3600 Spenard Plaza

Organization and community: Cook Inlet Housing Authority (Anchorage, AK)

3600 Spenard is a three-story building, with retail space on the first floor and 33 one-bedroom units on the upper floors. In 2016, Cook Inlet Housing Authority issued a call for artists to “advance the design of a small plaza as a permanent enhancement” in front of the development project. They provided: guidelines for working with artists; project details and the building architect’s plans; and very detailed guidance for artists on the purpose, functionality, and design of the plaza. It was a learning experience for the organization — one artist responded that they were invited too late in the process, after the planning and permitting for the building were already underway. If the artist had been engaged at an earlier stage, they would have suggested reorienting the plaza in relationship to the surrounding landscape, because the architect had oriented it toward being able to look at the building rather than the surrounding mountains. Ultimately, the organization did not work with any of the respondents to this particular call, but the process and lessons learned allowed them to rethink their approach, not only for this installation, but for future developments. 

For the plaza Cook Inlet Housing Authority went back to the drawing board and sought inspiration from the Dena’ina land where the development was built. Initial research by Cook Inlet Housing Authority led them to the words of Dena’ina cultural leader Aaron Leggett, who had recently written about his ancestors being “under his feet” in Anchorage. Reaching out to Aaron led to a collaboration with him and Inupiaq artist Holly Nordlum. Together, they worked to find an artistic way to represent that at the development site, Fish Creek was “under our feet”, in a culvert. They settled on a Dena’ina story of Salmon Boy, where a young boy turns into a salmon because he did not respect the salmon that he ate, as a lens and connection to water and the ever important animals and animal spirits of Dena’ina land. The collaboration brought the story to life in colorful art panels accompanied by a storyboard at the site. Another local artist, Chad Taylor, designed fish weir inspired benches to be placed in the plaza where people could sit and enjoy the artwork and the natural beauty of the site. The Alaska Native story and art enabled Cook Inlet Housing Authority to honor the site’s history and the Dena’ina in their community. The 3600 Spenard development received a 2018 Award of Excellence in Affordable Housing from the Journal of Housing and Community Development.