Bin(ge): Repurposing an Icon
For the 2016 Design Residency, we attempted our first rural project site and design challenge: to transform three unused grain bins into new useful spaces for the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt. We worked closely with staff from Polk County Conservation, the owner of the 8,300-acre park, to develop the site into the welcome center first prescribed from the previously developed master plan. We brought in nine of the best graduate students in the country to Iowa (many for the first time) to explore not only the site, but the people and culture of the agrarian Midwest as well.
The three bins on the site are among a series of agricultural remnants from a farm which was started in the late-nineteenth century. While the bins themselves are not "special" in terms of architectural interest or rarity, they are a symbol of a small-scale agrarian past which is quickly disappearing. Grain bins are frequently unused now, due to the prevalence of large-scale farming operations; when harvesting over a 1,000 acres of fields, smaller "family-scale" grain bins simply aren’t useful.
The students started their exploration by a unique immersion into the site. They canoed the oxbows which meander through Chichaqua, then met with Polk County Conservation staff to discuss ideas and expectations for the site. That night, the students even "camped" at the Longhouse, in an attempt to get more time on the site. The following morning, the Residents met with a naturalist who walked them through a typical educational exercise – water quality testing. The rest of the second day was spent getting a background on the agricultural and natural history of Iowa, as well as an exploration of how grain bins have been repurposed in the past.
The 2016 Design Residency concluded with the unveiling of a new destination: The Bins at Chichaqua. The Residents laid out a vision of a site which would illustrate our connection with the land. With the tagline: "illuminate the past, explore the future," the proposed site would encourage a frank understanding of our past relationships with the land, as well as provide new spaces to develop innovative solutions to our current challenges.
Underlying the physical improvements to the site, the Residents also proposed a system for future programming: draw, learn, connect, return. This simple motto aims to ensure all new events, structures, and programming attract people to the park, connect people with their surroundings and history, and develop relationships and activities to get the visitors to return. This cycle will hopefully develop new generations of land stewards who not only examine their relationship to the land, but perhaps improve our collective relationship with our environment.