BY BRIAN LIBBY
The very phrase seems somehow so very Portland, as if would inspire writers for the Portlandia TV show to immediately stand up and take notice: an urban barn raising.
That was the event I attended Saturday at the Bison Building, headquarters for the MFA program in Applied Craft and Design offered jointly by the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Oregon College of Art & Craft. The barnraising - both the construction and the collaboration necessary to pull it off - was headed by grad student Billy Rueck.
How do you build a barn inside a building? Well, it was a small barn and a big building. The Bison, located on NE 10th Avenue near Glisan, consists of two warehouses next to each other. In one warehouse, a vast empty space allows students and faculty room to experiement. The other warehouse is a hive of different student studios. In one, I noticed an artist working with several reclaimed old teddy bears. From the ceiling was suspended a wood sculpture that seemed like a model of Noah's ark made with sticks, which turned out to be the result of a lesson from artist Patrick Dougherty, who designed the "nest" (a small meeting room made from woven sticks) at advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy. And in the back is an old Airstream trailer that serves as the office for JP Reuer, head of the MFA program.
"Connecting design thinking to design doing," the program's website explains, the Applied Craft and Design MFA is grounded in hands-on making, entrepreneurial strategies, and social and environmental engagement." Students work one-on-one with "designers, makers, and scholars in a self-directed curriculum that challenges them to bring to life the full strength of their ideas and skills." It's a cross-disciplinary studio environment "in which the workshop is a lab to collaboratively explore design and making processes."
As it happens, this Friday, May 6, the Applied Craft and Design program will be having an exhibit of first-year students' work from 6-10PM, which includes Rueck's finished barn. The Bison Building is located at 421 NE 10th between Flanders and Glisan.
Barn raisings, traditional ones at least, are interesting in they are half construction, half community event. Common in 18th and 19th century America and Canada, traditional barn raising were events in which everyone living in a small village would join together (often a mandatory act) to assemble a barn for one of its households. A barn was often the largest and first structure built by a new settling farm family, and the most expensive. And while not everyone participated in the design, the gathering of materials and other acts before the raising itself, these final-act raisings by an entire community helped create one of its initial and fundamental acts of social welfare.
Contemporary popular culture has often ridiculed barn raisings as quintessentially antiquated acts, part of the accoutrements of agrarian society - particularly Amish and Menonnite ones - along with overalls, long beards and horse drawn buggies. Yet, like a modern Habitat for Humanity construction job rendered with time-lapse speed, a barn raising is a gift of labor to those in need.
It reminds me of a comment that political strategist James Carville makes in the D.A. Pennebaker documentary The War Room, about Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential race. Clinton has just won the presidency, and Carville, manager of the campaign, is thanking his staff in the Little Rock campaign headquarters. “Outside of love," he says, breaking into tears, "the most precious thing you can give of yourself is your labor…you people showed you could be trusted.”
In the case of the urban barn raising I attended, it admittedly wasn't a highly populated community event. Only a few students, faculty and mentors were there in the Bison Building warehouse working on the project between bites of Voodoo Donuts. Yet if PNCA and OCAC indeed seek to provide a laboratory for collaboratively exploring design and making, reviving such old-time endeavor as a barn raising could not be more ideal. (That said, I do wish updating the MFA program blog was an equally focused endeavor. There was nothing about the barn raising on the site.)
Yes, today architectural design is more high-tech than ever. Frank Gehry started using CATIA software intended for NASA well over a decade ago. From e-coated glass to structurally insulated panels, building materials are rapidly becoming able to deliver efficiency and sustainability without compromising aesthetics. Yet there is also a parallel trend, a rediscovery of hands-on craft. It's not just for grandmothers making afghans, or hippies making clunky pottery and cobb benches.
That a student might build a barn with wood, hammers and nails, and a few fellow students, only twelve blocks from the river that bisects the center of a city of over a million, and then someday go on to work with sophisticated BIM (building-integrated management) design tools, is arguably the type of yin-yang we need on a broader scale: a future of invention that is rooted in the fundamental, always relevent lessons of the past.