Summer 2021

Environmental Activism by Design: An Outdoor Classroom for Ecology Action, Phase II
The Gulf Coast DesignLab – Public Interest Design Studio
Proposition: Architecture being a “social art,” relies on aesthetic imagination to achieve beautiful work. But, because our world is in such rapid transformation—just think about this last year—it must also embrace a moral imagination, if it hopes to remain relevant. We designers have a moral responsibility to address the social and environmental concerns many communities face today. Once acknowledged, active community engagement begins, bringing about meaningful change. We can achieve this by learning to ask the right questions; carefully listening to the answers given; and through them understanding the deeper issues that impact the community in which we work. Then—and only then—do we begin using our skills to creatively tackle the work at hand. Digging deeper we can provide meaningful design solutions that make more equitable—and aesthetically pleasing—places to live and work.
Methodology: The studio uses a Public Interest Design approach to achieve a greater understanding of the needs of the community in which you work. To explore this, the studio will incorporate readings and discussions about Public Interest Design methodology. Through a social-economic-environmental lens, you’ll be able to better engage your stakeholder, empowering you by: 1) learning how to apply critical thinking and new design approaches to complex social and environmental issues; 2) developing new communication skills that expand your ability to offer inclusive community-based design; 3) identifying and employing ways in which architects can help create well-designed, environmentally friendly and equitable communities that promote beauty and dignity for all.
Design Problem: This semester you’ll work with Ecology Action , a non-profit in Austin TX that focuses on landfill and waste stream issues, both in our city and for society as a whole. Since 1969 Ecological Action has owned ten acres—Circle Acres—once an old quarry and later a waste dump in the Montopolis neighborhood of East Austin. Montopolis is a primarily Hispanic neighborhood that has a long history of being underserved by the City. Tor decades the City and private companies used what is now Circle Acres, as dumping grounds for hazardous materials. Ecology Action’s work there focuses on healing the contaminated brownfield site, transforming it into an ecologically viable habitat and community resource. Their intention is not to transform the old landfill into a place the public would never imagine was once a hazard, but rather to aid in its healing, while reminding visitors of the impact that our wastefulness and consumption has on the land. Their goal is to reach a balance between ecological preservation and human use. By making the remediation of the site its primary focus, Circles Acres is an opportunity to educate the public about its responsibility. As part of that mission, they have a public environmental education program focusing on pre-K through high school students of which you’ll play a part.
You’ll work with Ecological Action this semester, learning all you can about the site, its history of abuse and the community in which it’s located. You’ll help your stakeholder with their master plan goals and environmental education efforts, culminating in designing and building Phase II of an outdoor classroom that was begun in the spring semester. Your project will be to furnish a shade structure and meadow viewing areas. Along with your design work—both individual and group oriented—you’ll research applicable building materials; produce a set of construction documents for building code approval; fabricate built components on campus; install those components on site at Circle Acres to achieve a completed project. Your site is approximately a fifteen minute drive from campus. NOTE: Necessary requirements to maintain a healthy and safe studio experience will be in place at all times, both on and off campus.
This semester will offer you a unique opportunity to experience firsthand the complete design and construction process for a built work. It will be a studio that’s both challenging and rewarding, offering real opportunities for growth. The result will be a deeper understanding of the role that architects play in the communities they work; not only producing imaginative and fulfilling designs, but contributing to the betterment for those who will use your built work. When complete your project will be a new place that better enables the public to understand their social and ecological responsibilities, while bringing them a significant work of beauty. And you will have opportunity to test your design skills at full scale while achieving a sense of ethical accomplishment.