Design Build 2012: Community Building through a Community Building
Incoming MFA in Applied Craft and Design spend ten days constructing a community bike hub for North Portland's New Columbia neighborhood.
It’s the last day of Design Build 2012. The corner of N. Woolsey and N. Trenton is hopping, and the Portland summer is still holding on: more than a few of the students will have sunburns this evening. Trailers and trucks are lined up against the lot, empty now of the materials they’d hauled over. One man cuts cedar boards on a pair of sawhorses. Two women are kneeling beside a generator-powered sewing machine, stitching together lengths of heavy-duty sailcloth. Children are rolling each other in tires down the slight incline of the field, and their high-pitched laughs can be heard above the burred hum of the cement grinder and skill saw. Teams of three students hammer lathe along the walls of an angular wooden building in the middle of the empty lot.
That vaguely Nordic-looking building is the reason everyone’s here. The nineteen students working on it are first-year MFA candidates in Applied Craft and Design (AC+D, for short), a program jointly sponsored by Pacific Northwest College of Art and Oregon College of Art and Craft. For ten days now, students have labored over the design and construction of a new bike hub and repair station for the New Columbia neighborhood in North Portland.
This is the fourth AC+D Design Build project. Each incoming class of students spends the first days of their graduate career in an intensive, roll-your-sleeves-up, dive-right-in design project meant to introduce students to each other, to iterative making, and to a stakeholder driven design process. This year’s project was more ambitious than usual: multiple stakeholders, larger architectural scale, and increased community involvement. The students have been mentored throughout the process by practicing artists and designers. This year, for the second time, the project is led by Program Chair JP Reuer, and visiting artists Jack Sanders and Butch Anthony.
It’s 10:30 in the morning on the last day of the project, the clients and community stakeholders will be arriving at 3pm, and still no one looks frantic. Yet.
Ten days prior, these students hadn’t known each other’s names. They’d never heard of New Columbia, nor been to North Portland. Many of them had never built anything larger than a watermelon.
The project begins with an involved discussion about what it means to work in groups. The AC+D program’s warehouse studio space, nestled in an industrial pocket just south of I-84, is cool and filled with a watery morning light. Huddled in teams of six around the studio, the students compile lists of the possible pros and cons of group work. Halfway through, the “cons” category gets renamed “challenges.” It’s a sign of good things to come.
“How will you commit to doing something well if you don’t like the decision?” JP Reuer, chair of the Applied Craft and Design program asks during the large-group discussion afterwards. “What’s your motivation?” He pauses, then elaborates. “In this case, the team is always more important than the individual. The process is always more important than the product.”
Among this incoming class of students are graphic designers, a tintype photographer, a hand embroiderer, community organizers, and event planners, among others. There are artists who work with metal, with soft sculpture, with ceramic, and with wood. It’s an eclectic group, but that’s to its credit.
It means that from the beginning, these students are thinking “outside the box.” They’re not architects, but artists.
Jack Sanders, one of the project mentors, learned the design/build process from Samuel Mockbee, an architect and the co-founder of the celebrated Rural Studio program in Hale County, Alabama. Architects, Sanders notes, tend to default to a specific set of tools: they might dig a hole and pour cement, or they might rely on steel and wood, but they might not, for example, think to weave a bench out of retired bicycle tubes. By contrast, past AC+D Design/Build projects have included illustrated dioramas, succulent garden walls, and upholstered benches.
“Here, there are other skill sets and experiences,” Sanders says. “I don’t feel any pressure to come up with an idea because they’ll have so many. My challenge is to keep things feasible. What’s doable in two weeks?”
“This first week is about idea generation,” says Reuer. “It’s about concepts and plans. Next week, we start building. We don’t start [building] too early, and we don’t belabor the decision-making process.”
There are a few hard and fast constraints: the final bike hub cannot be larger than 200 sq. ft., for example. Yet even within those parameters, some early sketches and models show whimsical bike “trees” and cement patios printed with bike-motifs. Brainstorming sessions include a lot of “what if’s,” “how about’s,” and “we could’s.”
“This is something I feel passionately about,” says Alisha Sullivan ‘14. “Zealous, even.”
“Our goal is to build a bicycle hub for a neighborhood in North Portland in need of a hub… and perhaps in need of other things too.”
“It went well. They’re really involved with lots of ideas,” says Meghann Gilligan ’14.
Christian Donnelly ’14 adds, “It helped narrow our focus and define limitations.”
But it wasn’t all easy sailing. “We received a lot of conflicting feedback because there are so many stakeholders,” says Emily Wyant ’14. “They said, ‘no’ a few times.”
Some recurring themes surfaced from the meetings with the New Columbia community members: stakeholders and residents want the eventual bike hub to be cool, iconic, and artistic. They hope it would be graffiti-proof and eco-friendly. They envision a place where residents could learn about bike culture, participate in workshops, and congregate as a community.
“Our goal is to build a bicycle hub for a neighborhood in North Portland in need of a hub,” says one student, “and perhaps in need of other things too.”
What is now New Columbia was once Columbia Villa, a public housing site originally built in 1942 for World War II shipyard workers. Poor infrastructure combined with physical, social, and economic isolation led to a crumbled, blighted neighborhood.
In 2001, the Housing Authority of Portland (now Home Forward) applied for and received a $35 million dollar HOPE VI) grant (developed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to launch construction on a new, mixed-income housing community and community campus on the site of the aging Columbia Villa neighborhood. New Columbia was born. It is the largest neighborhood revitalization project ever undertaken in Oregon’s history.
New Columbia is made up of 854 housing units on 82 acres, which include public housing, affordable renting, senior housing, and both market rate and affordable homes for sale. Bikes paths and streets connect community-friendly front porches, parks, and public spaces. New Columbia is remarkably diverse. 37 languages are spoken at Rosa Parks School, a new public elementary school in the center of New Columbia. Residents also have access to community gardens, to affordable food at local grocery stores, and to the local Boys & Girls Club and University Park Community Center.
The Community Cycling Center began partnering with New Columbia in 2009 through a series of earn-a-bike programs. Soon after, a CCC sponsored community conversation inspired New Columbia residents to organize a series of rides for neighborhood children called “We All Can Ride.” With the construction of the Bike Hub, the CCC can equip and maintain a bike repair outpost in North Portland
In summer 2011, Home Forward approached the CCC to discuss opportunities to transform a vacant lot into a safe space where kids could ride their bikes. The empty lot had become a safety concern and John Keating, Home Forwards’ Director of Strategic Partnerships, was looking for a solution that would help New Columbia youth stay active. Almost half of New Columbia’s 2,500 residents are young people. Later that fall, the CCC received a $10,000 grant from Bikes Belong to build a bike skills park and community bike hub.
“As a New Columbia resident and ride leader, I see the need for the Bike Repair Hub,” says Michelle Hanna. “Kids have bikes that need repairs. For one reason or another bikes break down, and we need something there to get the bikes fixed so they can just enjoy riding them.”
Soon, the students have whittled the their brainstormings down to a few core ideas.
Caitlin Sweet ’14 explains, “We were looking at the commonalities between our ideas. What did we all think was interesting? And what’s feasible considering our time and budget?” She smiles. “No one wanted a square building.”
Alisha Sullivan ’14, another of the students says, “At the beginning, we were all pretty serious, pretty constrained. But then Jack and Butch, and the New Columbia community members blew our ideas out of the water. Think big. Think wild.”
Brian Hutsebaut ’14 adds, “And then hone in.”
Fast-forward again to that final day of construction. Students have divided into teams according to interest to tackle the various parts of the project. A few of the students pour cement, others build a collection of welded and woven benches. Still others work on constructing the actual building or stitching together an exterior awning. On break, students are sitting together, chatting amiably.
The progress has been swift: “It’s kind of like when you see someone who’s lost a lot of weight,” explains Caitlin Sweet ’14. “If you had been here day by day, it wouldn’t have been as remarkable. But visiting… One day, they have a platform. The next day: walls! I missed it yesterday, and – poof! – now they have a roof!”
Those who aren’t resting have bandanas around mouths and noses. Ed Key ’14, who’s manning the cut table, is wearing ear protection, as are those grinding the edges of the cement patio. School buses are driving by, and children congregating on the corners. Neighbors and community members look on curiously. Two residents have also lent an extra hand for the day.
“I got blank stares from the concrete team. I don’t think any of them had any idea what a concrete pour was,” laughs Jack Sanders. “I sent them to YouTube to Google ‘concrete.’”
“I’ve never mixed concrete before,” says Danny Hodges ’14, “But I’ve made waffles!”
“I’ve become a concrete connoisseur,” says Sarah Davis ‘14. “I can’t stop looking at concrete!” She described the process, using terms like “aggregate large chunks.” “It took over two hours to pour. We had plans to do designs on the patio – radiating lines, a north line – but by the time we got a couple feet from the end, it was hardening. So we had to scrap that idea.”
“Last year,” says Sanders, “it was a little more clear what skills people had. Upholstry, paint, welding… But this year, the scale’s a little more evened out. We [JP, Butch and I] would sit on the porch each evening and talk. Who’s a good manager? Who’s a good maker? Good with material? And I’ve been so impressed. Emily there? She runs an event management business in Southern California. We needed more material, so she got on the phone and tracked down all the material we needed. And Alisha? I don’t think she’s touched the ground all day. She’s been up on the ladder the entire time.”
He goes on: “Skills they thought were real light duty you can apply or transfer to heavy duty. It’s the same damn thing.”
Leah Brottman ’14 does fine hand embroidery. “There was a small connection,” she admits. “Tying the rebar reminded me a little of doing French knots.”
“It’s been really up and down,” says Caitlin Sweet ’14. “Sometimes everything has been really great, really fun, everyone’s on a roll. At other times, it’s like, ‘This sucks.’”
“I was promised tears,” says Meghan Chalmers-McDonald ’14, “but we didn’t get them. Everyone was professional. Letting things go when you needed to, talking things through. No body complained.”
At the end of the day, students and community members form a circle underneath a tree to talk about the experience.
“It was so meaningful for us to participate in a project that’s going to have a lasting impact on a community,” says Alisha Sullivan ’14. “We’re contributing to the beginning stages of something great.”
“Community building. That’s what you’ve done. That’s what we’re doing in New Columbia.”
“It was fun. What we ultimately built has more spirit and is better than anything we could have come up with individually one,” says Sanders. He reminds, “Another part of the project, equally as important, was to get to know each other. And that was 100% successful. There’s not a doubt in my mind. They’re in a great place to start the semester!”
Butch Anthony affirms, “It was great. It was a big project and really ambitious.”
“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished,” says JP Reuer. “It was an ambitious goal. I’m excited about what will be here when we’re gone. I did that. We did that. And I’m most interested in what exists between the I and the we, in the space between.”
Charles Robertson, one of the community leaders at New Columbia perhaps says it best: “Community building. That’s what you’ve done. That’s what we’re doing in New Columbia.” He pauses to look around the circle. “Welcome to our community.”