BY BRIAN LIBBY
In 2000, I was working in a usually pristine gallery of modernist style when, for a month-long exhibit curated by architect Mark Lakeman, the gallery was transformed into something more like an artists' barnyard. The polished wood floors were covered in straw. One artist in the show, Brian Borello, started making plaster sculptures for everyone right there on the bed of straw. A filmmaker, Vanessa Renwick, connected a video screen showing her work to a bicycle one had to ride in order to make the video play. (Linda K. Johnson also helped create the exhibit.) It was a stinky, dirty, chaotic zoo of an exhibit, and we in the gallery were a little cranky about the various smells and unconventional approach.
But there was method to Lakeman's madness. Suddenly an otherwise sleepy American Institute of Architects gallery was full of people for the month. Visitors laughed at the absurdity of modernist architecture (a 1990s Jeff Lamb design with a hint of Miami Vice slickness) turned into a farm-like ambiance, and they reveled in the chance to participate in the art making with Borello and Renwick.
I thought of that lesson -- the importance of participatory design and art, the need to sometimes step outside of modernism's obsession with clean-lined boxiness -- as I spoke recently with Lakeman about next week's Village Building Convergence, an annual ten-day placemaking festival that combines crowdsourced activism, creative community development, hands-on education and celebration.
You see, it's easy to be dismissive of the Village Building Convergence and the nonprofit Lakeman heads that's behind it, City Repair, for one basic reason: the community projects it produces (over 40 this year), such as cob benches, public art, painted neighborhood intersections and streetcorner shelters, all seem to have an aesthetic associated with the hippy and granola set. VBC and City Repair projects often have wild, organic shapes and are made of nontraditional materials. To someone used to judging projects rendered in glass and steel with big budgets, these small community projects look like ambitious efforts of children or members of some native culture without modern building materials. The aroma of unshowered laborers and incense seems at the very least implied.
Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss what the Village Building Convergence does, for there is a principal here far more important than style.
"It’s grounded in a pre-colonial view of participatory, culturally-generated human habitat," Lakeman says of the cob and rammed-earth techniques and materials often favored in VBC and City Repair community design efforts. "On the other hand we have this whole waste stream we tap into of any number of materials to be repurposed. We’ve made car hoods into front porches, car doors with rollup windows as a wall system. The level of invention is absurd. People need to take off their stylistic glasses for a second to explore it. This is the edge of experimentation. Nobody feels like they're taking a risk. You’re worried about getting your next job. But in the community the big risk is not talking, not participating."
He believes reactions against City Repair projects say as much about the accusers as the accused. "If you get kids involved who haven’t gone thought design school, you’ll see a wider array of expressions and more feministic ones. Every body seems to have more of an ability to express whimsy and humor than architects. Normally, everything we see built in society has been designed by white men in their 30s, 40s and 50s, before women or people of color had any rights of participation. But I think of Vetruvious, who asked, ‘Does architecture lead or reflect society?’"
Lakeman believes process in today's architecture is not appreciated nearly as much as product, something his group seeks to change. "The idea is to activate the social capacity by getting excited about a vision," he explains. "You want every kid to say, 'I helped with that.' Not an architect talking about getting in a magazine. It will change the behavior of youth if they feel connected to a common thing. Pride, identity: that’s what we’re cultivating."
Lakeman has been practicing in Portland for decades and part of the design community even longer. A son of local architects, he grew up idolizing local designers like Robert Frasca and Greg Baldwin of ZGF. After receiving an architecture degree from the University of Oregon in 1985, he even spent two years working at the firm. But as he traveled during the 1980s and '90s to indigenous cultures around the world, Lakeman came to believe that contemporary American architecture, at least that designed for mainstream public and private entities, had sucked the life out of design, not in a way that prompted some cartoonish response like post-modernism, but instead in a way that made him seek a more primal, community driven design. He founded a nonprofit, City Repair, to get involved designing for people of need in local communities. "City repair is about creating a world that expresses our values," he explains.
It was actually Pioneer Courthouse Square that helped inspire Lakeman toward community-driven design. "We had this current of participation and we had to defy the mayor to make it happen," he remembers. "It happened in partnership with businesses and people across the city. We’re just taking that out to where people live. The American way of developing the land: it’s whole scale, pre-digested product. It’s designed in an incomplete way. A developer has no notion of how to engender cultural fabric. They’re lay out whole places without having places to sit, to act or to get what you need. We have to build design literacy and re-associate people with simple democratic processes. But we have so much packed away that we can now share. It’s exiting to come out of isolation. I’ll go to some other city and tell a bunch of Portland stories, about partnership culture. Everyone says, ‘oh my god.’ It’s a story they can relate to: there is a place in the world where the tide is starting to turn and the scales are tipping. You can do the impossible and make it ordinary."
Complementing the volunteer and nonprofit efforts of City Repair, Lakeman's architecture firm, Communitecture, often helps clients take a next step after grassroots efforts have brought them together.
"I’ll go out and talk to a bunch of homeless people about City Repair and how we can help them. Then three years later I’ll get a call from PCUN, Cesar Chavez’s organization, who want us to design their project because they saw what we did for the homeless. And they want to lead the nation in their facility. So we’re doing the nation’s first Passive House office building." The result is Capaces, a 2,800 square foot farm workers' union hall that is on track to, like Lakeman says, be the first office the United States designed to meet rigid Passive House standards. In addition to a minimum 75% energy use reduction from a code building, this project will manage all of its water runoff on site with the use of vegetated swales and a living roof.
"Just like City Repair projects, you’re bringing together a huge social fusion. The goal is to get people to talk and share. In City Repair, our architecture is made out of social fabric. In Communitecture, it’s architecture but by the same means. That’s why we’re able to do so much with so little." The 41 volunteer projects that City Repair has planned for the Village Building Convergence will cumulatively cost only $12,000.
"It’s a common thread of archetypal culture building in all the different village based cultures I've visited: it’s placed based, working by hand, and responding to climate and geography," Lakeman adds. "That tends to be sustainable over time. Their architecture reinforces their social culture. Their agricultural and energy systems they generate, they source what they need and it’s sustainable. What’s not sustainable is some empire scale where judgment and decision making is remote from work."
Another example, and a local one, of Communitecture's not-pristine yet undeniably compelling recycled and organic aesthetic is The Rebuilding Center on North Mississippi. From its facade of old reclaimed windows to its playful evocation of old growth trees, the building seems to wear its mission in its physical makeup. In 2003 Lakeman and City Repair were awarded the national Lewis Mumford Award by the international organization Architects & Planners for Social Responsibility for his work with Dignity Village, one of the United States’ first self-developed, permanent communities by and for previously homeless people.
The 12th annual Village Building Convergence will be held from May 25 through June 3, with events throughout the city but centered around St. David of Wales Episcopal church at 2800 SE Harrison Street.