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Structures for Inclusion...

Monday, March 27, 2006

...in San Francisco, California. A conference walking a delicate line between sharing genuinely useful information with a well-intentioned, generally young crowd, hungry for inspiration on how to make viable careers in community-oriented work (includes me of course!)…..and an over-zealous back-slapping ritual in what can feel like a rather claustrophobic field. Lest I sound like a cynic let me be clear that the content was almost unanimously interesting and pretty varied. I am new to the conference thing so I suppose that on-stage gushing about colleagues is all part of it. In reality the overactive air conditioner was far more perplexing.

Highlights were definitely:

- Dan Piterra of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, who was energetic and humorous and bombarded the audience with stunning statistics on Detroit, witty and beautiful installation projects which appropriated abandoned housing stock in the city (houses bound in clingwrap/planted with alfalfa bundles/wrapped in latex and then ‘peeled’ plus more) and sexy renderings accompanied by suitably gritty electronic beats.

- Antoine Bryant of Project Row Houses in Houston who was easily the tallest person at the conference told stories about fusing art with the restoration of historic shotgun homes, developing affordable housing and campaigning for policy change and ended his presentation with a spoken word call to action. All of our row developed an instant crush on him.

- The Library Initiative through the Robin Hood Foundation Project, which partners with New York based architects to design libraries for under-funded public schools in New York City. Lots of blobby oversized cushions, playful light details and bold graphics interspersed with clips of earnest kids talking about the importance of books (this unsurprisingly turned out to be the promotion video designed to charm potential donors into pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars).

Other people who took up more than half a page of notes in my sketchbook included Larry Scarpa of Pugh and Scarpa, whose practice has both a profit-led and non-profit arm. The latter, Livable Places, develops well-designed affordable housing and works to change planning policy in Los Angeles. He was only one example of the popular ‘happily-ever-after’ presentation tactic which involved an affectionate story about a colourful character framing the beginning and end of the talk. In his case an eccentric Florida folk artist (some connection about art and the everyday) seemed to have risen to national fame as soon as he started buying her paintings.

Also enjoyed insights into Design Corps, Charlottesville Community Design Centre, Public Architecture, Studio URBIS, Shelter for Life, the Tulane City Center (who I had just spent time with in New Orleans) and the City of Santa Cruz housing program.

Repeated themes included forging partnerships with community groups, establishing trust through on-site presence, calls to affect policy, the nuts and bolts of nonprofit administration, debates about the Architect’s Code of Ethics and how to incorporate community-based work into private practice (as opposed to through schools of architecture or nonprofit groups - definitely a key question for me this year). There was less truly interdisciplinary work (apart from some work with artists), for example with environmentalists, scientists or anthropologists (with the exception of insights into ‘Reinhabiting NOLA’ conference organised by the Tulane City Center) or ideas about design as a collective community process beyond just a consultation stage (another interest for me this year), with the exception of the Houston and Detroit projects.

Biggest irony: a ‘Structures for Inclusion’ conference which presents only the designers’ viewpoint on projects and sponsorship by ‘Design Within Reach’, a company which sells furniture upward of the $2000 mark. Most over-used word: ‘community’. Grossest phrase: ‘these people’. Most generic verb: ‘helping’ or perhaps ‘reaching out’. I was interested that ‘CDC’ in the context of my favourite Detroit program stands for Collaborative Design Center, rather than the more common Community Design Center and guessed that was a particularly intentional move. Having struggled with semantics a lot while developing my project I was disappointed that no-one really tackled those intricacies – the fact that ‘community’ can give a semblance of homogeneity to a group of people within which there might in fact be large disparities and conflicting value systems. And that the term is also unspecific on issues of representation – when we claim that the ‘community was involved’ exactly whose voices were heard and who were the (probably large majority of) people that weren’t part of the process?

Gretchen and I also agreed that the leftover vodka from the after-party on Saturday night should definitely have been served as bloody Marys the next morning. But all in all I found it an inspiring and thought-provoking two days. The end of the conference was naturally followed by an afternoon at the races, which in Berkeley turns out to be very different from the champagney aristocratey British version and more like an expanded version of the betting shops on the high streets – loud men, greasy burgers and cigarette smoke. The horse which we had special insider knowledge on, as well as at least a hundred dollars in bets between six of us, came last in its race by well over a length.

If you have a spare eighteen hours

Friday, March 17, 2006

......take the train. You can depart from the centre of the city, the check-in takes two minutes and you’ll have a maximum of three fellow passengers. The first catch of my journey was that the train from Austin to San Antonio was running fifteen hours late (fifteen….) so I was bundled onto a stinky replacement coach instead.

In San Antonio there was a two hour stretch before the train left for New Orleans. Amazingly they were paying for taxis to take people to Denny’s for something to eat. I declined out of laziness mainly, though they do serve up a good pancake there, and munched on my slightly melted trail mix instead. The leisurely pace of proceedings and small number of passengers significantly increase chances of interaction. I debated with a lady sharing my church pew in the waiting room about whether the floor was shaking. I didn’t think it was.

Amtrak trains are double-decked, just like buses in London. There is something really exciting about going upstairs to your seat. There you will find that your feet don’t even reach the seat in front of you, that yours extends back to a horizontal position and that you are guaranteed two seats to stretch across because the whole train only has about eight passengers on it.

The train to New Orleans left on time, but for the first hour shunted back and forward in the station. For a whole hour, back and forth, back and forth. No clear reason why. This was 1 AM. I woke up from a reasonable sleep at sunrise…. 6am….in Houston! Still in Texas! A pink sky dramatically pierced by networks of freeways riding over the traintracks. It is quite amazing to me the untapped potential of train travel in this country, particularly coming from a European perspective. Strange to imagine how this country was once crisscrossed by a dense network of railroads now recorded by forlorn dents in the landscape in every small town you pass through. Odd to think that I could have once travelled from Newbern (my ‘hometown’ in Alabama) to Greensboro (my project site at the Rural Studio) by train. Honestly I think it is a tragedy that this country is not at the forefront of pioneering train travel. That said, the poetic sadness of the beautiful old brick warehouses and rusty silos and abandoned rail cars along the disused railroads is one of my favourite, surreal landscapes in America.

As a devoted fan of the Southern landscape travelling this route could not have been more thrilling. I sat glued to the window, alternating between sketchbook and videocamera. Still camera turns out to be completely inadequate for recording the experience. The train along the Gulf Coast gives you insights into the vast expanses of landscape between cities that you are denied by car travel (landscape equals fast food and gas stations for miles on end) or plane (landscape equals clouds or interesting abstract patterns of landforms). Because the train travels so slowly you have ample time to soak up the patterns of inhabitation: oil fields outside Beaumont, swamps and cypress trees in the Bayou, pine logging and cattle grazing, sparse settlements of trailers, enormous piles of scrap metal and fields of rusting cars, huge abstract forms of magnificent silos, giant sci-fi-ish powerplants, historic downtowns and church spires peeping over roofs in the distance, fields of yellow texas wild flowers, sudden openings onto wide brown murky rivers and the awkward beauty of industrial bridges that carry the trains across them, a dramatic fire outside Lake Charles filling the clear blue sky with menacing, billowing curls of black smoke.

I considered dropping all my Branner plans and dedicating the year to making an enormous linear drawing of the passage from Los Angles to Jacksonville Florida, which are the extents of the Sunset Limited (?) route I was travelling and collecting stories of lives along the railroad as I go. I can’t imagine a more thrilling way to spend my time than sitting in the sun drawing a magnificent silo while the amazing 50 car freight trains trundle onto their destination behind me. Trains turn me into a hopeless romantic. If anyone thinks I should do this instead please email me.

As we eventually pulled into New Orleans, snaking our way back and forth across the river past parking lots of FEMA trailers and neighbourhoods blanketed with blue tarps, conversations in our carraige turned to Katrina. One woman, perhaps a returning native kept saying ‘those levees man, they’re tripping me out, I thought they was big dam like things, but they just little five foot bumps they think they can keep the water out with”. She had some opinions on the government too. “If they gave people some materials and some food to eat for two weeks, their houses would be back up in no time, but they ain’t doing nothing”. Another man related a story of how his cousin knew he was alive only once he saw him on TV helping his grandmother into a helicopter harness from the roof of their flooded home. I also made friends with a guy who is commuting in from San Antonio every week to repair roofs. He gave me his card lest I meet anyone who might require his services.

I thought this was surely the best possible way to arrive in New Orleans for someone who has come to investigate the rebuilding process.

New Orleans Train Trip

Driving over the state line into Alabama...

Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Crawford Alabama

[dating back to Feb 13th] [Chapter One of Four from Alabama trip]

.....is the closest I feel to going home on this side of the Atlantic, the once alien strip malls and trailer parks of the interstate landscape now seeming completely normal. But the Alabama which fires my imagination is found on the back roads, the charming if dilapidated Main Streets of once thriving small towns, the beautiful barns falling into disrepair, the abandoned family gas stations advertising at a dollar a gallon. I still believe the genius of The Rural Studio is in how it reverses the direction of the talented student, if just for a few months, and reinvents the rural landscape as a place of opportunity. In a way the most remarkable spatial organisation it has produced is not in the quirky forms of its portfolio of houses but rather in the colonisation of downtown Greensboro by young, energetic spirits who, without the usual roster of urban activities to fill their time, start occupying places and landscapes in new and creative ways. With a critical mass of like-minded people there and a steady stream of interesting people constantly coming through, living in Hale County became a giant adventure for me, fuelled by the exhilaration of opportunity and responsibility, the freedom of open space, of time spent outside, of a low cost of living, of a slower pace of life.

Blue Barn

In the meantime, because of or in spite of the Rural Studio (who knows?), almost all of the Main Street stores in Greensboro are doing business, a dramatic contrast to any other comparable town we drove through on the way. There are now five or six renovated loft spaces, as opposed to two in progress when I was there. Once storage for the goods and grains sold in the stores below, they are now transformed into amazing living spaces with 18ft ceilings, ornate pressed tin ceilings, wainscoting and fireplaces, huge sliding doors, and clawfoot bath tubs rescued from old barns. Emily and Daniel, whose apartment we stayed in for the week, are living in theirs rent-free after a heroic renovation effort that is basically on-going.

Greensboro Main Street

Daniel Emily Double Photo

Daniel Emily Sitting Room

Before arriving in Greensboro we had driven from Texas (deciding foolishly to take the scenic route, which meant we were still in the state seven hours after we left Austin) to Starkville, where we stayed for a couple of days with Jay, who is working at the Small Town Center, part of Mississippi State School of Architecture. Starkville is an intriguing place, with all the usual features of a small college town in the South - a charming downtown complimented by a sprawl of strip malls – but also with this curious little ‘new urbanist’ district where Jay lives - where you can find every type of classical building style packed densely into six blocks, from mini greek temples inhabited by frat boys, to brick terraced houses facing onto cobbled streets reminiscent of northern British towns, to three storey townhouses, almost unheard of outside the big cities. A gourmet food store, a wine bar and a cheesy margherita joint all within walking distance of Jay’s 150 sq ft studio which the three of us plus two dogs squeezed into. It’s been built up incrementally over forty years by one guy, now the mayor of Starkville, and though it might feel a little like a film set and be dominated by college students, all things considered I’d live there before a brick ranch house suburb any day.


The Small Town Centre has an admirable but difficult mission: advising small towns suffering the effects of policies outside their control – loss of their agricultural base predominantly - on new economic visions for their town. While I was there they were getting ready for a mayors of Mississippi conference. Meanwhile it seems like their post-Katrina work on the Gulf Coast is being somewhat overshadowed by the slick presentations of Andres Duany and his band of New Urbanist evangelicals.

The video camera got its first important outing save for its bumping around out of the car window across Texas, which resulted in at least an hour of completely useless footage. A two hour interview with Jay about his time at the Rural Studio (four years!) and his take on the participatory process (my research subject) was the perfect wake up call after three weeks with my nose in books and my consequent idea of what it meant. Writers on the subject will tell you that the participatory process is one that is not framed exclusively on the terms of, and by the tools of, the designer. Rather, to avoid a singular interpretation (that of the designers) of a situation that may be driven by different sets of values to the users, supple methods are required that interpret needs and desires which may not have been articulated before, particularly not in conventional architectural language. Though they might be translated eventually into an architectural proposal by the designer, the input may not begin life in these terms.

What I realised I hadn’t understood, until listening to Jay talk about his projects, is that a participatory design process which does not begin with discussions over plans and sections, details or materials, may never arrive at those aesthetic or technical discussions either. The designer may still make those decisions alone, but shift the process and language which informs those decisions. For example…Jay and his teammates were building a new backstop for the Newbern baseball team. They were attending the games but their attempts to engage the crowds and players in design conversations were unsuccessful. They organised a town meeting in their studio, where they dutifully pinned up drawings, eager to receive feedback about their ideas. But only three people showed up and they had little to say about what they were shown.

Did this mean that the team didn’t care about getting a new backstop? Not necessarily, but the way of talking about it was completely and utterly alien to the players, who had never encountered an architectural drawing before or thought about their backstop in terms of materials and details. In the end one Sunday Jay was invited to pick up a bat. From then on he played every week with the team for the rest of the season, while his teammates continued to make friends in the crowds. Over this time they came to notice certain things about the way the existing layout was ordered – all the bleachers were shaded in the afternoon with the bench of the away team being the only one that wasn’t, all the vendors had their same spot for selling catfish or beer each week. These observations led them to drop all their plans for new architecturally interesting seating plans and quirky vendor booths. When the end of the season came they took down the old fence with the help of some of the team and simply built a new and beautiful sculptural backstop of steel columns and chainlink fencing - decisions about which had been made entirely by them, but based on their months of attending and playing at the games.

When the baseball season started back up Jay said, to my surprise, that no-one particularly commented on it. Baseball continued as it always had done, the same food being cooked, the same teenagers strutting, kids playing and young guys competing for the flashiest rims on their tyres. When we tell stories of the Rural Studio people like to hear best the tales of transformed lives, perhaps the baseball team who went from losing every game to the top of their league courtesy of their new field. But in fact, perhaps fortunately, it is much more subtle than that. Was it a participatory design process? Maybe not in the way that I read in my books it should be. But in the fact that Jay played on the team for four years, becoming in the process a trusted and integral part of that community and able to make decisions in that context, I think more so than any kind of survey process could ever be. The backstop continues to impress visiting architects and new students with its detailing and gracious form and for everyone else, it probably does a better job than the last one of keeping stray balls in the field.

Likewise, in building a house for Music Man - a prophetic, eccentric, charismatic bachelor who communicates in a completely different way to anyone I’ve ever met - a conversation about walls and doors and materials is simply never going to unfold in a way that helps you make straightforward design decisions. Instead, as second year instructor, Jay encouraged students to spend time on site, clearing the vegetation, going to church with Music Man, building first a small room he was able to move into from his dilapidated trailer. That same room also allowed them to build mock-ups of the details for the house and to speculate about how Music Man might inhabit his future home. There were endless debates in the studio that I can remember about what kind of attitude should be adopted in relation to Music Man’s passion for hoarding, particularly plastic bottles and bags and redundant electronic equipment. The space in which he lived in his original trailer was actually carved out of a dense mass of these agglomerated objects. Should students try to reform his unhygienic penchant for ‘junk’? In the end a decision was made to build a house with a really tall pitched roof, which would retain a feeling of spaciousness even if he filled the house up again after a few years. Sure enough, three years later exactly this has happened and the generous roof pitch performs just as the designers hoped it would. No-one really knows if Music Man ever uses his shower and toilet which he never had before this house. And as close to him as we are in a funny way, I don’t feel like I’ll ever really understand what moves him to label and retain every bag and bottle he comes into contact with, to record every movement and visitor on a piece of paper and attach it to a clothes line that is strung across the middle of the room, to store his giant speaker and guitar in his bathroom. But that really is part of the magic of knowing him, the poetry of coming into contact with a reality so far from your own and finding friendship nonetheless.

Music Man Pointing

Music Man Double House

Putting together this proposal...

Sunday, March 05, 2006

....has been one of the best and most frustrating things I’ve done in my life. It’s gone through so many iterations and had input by so many different people, the wretched thing has probably been rewritten now about twenty times. After years of tacking words onto the end of my visual projects at the last minute, I’ve realised that this process is in fact not dissimilar to a studio design project, a constant reworking and tweaking that you’re never quite satisfied with. The difference this year is that I have to impose my own deadlines…. much harder!…..

The research has shifted from being broadly interested in the process of activist architects who work in unconventional ways in vaguely ‘other’ locations, to a more focused (I think!) exploration of the modes of communication and exchange the same architects use to inform their participatory design processes.

‘Participation’ is this strange word that bumps around a lot in the field of architecture I’m interested in, referring basically to the empowering of clients and users to play an active role in the design process. It is meant to tap into the contextual knowledge that the architect doesn’t have access to, that which is embedded in the everyday experiences of the client/user. This kind of process is a given in private residential projects where the client and user are one and the same and, since they’ve sought out the architect, likely to be active in the expression of what they want or need. But it is a much trickier process when comes to projects where the client and user are different, large scale development projects or community projects where there are multiple stakeholders. ‘Participation’, where possible, is assumed to be a good thing. But the premise of my proposal is….“Given the multitude of ways in which the input of users can be engaged, the participatory process is really a creative project in itself”……(in other words it is possible for it to be badly designed too)….
“It requires the design of organisational frameworks and communication tools and the negotiation of knowledge and power imbalances, conflicting value systems, multiple agendas and social and cultural divides…..”

In architecture we are trained to use a particular language, a particular set of tools, to talk about our ideas in a particular way and to define our role in a particular way. But the ways in which we communicate and collaborate with other disciplines and non-architects is a subject that receives much less attention. To me, how you set up that collaborative process, particularly with people who aren’t trained in design, is really interesting and not straightforward either. How useful are plans to someone that’s not used to reading them? All the people I am interested in take on this subject in an innovative and creative way, stepping outside the usual frameworks and tools, challenging modes of practice and expanding the ways in which we imagine working as an architect.

My interest definitely stems from my time in Alabama where so many factors caused me to question my preconceptions about the design and production of architecture: how ideas were talked about, the range of people you interacted with on a daily basis apart from your peers and professors, the studio being an old barn right in the centre of town, communicating design ideas with a client from a very different socio-economic background, how the energy of students was harnessed collectively to achieve results that never would have been possible alone, newsworthy architecture suddenly being produced in the deepest recesses of the rural South…

Right now, having got the research to a stage I’m sort of satisfied with, later than I would have liked perhaps, I am in the middle of negotiations about where I’m going, so more details coming soon! Meanwhile reports from the trip back to the Rural Studio next up…..

Like most things I do...

Friday, March 03, 2006

……..this blog is a little late in arriving. Luckily the number of friends inquiring politely as to its whereabouts reached a critical mass and last night I sat down to dabble with HTML code for the first time. What this basically means is that I’ve been too much of a design snob all these months (it’s been approximately a year since my friend Hana’s blog inspired me to consider one) to use an off-the-shelf template, finding myself appaulled at the corporate style headings and gaudy patterned backgrounds. Despite all pretensions not to be, it turns out I am that dreadfully predictable architect: I like my web pages white.

So here it is. What’s it for? I seemed to have acquired a bad habit dating back to 2003 for moving to places where my friends and family aren’t. As soon as I settle I seem to pack my bags and move on. As a result I’m in possession of a spidery network of friends I’m hopeless at keeping in contact with. Now I’m at it again, this time embarking on a year of travel thanks to a generous grant from the University of California, Berkeley, where I have been doing a Masters for the last eighteen months. This should mean that there will be something interest on here from time to time, better at least than anything I had to report last year (stayed in the studio again until midnight, ate chicken curry from Julie’s Healthy Cafe, limited myself to two cups of coffee from Strada). There will be architecture stuff for those of you interested in my research and hopefully not too much of it for those of you that aren’t. Either way this blog is for the dear readers of it, so let me know how it is for you.

Meanwhile this debut posting is burdened with the challenge of summarising the last six weeks, which was made up of many hours in front of the computer and books in Texas during January (which, in the cowboy state, feels like perfect English summer), followed by a road trip across the South to favourite old haunts in Alabama in February. Original plans to go to Caracas in January were postponed in favour of sorting out first where I was going the rest of the year, who I was visiting and what exactly I was going to be researching (another post coming shortly). Old friends and new projects in Alabama served as a testing ground for a recently acquired video camera (!), interviews and experiments in how to record information as I’m ‘on the road’, as well as providing plenty of fodder for thought (another post coming shortly) as I get my project started. I’m back in Austin now, planning a two-week trip to New Orleans before flying out to Berkeley for the Structures for Inclusion conference and to poke my nose into the thesis studios in Wurster Hall, where the all-nighters are no doubt already in full swing. After that I will finally be leaving the country, heading for the great and glorious lands of Europe while the bank balance is still reasonably balanced.

This blogging thing is sort of fun.