Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

  • anchor

    Review - "If You Build It," directed by Patrick Creadon

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Jan 30, '14 12:06 PM EST

    Hi Archinect!

    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!


    If You Build It Official Trailer


    • Hi Lian,

      I went to this movie and I think you have to be more critical than you are. Naturally it is hard to disagree with the stated objectives of Studio H, which are to improve the dismal level of education through empowering hands-on shop classes and to do something towards the regeneration of economically deprived rural regions in the US.

      The grant money for this class was $150,000.- and on top of this Studio H was not paid a dime in salaries (according to the movie) due to internal power struggles and financial trouble at the Bertie County School board. This hardly sounds as a viable model for regeneration of these communities. Not every community can get grants like this. Although I admire Studio H for what they did, and I respect your idealism, there are structural macro economic issues here (the bleeding dry of the countryside), which need to be solved at government level. (not to mention the rise in tuition fees over the past 30 years).

      I don't know if you have followed the passing of the recent farm bill, but it spells more of the same, large subsidies going to big farms, very little to small firms and cuts in food stamps.

      This to me shows that the US is nowhere near to getting serious about poverty and equality, and that these problems are not design issues as you seem to suggest. The point for me is that the tackling of poverty and improvement of education needs to get out of the charity sphere and into serious policy changes (minimum wage, progressive taxation, no more corporate welfare).

      Jan 30, 14 4:20 pm  · 

      I havent seen the movie (perhaps wont) but am very interested in these broader discussions. 

      Thomas, these critiques are important as a loose notion of "doing good" just cannot be enough. I agree  -- the problems they attempt to tackle are systematic and often social/public design just touches the surface -- if even that. 

      It is important to bring context to this conversation -- Bruce Nussbaum in his "Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?" began a critique of Social/Public design generally with Piloton/Project H singled out to sustain his argument:
      Her response:

      However, I also find it unproductive to have such an overreaching critique as not allowing any work to take place.

      So, what to do? First, these type of discussions should be encouraged as we need to find the place to have a conversation. Second, I think, we need to heed Neil Brenner's advice to the Creative Time Summit this past year:

      That means to take a hard and critical look at any cultural production that is looking at space and has a "political" ambition. 

      "placemaking", "social praxis", "sustainability", blah blah blah design - even with good intentions - can and will help neoliberal forces without a critical check. 

      So, I will echo Neil in saying, do your "placemaking"/"social" project -- if you must -- but dont pretend you are doing "good". Just stay dialectical. Stay aware. Know who you are fighting and how they can co-opt you.

      Jan 30, 14 9:24 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Thomas, it sounds like we share some similar ideas about public policy, but to me it's not either/or. We need both top-down and bottom-up solutions, and there is a place where they come together.

      Jan 30, 14 10:51 pm  · 

      This is awsome!  It reminds me of the apprenticeship programs they have in Germany that prepare many not college bound young people to work but in a more localized and ground up fashion.  I would also not over think this kind of initiative too much.  Everything can get coopted by other forces, whether they be called 'neo-liberal' or corporate, or whatever.  The point is to start something positive where there is so much negative and in so many of our small towns, there's little to no hope for many young people. 

      This kind of "shop" class where you are working towards not only a marketable skill, but boosting self esteem and improving one's own community can't be supported enough.  I wouldn't look at this as "who you are fighting" but rather who you are trying to help, and right now so many communities in America need this kind of hands-on work.  You can and should have all the conversations you'd like, but these kids are looking for more than a conversation, they are looking for something concrete.  Top down and bottom up, just do something more with our education dollars than send people to college or resign them to fast food work.  We need a strong middle and this seems like a great initiative.

      I know this is just a clip, and everything is manipulable, but some of the emotional reactions I saw are the last think you would find in archtiecture schools.  Combining the design and build seems to engage the mind in a way that the endless and contextual-less conversations of studio class seem to lack.  On some level, the re-blending of mind and matter, science and art, the mending of a cartesian bifurcation seems to be at play.  I think there's more to this story than a simple feel good moment.

      Jan 31, 14 7:08 am  · 

      this is great! 

      Jan 31, 14 4:53 pm  · 

      Block this user

      Are you sure you want to block this user and hide all related comments throughout the site?


      This is your first comment on Archinect. Your comment will be visible once approved.

    • Back to Entry List...
  • ×Search in:

About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

Affiliated with:

Authored by:

  • Lian Chikako Chang

Other blogs affiliated with Harvard University:

Recent Entries