Okayyyyyy, I'm back at the GSD to watch "If You Build It," directed by Patrick Creadon (2012), a film about the origins of Studio H's design/build education taught by Emily Pilloton and her team of teachers (including GSD grad Hallie Chen!).
Studio H now hails from Berkeley, but the film focuses on the project's origins in rural Bertie County, one of the poorest places in North Carolina. Pilloton and co-founder Matthew Miller arrive with a grant, a truck full of stuff, and an agreement with the local school board that quickly unravels due to resistance to change among the town's leadership. Pilloton and Miller continue on without salaries in order to teach their high school students--young people who say things like "School--I hate it. My dad hated it. My grand-daddy hated it. I'm carrying on a tradition."
In retrospect, the work that Pilloton and Miller do in the film goes way beyond Bertie County; it was a proof of concept, to demonstrate the potential of a design/build curriculum to be transformative for its students as well as for its community. In the world of the film, though, you don't yet know about the successes that Studio H would find in California, with a staff, a ton of corporate and institutional backers, and a TED Talk under Pilloton's belt. You're just immersed in the world of Bertie County and the lives of the community, this class of students, and their teachers.
I don't want to describe the whole plot, but I should explain that the class has the students progressing through three projects. The first is simple--cornhole boards, which are basically just a board with a hole cut in it, for people to play corn toss games. It's very basic but gets the students to learn how to read drawings and use tools, to appreciate craftsmanship, and to have a chance to express themselves in the way that they each colorfully paint their own creations. Moving up in scale and complexity, in the second project the students design and build their own chicken coops, because the area has a lot of chickens. The third project is the longest: it's a collaborative process for the whole class, and the construction extends into the summer with the students being paid for their work. Going in, the plan is for the third project to directly respond to a need in Bertie County. Pilloton and Miller explain how they don't want to determine what the third project will be in advance, so that it can instead develop from conversations in the community.
Just a few tidbits to give you some texture:
Emily Pilloton: "I went to college for architecture, then got a degree in product design. After a few years working in the corporate product design world, I had enough. So I opened a non-profit..."
"To say that the public education system in Bertie County is an understatement." It's a county in which a small business with four employees and a Domino's pizza opening in a year are the economic achievements for the year.
The "H" in Studio H stands for "Humanity, Habitats, Health, Happiness." As Miller says, "It wasn't really about design. Design was the vehicle for us to begin talking to these kids…"
A Studio H student says: "The idea of us designing something that's going to be used by our community, is kind of crazy--we're only high school students."
It's a beautiful film, engrossing and skilled; and its message goes well beyond what I expected even though I knew something of its reputation.
It struck me for two reasons.
First, simply, the film expands way beyond design itself to deal with what design and design education can do for people, including non-designers. This message is validating for those of us who work in architecture or architectural education, but more importantly has the capacity to touch a much broader audience than, say, the enjoyable but more in-crowd-ish "Archiculture," directed by David Krantz and Ian Harris.
The other reason that "If You Build It" struck me is that in architectural education we face the fact that the demographics of architecture students skew towards the wealthier side, and that populations that underrepresented in higher education and the professions are even more underrepresented in architecture schools--and are then more and more underrepresented the farther and higher you go in the profession of architecture.
What this film shows, for me, is that this does not have to be the case. The design/build education that Pilloton and Miller offered their students appeals to these young people because it's hands on: it lets them use their imagination, skills, and hands to build something real that gives back to their community, when they had no idea that they were capable such a thing. It appeals to young students from poor and working class backgrounds who aren't interested in being students in the limited ways that their schools have thus far presented to them. And interestingly, the very criticism that architecture and other design programs face, in higher education and K-12 alike--that it's labor and therefore cost intensive, with many contact hours and small classes--is precisely what allows Pilloton and Miller's presence in Bertie County to change these kids' lives and their community. It's about being real with these young people, in the sense of building something tangible with their own hands, but simply also relating to them as real people, in the way that a studio-based design education demands.
Design. Build. Transform. That's the motto that's written large in Studio H. The vision that this film presents makes clear that a design education isn't a luxury for the wealthy, but a necessity to give young people of all backgrounds a fair chance at succeeding in education and in life. As Pilloton observes at one point in the film, at the end of the class there will be a building; it'll be giving back to its community through its program and through the collective act of its creation--and that's a result that's hard to argue with.
If you have an interest in architecture, education--or, you know, the economic and cultural future of America--I strongly recommend that you check out this film. Here is a listing of screenings.
Thanks for reading!
Lectures and exhibitions, news and events, now primarily from the Bay Area! Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in many cases a video of the event is posted online by the event's hosts.