The reputation of the Auburn University Rural Studio founded by the late Sam Mockbee stands as a benchmark for innovative and exuberant design with a deep social conscience. In this manifesto for the designbuild curriculum in architectural education, Tolya Stonorov reinforces the legacy of pioneers like Mockbee by examining 16 hands-on programs, all of which bridge architecture to the construction process and have a strong sense of community engagement. In so doing, she adeptly demonstrates the value of extricating architecture students from the confines of the studio and immersing them in the act of making.
The Island Design Assembly—led by Jonathan Marvel (Marvel Architects, New York), Stephen Kredell, and John H. McLeod (McLeod Kredell Architects, Middlebury, Vermont)—whisks students (via kayaks) to an island in Maine for an intensive program that partners with rural schools to create small-scale agriculturally oriented projects. If it sounds like fun and games, the account reads more like an episode of Survivor, with windstorms, foraging for seafood, and an all-night design session that ends with ordering materials in the wee hours of the morning for delivery by boat in the afternoon. The delightful results show that “architects can elevate ordinary things like a farm stand or a chicken house or a compost bin into something extraordinary,” says Stonorov.
In her own 804 Lab at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont, she demonstrated digital technology’s contribution to the design-build process. Her project involved making a portable gallery in a gutted Airstream trailer, the “Archistream,” to take art and architectural exhibitions to rural communities around the state. The design incorporates layers of plywood fins cut with a CNC router to form an intricate undulating interior. In one instance, the students wrestled with digital glitches and finally resorted to a handsaw—a lesson in problem-solving that would be difficult to replicate in a traditional studio.
The German University of Cairo produced playgrounds for Syrian refugee children in Egypt and revealed thoughtful methods of getting children and other stakeholders involved in the design process. At the University of Washington in Seattle, design-build pioneer Steve Badanes (of Jersey Devil fame) had his studio craft an urban-farm “supershed” that houses garden-based educational and support facilities for a nonprofit group working with underserved youth. Badanes has refined an approach to consensus design that encourages students to discard the mindset of an individual designer and work as a team toward a single product.
In presenting these case studies from the U.S. and five programs overseas, Stonorov lets each instructor give a firsthand account of a recent project. The instructors’ intimate connection to the projects, students, and design-build process gives their experiences vividness (and several are stellar storytellers), although the narratives are at times jarringly different in approach and style. The book is an excellent reference for educators interested in design-build, or for anyone looking for a resource that highlights the value of engaging students outside the classroom, in hands-on service to the larger community.