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Douglas Park minigolf course redesign exposes West Side teens to architecture

Interactive models of the course are on display at the Space p11 gallery in the Chicago pedway

Photo by Nathan Keay, courtesy Space p11

A grassroots project to redesign the dilapidated Douglas Park miniature golf course in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood is teaching teens about architecture, design, and the environment.

Known as Douglass 18, the project will reimagine the rundown attraction and open as early as this summer. Details of the plan and examples of the student-created designs are currently on display in the Chicago pedway in Space p11—a self-described “off-grid gallery” dedicated to art, architecture, and culture.

The Douglass 18 project takes its name and spelling from Frederick Douglass, an African American who was a central human rights leader of the 19th century.

The idea to improve the overgrown open space was the brainchild of local artist Haman Cross, who was exploring a small community-based art installation and activation in Douglas Park in 2018. When Eric Hotchkiss, an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, got involved with the project, it grew to include the entire miniature golf course.

“No one was really taking care of the course, and it needed a lot of infrastructure,” Hotchkiss tells Curbed Chicago. “The first step for us was establishing a sense of community buy-in and getting the neighborhoods involved.”

At that point, Hotchkiss formed the Conservation Architect Team. It consisted of students from schools without any art programs and the experience provided valuable exposure to design and fabrication.

“It’s like a job for them,” adds Hotchkiss. “They’re learning engineering, architecture, and prototyping skills as well as how to communicate and talk about what they’ve created.”

Early on, the team partnered with Lincoln Park Zoo to give the project a naturalistic focus on birds—the park is home to over 200 native and migratory species. Each hole aims to educate the public on specific bird types and larger ecological themes, including the deadly collisions with Chicago’s skyscrapers that routinely occur during migration season.

The designs went through many iterations, starting with rough cardboard mockups that traveled to community events such as block parties and advertised the project. Those prototypes evolved into more practical models where the students could then test how their layouts functioned. Once the gameplay was tweaked and finalized, the students focused on aesthetics.

The p11 exhibit displays some of the early conceptual paper-mache models created by students as well as high-quality renderings from partner Site Design Group. There’s even a scale landscape created from three-dimensional scans that shows how the redesigned course will fit into the area’s existing topography.

Space p11’s Jonathan Solomon, who learned about the project from colleagues at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, says the exhibit will encourage an important dialogue about education, public space, and stewardship.

“Putting the exhibit here allows the diverse populations that use the Chicago pedway on a daily basis to interact with the designs and provide feedback,” Solomon tells Curbed Chicago. On special activation days, the holes were moved out of the gallery into the pedway passageway for commuters to try out.

“It provides something unexpected: the natural environment of a golf course inside the constructed environment of the pedway,” adds Solomon. “It makes a lot of sense for our gallery, where we’re constantly exploring the relationship between the natural and the artificial.”