BY BRIAN LIBBY
In recent decades, smokers in public buildings and spaces have been pushed further out to the margins: not just outside the doors of architecture, in some cases, but a stipulated several yards away. But when you're an art school, it's par for the course that some students are going to smoke. Without condoning smoking itself, why not give smokers a better place to smoke?
That was just one of the motivations behind the new Burn Box, a shelter recently constructed at the Oregon College of Art & Craft as part of a collaborative design-build project involving students at both OCAC and the University of Oregon.
"As things started going forward we were really interested in having this conversation between hands-on competence, this knowledge through making, but also this idea of architecture students bringing something," explains OCAC professor Karl Burkheimer, who head's the school's wood department oversaw the project along with UO architecture professor Nathan Corser (also of IDC Architects) as part of a joint-school design/build class.
When OCAC expanded its hillside campus (off SW Barnes Road) with new buildings by Boston-area architect Charles Rose, the lower pathway leading into the school became more or less the front door. While the Rose buildings are handsome and thoughtfully designed, one first encounters leading to them a large concrete wall as part of an accompanying stairway. At the bottom of the hill beside the parking lot, a makeshift tin-roofed smoking smokers' shelter had been built a few years before, but the OCAC and UO students, working through their ideas with San Francisco-based architecture firm Anderson Anderson Architecture, decided to build a new shelter into the hillside.
"It’s not so much about smoking but a place where everybody can hang out, the smokers and the non-smokers," Burkheimer adds. "And so this was an idea of really having a pavilion or some meeting point, some recognizable point of gathering. "
The Burn Box is constructed using stacked pieces of standard 4x4 wood. "The 4x4s intrigued us because it was just one size of wood," one student, Michael Prohov, told me on a recent project tour. "At this point in the game we were still designing as we were building, so having the same sized module allowed us to start work while we were still figuring out some of the other elements of the design. it also matches with some of the old shingled buildings around the campus. Anderson Anderson Architecture had an interesting charrette process, where we were really freely sketching ideas by hand and doing some modeling. That got things started, and at a certain point we narrowed it down to three concepts. This 'stacked' concept is one that we all really liked. Everybody was really drawn to this idea because of its simplicity, and it terms of material and construction we all felt we could get it done in the 10-week span. It’s trying to preserve the idea of stacked dimension of lumber and then carving it out and creating a connection on the outside. It's also adding clarity to the arrival point of campus, and circulation for how you get up to the visitors center, and just as a statement that tones down that concrete wall as it relates to the landscape."
The stacked wood pieces were charred on the outside using an ancient Japanese technique called shou-sugi-ban meant to provide protection against rotting and insects. But it also became an aesthetic move, especially after OCAC students painted the edges of the stacked 4x4 pieces. From a distance, the smoking shelter now looks like a stack of matchsticks.
Inside the shelter, the natural color of the Douglas Fir was retained. Overall, both inside and out retains a kind of fundamental roughness, a textural patina that nicely compliments the more pristine Rose buildings. It's not just the roughness of the 4x4s and their charring, but how some of the Burn Box's small mistakes were celebrated. When students had to drill into a piece at the entrance, art students made small little carved coverings for them.
"I think that really is what the success of the project was," Burkheimer says. "That’s kind of our philosophy here: we avoid mistakes but when we make them we’ve got to do something with them. This building really was very much, I think for these guys, an expression of that. You move forward without tearing it down and starting it over. It didn’t have to be pristine. It needed to be used more than pristine. And there's a sense of ownership that's come out of that. Sometimes architects want something to stay precious and pristine for a long time. It needs to match the photographs for the next five years. But I think whenever you photograph this piece, it will be different. That’s part of that craft language: who ever has it takes it and adds to it."
The Burn Box has a deceptively simple form, like a square tunnel or a shoebox open at either short end. That said, the walls are not rigidly straight but instead have a subtle undulating shape. The project was hand-modeled, but it seems to show the influence of parametric 3D modeling software students and architects often use today, such as Grasshopper 3D. Sitting inside, the walls, floor and roof all are partially permeable. It brings an ideal balance of feeling protected from the elements but able to see out from a variety of vantage points through the lattice-like facade. When people approach the structure you have a kind of hint that someone’s coming but you still have this private space to yourself. One student even used the Burn Box as a setting for a trial run thesis exhibition, festooning it with countless flowers. The small cubbyholes created by the crisscross of stacked 4x4 pieces have also inspired OCAC students to fill them with small figurines, toys and found objects.
"People have drawn to it immediately," Burkheimer says. "It’s become a real gathering spot. And the fact that the OCAC students have started decorating it and using it for installations is a sign it’s being accepted readily by the community."
What's more, the Burn Box shows how much inter-school and inter-disciplinary efforts such as these can bear fruit. Burkheimer says discussions are already underway about future design/build projects shared by the schools, be they permanent or temporary constructions, art installation or practical architecture - or both. "I think you find a lot of times in academia a separation between art school and craft school and design school," he says. "It’s realizing these constructs are sometimes not as strong as we think they are."