LAS VEGAS, NV, June 8, 2019 – Remember the good ol’ days of architecture school when students would design wildly elaborate, impractical, and unbuildable buildings? When the reviewer would comment on an impossibly long cantilever, and we would just say that it was supported by a ‘gravity inverter,’ have a good laugh, then go home and sleep for 17 hours? Well APPARENTLY those days are over, and students today are designing things that…help people? Engaging in their communities and working with neighborhood agencies to address social issues, transportation issues, climate change, and a host of other issues over the course of their studios and beyond. Despicable.
I learned this at the 2019 AIA Conference on Architecture, during the Intersections Symposium entitled, “Community Connections: Inclusive Strategies for Urban Infrastructure,” presented by:
- Bryan Bell, Executive Director, Design Corps; Associate Professor, NC State University (Moderator)
- Courtney Crosson, Assistant Professor, University of Arizona
- Sergio Palleroni, Director, Center for Public Interest Design; Professor, Portland State University
The symposium opened with presentations by Sergio Palleroni and Courtney Crosson, and was then turned over to an open-discussion dialogue with the attendees. Let’s see what happened.
Sergio Palleroni: WITH Sacramento
Portland’s own Sergio Palleroni opened with a presentation on WITH Sacramento, one of his (ever-growing list of) projects through the Center for Public Interest Design (CPID,) of which Palleroni is the Director. In early 2014, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) reached out to CPID looking for ways to utilize public interest design to “address the needs of some of Sacramento’s most disinvested neighborhoods,” as the project’s webpage explains. With such an open-ended project program, Palleroni, along with colleagues Todd Ferry and BD Wortham-Galvin, began an involved period of research, stakeholder meetings, and site visits in an effort to identify what this program meant and what issues were most critical to address with public interest design. From this research, two community partners were identified in the neighborhoods of Del Paso Heights and South Sacramento, and from there, the projects were brought to studios at the Portland State University (PSU) School of Architecture.
lucky buggers students first had the opportunity to travel to Sacramento, meeting with community leaders, government officials, and project stakeholders to better understand what needs were most critical and how/what the students could help design to address these issues. As Palleroni put it during the symposium, they found that “transportation and access to neighborhoods was bad by car, and nearly impossible by public transit,” leading the studio to focus on rethinking bus stops. “What if bus stops became an amenity,” the studio asked? “What if we could re-imagine a(n) ________ as a bus stop?” The project webpage continues:
Ultimately, the project partners have chosen to move forward with creating a series of transit stops that can double as community centers, providing design support for existing facilities, designing a manual that empowers communities to create their own transit stops, and planning a community recreation center and tournament sports park.
Students helped facilitate this by using studio to design a variety of bus stop concepts. Not stopping there, the group worked with a Madrid-based design firm to create an app for neighborhood residents, allowing users to offer feedback, identify challenges and opportunities, and share the needs and wants important to them in their neighborhood. Palleroni noted that the app comes integrated with Google Maps, allowing users to drop pins and notes directly on the locations to which their feedback relates.
And all this time, I thought the foam-formed plaster models that I made in school were innovative… These guys and their app development, man, they’re not messing around!
Courtney Crosson: The Ensuing Flood
As if we weren’t already inspired enough, symposium attendees were treated to a second presentation of studio projects addressing climate change, this time by University of Arizona Assistant Professor Courtney Crosson. Crosson, speaking about Tucson, Arizona, noted that the area typically experiences long periods of dryness dotted every so often with very intense periods of wetness. The region, Crosson explained, faces a unique dichotomy of both extreme flooding and water scarcity, which she has explored in her studios via projects that address this issue, in coordination with communities, government officials, and stakeholders.
With these proposed major infrastructure interventions, Crosson asked the question, “How can architects debunk the myth that infrastructure projects are massive, expensive, and top-down?” She proposes a response to the question in the following three ways:
Creating a series (network) of small interventions or solutions rather than one large one
Creating interventions that have several benefits to the community rather than only addressing a single issue
- Bottom-Up Approach
Engage the community as an integral part the decision-making process
“El Con Mall,” Iryna Olson and Peraya Mongkolwongrojn, Courtesy University of Arizona/issuu
Crosson illustrated these responses by sharing a series of student projects that contained some or all of the three principles:
“Flooding + Urban Wildlife” (Orianna Cascarano and Chung Lin) showed a project that proposed transforming an old airport runway (!!) into a beautiful space offering recreational opportunities, places to eat lunch, and an abundance of flora that made the space both beautiful and friendly to wildlife native to the area. And, by the way, it managed and filtered water via a series of retention ponds, culverts, basins, and swales.
“Flooding + Pedestrian Safety” (Amal Anoohi and Thomas Yazzie) looked at an especially wide street (which – editor’s note – I assume is relatively common in Tucson and other cities around the region) and noticed the inverted crowning of the pavement. When inundated with heavy rain, these roads turn into what I picture as canals even grander than those of the Venetian Resort just down the street from the convention center ballroom in which Courtney presented. The proposed intervention of this project introduced sidewalks, bike paths, medians, and roundabouts to the street, making it both more pedestrian and neighborhood friendly, and managed water through an infiltration network that paralleled sidewalks, bike paths, and berms. Multi-beneficial, indeed.
“Flooding + Heat Island” (Iryna Olson and Peraya Mongkolwong) explored the location of an old mall surrounded by a parking lot (pictured above) that is far too big for the needs of the mall. A boon to the urban heat island effect, the lot also collects a tremendous amount of water and, via Christmas wash, dumps all the water into neighborhoods far away from the mall, leading to flooding in these areas. (Talk about a liquidation sale!!) The proposal sought to address both the flooding and the heat island effect by reducing the size of the parking lot and introducing green space in the form of a playground, dog park (Design Pup approves,) multi-use park, and an amphitheater.
“Monsoon Game” (Crosson, et al.) Courtney closed her presentation by sharing the creation of the Monsoon Game, created by students as a form of community education. The game includes a set of cards each illustrating an area or property that students identified as being most critically in need of intervention. Another set of cards each contained an intervention to help decentralize flood mitigation – swales, native vegetation, basins, and the like. How the game works, exactly, I am unclear, though it’s a great idea and I would love to find out. Seems like a good way to take a break from Cards Against Humanity, and switch to a Cards in Favor of Humanity game, if you will.
Thank You, Next?
So the students are off saving the world, and that’s all well and good, but as professionals and/or academics, how can we better engage with the community? How do we deal with organizations and agencies? What can designers do to get a bigger seat at the table when so much attention is focused on engineering?
“Send a schedule” to the organizations and agencies you’re interested in partnering with, commented Courtney. “Invite them to bi-weekly charrettes,” she noted in reference to studio projects. “Meet [community members] on their grounds. Remember that these are parents, sometimes working 2-3 jobs,” Sergio added, underscoring the point that scheduling can be difficult, but not impossible by any means.
The conversation continued with Crosson expanding on her experience as a designer working with the community. “The more information you have, and the deeper you get into a project, the more clarity you have on who should be involved,” adding that knowing who to reach, when to reach them, and how to be respectful is different in every situation, and a “design problem of its own.”
As for the question of how designers can work towards gaining a bigger role in infrastructure projects, the conversation largely focused on academic institutions helping to bridge the gap between communities and design firms. “We don’t compete with firms,” Sergio noted, “we enhance the process. We do the initial work, then bring that work to firms – as a consultant of sorts.” He went on to describe that studios and college classes working with communities and institutions help to “bridge the gap” between the community and design team, acting almost as ambassadors of the profession. Courtney concurred, “Academic engagement helps to inform the [communities and institutions] of the value of architects.” “They are blown away by the work that students create,” she noted, in reference to members of the community, institutions, government agencies, and stakeholders, particularly when these parties engage in charrettes or sit in on reviews. “[The student work] is often noted as being better than the work professional consultants are currently providing.”
Well frankly, if the Mayor of Minneapolis showed up at my undergrad review at the University of Minnesota and saw my plaster models, I would like to think he’d have been equally as blown away by my work. Certainly better than any plaster model consultants employed by the city at that time. But I digress.
Keep up the great work, guys. The world needs you.
Portland Design Pup traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada for the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019 this past June 6th-9th to explore the influence that Portland architects and designers are having on the national architecture scene. We attended four sessions led by Portlanders, as well as the investiture ceremony for the 2019 Class of Fellows, which included five Oregon architects. We will be sharing images and recaps of each event in a 5 part series of articles, of which this is the third.
About the AIA Conference on Architecture 2019
Every year the AIA Conference on Architecture travels to an iconic city for three immersive days of what’s new and now in architecture and design. Industry leaders and experienced professionals attend A’19 in search of the hottest new products and technologies.
Images courtesy Timothy Niou Photography unless noted otherwise. Note: Our coverage of the Conference is not affiliated with or endorsed by AIA, AIA Portland, or AIA Oregon.