-up in the future.

We found that people who came to the space for the first time tended to have one of two reactions. On one side, there were people who had experienced this kind of space before (maybe they were from or had lived in Europe) and were excited to finally see a space like this in Boston. On the other hand, there were people who instinctively knew they needed a place like CultureHouse but had never been able to put words to it or imagine it before. It was powerful to see such a strong connection to an idea that we were not sure everyone would understand.

We put a large chalkboard surface on the wall near the entrance of the space, and wrote a variety of questions at the top. We received great responses and well as plenty of (not exactly on-prompt) drawings by kids. We really enjoyed that someone said CultureHouse was their favorite public space and their favorite part of their neighborhood was “the trampolines and swings in CultureHouse.”

During our one-month pop-up, we hosted 50 events and programs over 27 staffed days including five concerts, five tutorials, four ping pong tournaments, and four trivia competitions. Our programming both helped to engage those who already coming to or passing by the space, and brought new people to the area. We hosted a variety of programming from fun (concerts, DIY spa day, a dog show, world cup screenings) to educational (tutorials on different design softwares and on the process of starting a nonprofit). Some of these were run in collaboration with community partners, such as local artists or nonprofits, while others were run completely by the CultureHouse team.

The visual imagery of the living room was also important to our design and interesting to play around with. There was a similar tension between known and unknown with this aspect. People feel “at home” in a living room and comfortable to lounge, but when you take the living room out of the personal sphere, people can be unsure if they are allowed to relax. At first, we had our couch positioned such that it created a closed-off space with one central seating location. When we moved the couch more to the side and broke up the seating areas, we noticed that people tended to come and sit down, talk, and stay more often. It still maintained the feel of the living room but made it more inviting to first-time visitors.

One of the most interesting aspects of the space was a small, elevated landing area in the stairwell that connected our ground floor with our second floor. We knew we would be able to do something fun with that space, but didn’t have any specific plans during build out and during the first few days. At the same time, we were working with Candlewick Press, a local book publisher, to provide a little library of their books for people to browse and enjoy. When the books came, one of our team members set them up on the edge of the landing, sorted by color. Soon after, kids looking at the books began climbing up on the landing, creating their own little reading nook. We responded to this creative use of space by putting down blankets and pillows, and a stool to help them climb up.

When the month was over, we were sad that this amazing experience was coming to a close. We talked to our landlords, planned for breakdown, and discussed how best to share our story. At the last minute, one of our landlords asked if we would be willing to leave some things in the space for another week or so. We agreed and quickly restructured our breakdown plan.

From the beginning, we knew it would be important to document the process of creating and opening CultureHouse. At the end of the month, we looked back over the past year and created the CultureHouse Manual. You can read the whole Manual at theculturehouse.org/manual.

While we are sad that the July 2018 CultureHouse pop-up has ended, it is only the beginning for this project. We are currently exploring what our long-term funding model and organizational structure will be, and sharing what we have learned with people who are working on similar projects or trying to start CultureHouses of their own. We aim to open up again in the future, so keep you eyes open for the next CultureHouse pop-up!

You can go to theculturehouse.org for more information about the project, and follow us on social media @culturehouseboston for updates on what we are working on next. —Aaron Greiner