On a recent Friday afternoon, on the grounds of a small, Atwater Village ranch, students from Woodbury University's architecture program are at work. One group is in a corner behind a garden digging. Another is gathered around tables, working with wood blocks that look like Jenga pieces. They have reached the middle of the spring semester and recently moved from campus studio to the real world site of their construction project. One week into the job, the fourth and fifth year students are finding their footing, literally. From now until May, they'll spend five hours a day here on Tuesdays and Fridays. In addition, they're expected to stop by the site outside of class. By the end of the semester, there should be four new structures on the grounds, including two compost toilets, a pen for goats and ponies and a tool shed.
For the past three semesters, Woodbury's Architecture + Civic Engagement Center (ACE) has been working with Taking the Reins, a non-profit that offers equestrian and urban farming programs for girls. Specifically, Woodbury's students are designing and building structures that can be used for the "Seed to Skillet" program, where girls learn how to raise produce and turn it into a meal.
We're sitting in the "seed bank." It's a pavilion that was originally designed to store seeds, but has since become a meeting area. Small, potted succulents line the lath walls. Benches provide ample seating. In keeping with the organic nature of the garden, everything is made of redwood. Jeanine Centuori, the Woodbury faculty member who heads up ACE, explains that redwood is sturdy and insect-resistant.
Every semester brings in a new team. "It's extremely fast-paced," says Centuori of the project. They begin with design and end with finished structures. Right now, Centuori estimates that they're about 90 percent done with design. Of course, they may have to delve back into the plans and make revisions throughout the course of the semester. Maybe a design needs a sturdier build or should provide more shade. These are things that the students won't know until they see the projects rise before them, or until they get feedback from their clients.
The projects merge art and function. These are structures that the program needs. Two of the pavilions function together as a kitchen. One features a garden hose sink, the other, a large cutting board area. There's a shop that Centuori refers to as a "glorified lemonade stand." Ideally, this will be accessible from the L.A. River, where people can walk up and buy produce. Despite their humble purposes, the structures are visually intriguing.
"We really do not feel that it's a bread or roses conversation when it comes to civic architecture," says Elizabeth Timme, a Woodbury faculty member. "Because it's doing good, it doesn't have to look like it's doing good. It can be an incredible piece of art that is engaging people on a higher level."
The aesthetics of the projects are inspired by lath. "It's sort of an archaic material," says Centuori. "It's very thin and flexible, junk material. It's very inexpensive." Specifically, the designs are influenced by lath houses, Centuori explains, "these lightweight, airy structures, pavilions, were created with lath as a means to create partial shade for delicate seedlings and plants in a garden environment."
There's a lot that can be done with lath. It can be fused to the frame to form unusual angles. It can form soft curves. Every piece of the project takes a different approach. "Each pavilion in a way has a little statement about lath," says Centuori.
"This was looking at how you could push layering," says Timme in regards to the seed bank, where walls serve double-duty as shelves. "Now we have projects that have minimized the use of lath to such an extent where there's only an inch of lath every foot."
Timme talks about how the "narrative" of the project has changed with successive classes. "That's a really incredible narrative," she says, "to look at it tactically, to look at it abstractly and then to refine it down to its bare essence."
Centuori adds on to the idea of this project as a story that is still being told. "There are so many stories that get tacked onto these structures. To me, that's what's fascinating about bringing the work out into the world," she says. "We have our story that's a very architectural story, an arty story. Then, when it comes out here and gets used by these girls, there's another story that gets attached to it."
The prior weekend, Centuori came to Taking the Reins to photograph the structures as they were being used by the girls in the program. She saw how they used the sinks and the kitchen built by her students. "They inhabit these structures and it gives it another meaning," she says. "That's what I love about the process. It kind of brings architecture into this role of layered stories."