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If you build it will they come? Can a high school class in rural America transform their town with architecture?

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Two architects attempt to transform the American state education system in a povertry stricken small town with design. This documentary tells their tublulent but remarkable story

Contrary to popular belief, China’s economy will not overtake America’s as the largest in the world anytime soon. New data puts the US economy firmly on the top well into the mid 21st century. Meanwhile the USA’s GDP per capita is consistently in the global top 10 while China’s languishes at 87th place. But this rosy picture is deceptive; skewed by vast wealth concentrated in the hands of the few. Plotting income differences between the top 20 per cent and bottom 20 per cent of earners reveals that the USA is one of the most unequal societies on earth with pockets of near third-world-level poverty growing fast.

Bertie County is such a pocket, a flat swampy district on the west coast of North Carolina and a case study in rapid rural decline as America’s booming cities soak up talent, investment and prosperity. One in three children in Bertie live in poverty, the capital Windsor has more derelict buildings than inhabited ones. There are no cinemas, bookshops, libraries or leisure centres. Five restaurants serve 20,000 people and there are no registered architects in the entire county. It was into this depressingly common story that in mid 2010 Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller launched Studio H, a radical pedagogical intervention attempting to use architecture and design to transform public education for the good of the wider community. Their turbulent journey is the subject of a recent documentary, If You Build It, directed by Patrick Creadon.

If You Build It Trailer

It doesn’t take long to establish the bleak character of Windsor. Shots of a solitary teenage boy riding his bike past boarded-up shopfronts and dusty roads speak volumes as Pilloton’s voiceover explains the backstory of how new head teacher Dr Zulincher invited her and Miller to reinvent the school’s shop class with their new curriculum.

Almost immediately disaster strikes, the visionary head teacher is sacked by the conservative school board who quickly set about undoing many of his innovations including Studio H. Pilloton and Miller strike a deal in which the board generously allows Studio H to continue providing the couple work without pay or financial support from the school. From this point on the film tracks the fragile project through its evolution as 13 disgruntled teenagers warm to the unexpectedly hands-on curriculum, grappling with everything from SketchUp to spot welding culminating in the building of a new farmer’s market for the whole county.

Combining humanitarianism and design education is nothing new; the work of Rural Studio has influenced a generation of American architects while Scotland’s Mackintosh School of Architecture recently launched a humanitarian architecture unit. However Pilloton and Miller are not working with highly educated undergraduates but much younger, much less wealthy teenagers, few of whom (if any) will go on to careers in design. Studio H is not about an education in design but about design as education itself. 


Vendors sell produce at the opening of the farmers’ market. Photo: Brad Feinknopf

After four rocky terms the completed 186 square metre market is unveiled. It is elegantly proportioned, well built and thoroughly practical, an open-sided timber frame contains eight stalls arranged side by side recalling horse stables. A deep ribbon of louvres above head height provides solar shading in the muggy summer and a visual strength to the scheme. By night, shafts of light filter out between the slats transforming the market into a slotted light box. The scheme would be an outstanding example of sensitive community architecture even without the radical pedagogy running alongside but a frustrating lack of explanation distances the audience from the quality of design. For example, the structure incorporates pad foundations with stout concrete piers raising it clear of the flood plain but this shrewd feature goes unmentioned leaving accreditation of this key innovation vague. Did the class consider the risks of flooding? Are they responding to the unexpected floods that struck Windsor in term two causing widespread damage? Were the piers Pilloton and Miller’s addition? Many similar questions spring from a broader lack of detail that weakens the audience’s engagement with the programme and its architectural outcome. 

Adding to a sense of detachment the director has edited out tangential distractions from the programme, indulging only briefly in tracking the lives of Studio H’s students. There’s Erik, a promising athlete with a scholarship in the offing who wants to become an architect. He’s a key figure in the class whose angular designs echo Californian Googie styles, but after following him to a key football match in which he appears to fumble a critical catch under pressure, his story peters out. Another student Jack’s family have been farmers for generations, a legacy he at first seems determined to continue. When his accomplished market proposal is chosen for construction we wonder whether this might prove the catalyst Jack needs to set his ambitions higher than simply looking after his dad’s farm, but frustratingly we never find out. Creadon has succeeded in reining in a bundle of competing narratives to tell a coherent linear story but in prioritising clarity over complexity he has sacrificed both human interest and architectural understanding.


Erik and Matthew Miller work on the farmers’ market during the school summer holidays

The film’s title (a truncated reference to a line from 1989 Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams, often misquoted to ‘If you build it they will come’) reflects on the documentary’s central theme of community engagement. It questions whether the act of building in itself is enough to obtain the buy in of a community no matter how engaging its architecture. If you build it will they come? And if they do will they care? 

An illuminating side-story told in flashbacks follows Miller as a student of architecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Frustrated with architectural education, for his graduation project Miller designs and builds a 200 square foot] house in flood-damaged New Orleans. Full of altruistic enthusiasm he leases the house to a deprived family for peppercorn rent but is mortified when the family do not make a single payment, eventually forcing him to evict them and sell up. Returning with a video camera to the now neglected and derelict house, Miller reflects that the family considered his generous offer a hand-out. Without a meaningful stake in the building, his tenants did not value it even when they had the financial incentive to do so. The lesson for would-be humanitarians is that to wield architecture’s transformative potential charity and good intentions are not enough. Truly sustainable architecture must be built with the community it serves not for them. 

In the US, local property taxes pay for local schools meaning that, until significant political reform, poor districts will always suffer from under-funded education. Despite its flaws If You Build It makes a persuasive case for using design as an educational tool to deliver powerful social returns for relatively modest investment. Today Studio H has grown to seven (paid) staff with 24 built projects around the country. With inequality in the US growing fast, their example will surly compel small-minded school boards to rethink their approach and inspire others in the world of design to take action.

If You Bulid It

Directed by: Patrick Creadon
Premiered: 10 January

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