Last March, I was walking around Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, close enough to the waterfront to hear seagulls and taste the air’s salty tang. The sun was shining through the wet, winter drizzle. But when I stepped into [storefront], Olson Kundig Architects’ pro bono experimental art space, unexpected senses confronted me: the sound of people talking at a lunch table in a dark room; the dank, earthy smell of oyster mushrooms growing on used coffee grounds; the moist heat of a greenhouse.

What use could an architecture firm possibly have for “Mushroom Farm,” as the installation was called? The co-directors of [storefront], firm principals Alan Maskin and Kirsten Murray, AIA, found four. It was a chance for the firm to experiment on a new architectural form, a greenhouse. It was a way to engage with the community, as passersby were invited to sit and have lunch next to the mushrooms. And it was a way to give back to the community, as it highlighted the sustainable practices of local farm Cascadia Mushrooms. All three of those combined to make the fourth: "Mushroom Farm" helped raise awareness about waste streams, climate change, and food, and Olson Kundig and its partner on the project, CityLab7, donated some of the mushrooms to local families in need.

This kind of quadruple-whammy is exactly what Maskin and Murray were going for when they proposed the storefront idea to the firm in 2011. At the time, Pioneer Square was a kit of disparate parts. On the one hand, it’s the most historic part of the city, where Illinois settlers laid down roots in 1852, and where architects rebuilt a beautiful swath of red Richardsonian Romanesque buildings after the Great Fire in 1889. But on the other, it’s  home to the city’s homeless services, and where the Great Recession hit the hardest. At that time, The Seattle Times counted 21 boarded-up shops in a 12-block area, and nicknamed the neighborhood “Seattle’s poster child for the recession.”

Olson Kundig was looking for ways to engage the community when its neighbors started closing up shop. So they decided to lease one of those storefronts and use it as a public space for architectural experimentation—aiding the immediate problem of vacancy, as well as solving that first problem of community engagement.