Design/Build 2011: “I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.”
incoming Applied Craft and Design students give residents of a Portland juvenile detention center a place to be among books.
“I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” —Orhan Pamuk
These words from Turkish author Orhan Pamuk are now stenciled across the balcony of the new library and learning center at the Donald E Long Juvenile Detention Center. The new space was designed and built by the incoming class of graduate students to the joint MFA program in Applied Craft and Design (ACD) as this year’s Design/Build project.
The Design/Build project is an intensive two-week curriculum that launches each incoming graduate class in the ACD program. This year, students worked with and were mentored by Jack Sanders of Design Build Adventure and multimedia artist Butch Anthony. Together with Sanders and Anthony, the nineteen new students spent eleven days transforming an empty housing unit at the detention center into a dynamic space that celebrated literacy and learning.
The goal was, as incoming student Molly McKeown ’13 put it, to “give kids and librarians a place to be among books.”
“The challenge was really big,” reflected Jack Sanders on what the group faced when they began the project. “That room was just awful.”
“Night and day isn’t even adequate to describe the difference between what we were working in before and now.”
The room in question was a housing unit: sixteen rooms on two levels that opened in a semi-circle onto a communal living area, with access to a small, enclosed basketball-court. The room was oddly shaped, and intensely sterile, the few pieces of furniture bolted to the ground. The student teams also had to work around certain institutional constraints: no gang colors, nothing that could be used as a weapon, no sharp corners, everything had to be wipeable or easily cleaned, and sight lines needed to remain open.
“Night and day isn’t even adequate to describe the difference between what we were working in before and now,” said Sara Ryan, Teen Services Specialist for Multnomah County Library. “The collection is [now] in a space that is itself engaging, a really fabulous development.”
Kevin Hunking, Principal of the Donald E. Long School, expands, “It will be something students in Multnomah County and those housed here will benefit from for years to come.”
The project was conceived in a series of conversations between administrators at Donald E. Long and Barry Sanders, PNCA’s writer-in-residence. For the past year, Sanders and students from one of his classes at PNCA have been teaching writing to residents at the detention center. Before the library was moved to its current location, it was housed in a dark, windowless 15×15 foot room, the walls lined with bookshelves. Students were given five minutes a week to pick out a book. Senior administrators and librarians at Donald E. Long dreamed of a more inviting home for their library, a space to conduct classes and offer more support for reading and for learning. But for a long while it seemed only a far-off wish.
“We had a dream,” explained Kevin Hunking. “I knew what we wanted to do and Barry said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Sanders then approached Reuer, chair of the MFA in Applied Craft and Design, about enlisting the enthusiasm, creativity and technical know-how of his graduate students to make the new library a reality.
“It was a good fit for Design/Build,” JP Reuer explained. “The project was a rich one: in it, we had the potential to explore what a library means and what a learning center means. It would be very informative to students who didn’t have a lot experience with those places. And Barry would be a wonderful asset in the process, a great client representative. He had a big influence on our students, inspiring them with his enthusiasm for the project.”
The goals of the Design/Build intensive are rigorous: in less than two weeks, students research a project, identify stakeholders, consider material and budget limitations and end with the fabrication and installation of the finished product. The project facilitators, who in past years have included Steve Badanes from Jersey Devil, and Portland designers Kari Merkl and Sara Huston, model productive time management and client relationships. The challenging but ultimately satisfying project requires teamwork and teaches effective and patient collaboration. In a concentrated amount of time, incoming students learn the strengths and weaknesses of their peers, practice productive communication strategies and gain immediate familiarity with studio workshops and tools.
“You begin to value your work differently,” says Reuer, “and to look at process in a different way. You are forced to acknowledge that process is critical.”
Early in the process the students met with four of the residents at Donald E. Long to ask their opinions on the space and what they would like to see in their new learning center. The students wanted the design teams to create something that inspired and to see themselves somehow in the decisions. One of them expressed a wish for a quote from Gandhi.
The finished learning center bore little resemblance to the original unit. A series of thick stripes in coordinating colors were painted along the walls to disguise the doors to the empty cells. Quotes from Alice in Wonderland, Orhan Pamuk, and, as requested, Gandhi (“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”) graced the walls. A handcrafted reading circle made out of wood and leather occupied a small open space in the unit while an impressive bench made out of a single, massive log filled the courtyard outside. The shelves were rearranged and enhanced to fit into one corner of the room and under a few railings. The students also constructed four dioramas illustrating scenes from famous works of literature – Narnia’s Mr. Tumnus by the lamppost, Moby Dick and a storm-tossed whaling ship, Max and one of the Wild Things, Alice falling through the rabbit hole – so that when residents peeked into one of the cell door windows, they would be transported to a world outside the detention center.
That final Thursday, as students buzzed around the room adding last-minute coats of paint, installing furniture built off site, troubleshooting, and cleaning up the small piles of sawdust and scattered tools, others involved in the project wandered around the space, taking in the changes and the attention to detail.
“I have to be honest,” said Hunking, “when I walked in here two days ago, I thought to myself: Thursday? This will be done Thursday? A collaboration by everyone here in eleven days… it’s extraordinary.”
Craig Bachman, manager of Donald E. Long, added his appreciation, saying, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for myself, my staff and the kids we work with. We’re really excited.”
After the students presented the finished space to the administrators, librarians and superintendents of Donald E. Long, Barry Sanders spoke of the invisible but long lasting impact this new space will have on residents at Donald E. Long.
“You can be proud of this for the rest of your life,” Sanders said to the graduate students. “The number of people whose lives you’re going to affect is incredible.”
He paused then and looked around the new library, at the bright colors and inspiring quotes, at the artfully designed dioramas, and at the new shelves and seating.
When he turned back to the group, he smiled and said, “I think I’ll cry if I say anything else.”
There was a general murmur of agreement.
“I think we all cried at some point,” student Zach Pollock quipped.
Later that day, the group gathered again at the MFA studios in the Bison Building to debrief on the Design/Build experience. Over chips and salsa and with beers in hand, they went around the circle sharing their impressions from the project and what they would take away from the experience. On the whole, the reactions were overwhelmingly positive, as students cited shared camaraderie, the pride of having done a job well, learning new skills and collaborating with peer artists as among the highlights from the past two weeks.
Eric Trine ’13, another of the students, reflected, “It was about creating opportunities for choice. I viewed it as an opportunity to choose how I’m going to be with my ethic, my attitude, with my group and peers, about choosing to allow myself to receive from my peers. It was getting out of the way of myself and choosing how I want to be. It was about choosing wisely.”
Coren Rau ‘13, one of the incoming students, added, “When I think of what is possible, what we all bring to this group, it’s this incredible, eloquent thing. I’m incredibly proud of what we made.”
Watch a video about the 2011 Design/Build project:
Watch a slideshow of the work in progress: