Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Learning by Design

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Learning by Design

Article excerpt

The conventional curriculum for aspiring architects takes place in the studio, with long nights at the drafting desk, or increasingly in the computer lab, with each student working independently on hypothetical projects. In recent decades, some architecture professors have challenged that model, pulling students out of the classroom and into the community, asking students to take the skills they've learned to not just design, but build real buildings for real and often needy clients. Known as "design-build" programs, today more than 100 architecture programs in universities around the country include some form of this collaborative, hands-on service-learning model.

Programs like the well-known Rural Studio, run by Auburn University, often focused in their early years on providing affordable housing, gaining an international reputation for the bold and inspiring student-built structures that Rural Studio founder Samuel Mockbee called "shelter for the soul." But in recent years, these programs have taken on public-interest projects, working with neighborhoods, community groups and municipalities to build everything from small pavilions and arbors to entire parks and community centers.

Picking Up Skills in the Pacific Northwest

On the smaller, more tactical end of the spectrum is the University of Washington's Howard S. Wright Neighborhood Design/Build Studio. Led by Steve Badanes, known for his work with the eclectic "Jersey Devils" collective of architects and builders, the Neighborhood Design/Build Studio takes place each spring quarter. Over an 11-week course, students must design and build elements for a local community project. The studio often works with community garden projects throughout Seattle, providing structures like trellises, arbors, pavilions and benches.

"This is a class that gets a chance to make things and work for a community group," says Badanes. "It gives students some exposure to making things. They become better designers because of their practical experience. They also learn to work in a team." The program is challenging, but it's also popular. "It's the reason why most [of the school's architecture] students come to the University of Washington," says Badanes.

One such project was Bradner Gardens Park in Seattle's Mount Baker neighborhood. "It was an old park that was virtually abandoned in terms of maintenance," says Badanes. The neglected park was going to be sold by the city for housing, but the neighborhood stepped in to save it, successfully lobbying the city to change the ordinances that would have allowed the property to be sold. Following that victory, the community began looking for grants to redevelop the park and approached Badanes about coming to work on the site. Over two years, the students built numerous structures, including a dramatic leaf-shaped pavilion. "When you look up toward the ribs of the roof structure, it looks like a cherry leaf, with the parallel veins," says community member Joyce Mote.

Funding was a challenge for the park, but the students' labor provided essential momentum. "It was a $50,000 structure that we got for $10,000 worth of materials," says Mote. That labor also counted as a matching contribution for grants, making the park project especially competitive. Mote estimates about $450,000 was raised, and volunteers have contributed around 40,000 hours to the park.

Most recently, the Neighborhood Design/Build Studio worked with the Beacon Food Forest, a permaculture demonstration garden and teaching space in Seattle's Jefferson Park. Because of the course's tight timeline, students worked offsite in a warehouse, fabricating structures that would eventually be taken apart, moved by truck, reassembled and craned into place onsite. But the effect when installed is dramatic. "It was a really nice moment for [the Beacon Food Forest], because they were just getting out of the ground with the project, and suddenly they had structures and covered seating for the gardeners," says Jake LaBarre, an instructor with the studio. …

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