Oct 6, 2009

More (Than) Building

I've been building structures with groups of people and it has been an amazing experience.

Last month I took a group of students from University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS) to New Mexico and part of our field trip involved a visit to Project:Unknown on the Taos mesa. Project:Unknown is an off-the-grid artist hideaway-in-the-making. After an involved tour with Steve McFarland, the students were given an assignment: build a shade structure before nightfall. Two sturdy posts had been erected equidistant from a fence line. A pile of discarded lumber lay on the ground. Tools were brought out of the storage container. Total freedom was bestowed upon their design; the only rule being that the work be a collective endeavor. Work began.

The skies darkened as the shelter took form. Storms fumed in the north and south and rainbows appeared against the mountains. At one moment, raindrops fell and gusts blew. "Should we go inside?" the students asked. "Where will we go? There isn't really an 'inside.'" The momentary bluster slowed work, but only for a moment. A collective awareness of time's preciousness and also the desperate need for shelter hoisted beams into place, drill holes into beams, screws into holes. The group worked hurriedly, with only a rough idea of the construction plan.

What happened that afternoon was nothing new; this is how the world has been made, by need and by might. But for us it was extraordinary.

As we stood atop the shade structure that (miraculously supported our weight and) sported a stylish helix curve, a raw, varied edge, and plenty of shade, we felt a sense of awe.

It's incredible what can happen when a group of people work together. Building doesn't have to be a giant project, a long-term plan, an impossible group effort. A weirdly beautiful thing can be built fairly easily in a blustery afternoon.

Just days after being in New Mexico with my students, I went to the Bay Area for a set of events entitled Becoming Commons. The event took place in two parts: first, a discussion and dinner at the Headlands Center for the Arts; then, an experimental retreat/camp-out at a communal house in Bolinas. Jana Blankenship and I collaboratively organized the retreat (which I promise to post about soon) and one of my favorite activities of the weekend involved building an ad hoc structure on the beach. After talking briefly about the unique hand-built history of Bolinas and its legacy of informal communities made from driftwood, we journeyed to the beach to build our own driftwood fort.

The group was not a student group. They were sophisticated adults, renowned artists and curators, famous musicians, superstars, hipsters. I couldn't just tell them to build a structure; it had to come about in a different way. And so I merely started.

I began by dragging logs to a location that was decided appropriate and people slowly started participating. It was fascinating to see the fort evolve. Joseph erected the essential support beam, then walked away. Jana gathered materials continously. Amy crafted a woven roof that supported Stephanie's instrumental plank roof. Once it was started, the momentum carried and a sort of collective intuition (or was it daring, faith, experimentation?) took over and the debris grew into a beautiful shelter.

Olivia and Brook and others began to decorate the structure and that's when the fort transformed into a sort of monument, a veritable sanctuary. And then, at some indescribable moment, it was finished. We backed away from our work with curiosity and pride, fascinated to see what came out of the smallest intention, the littlest effort, the most meager of materials.

I'm reminded of a quote from one of the hard-working folks who helped to build Drop City, the first of the artist communes in the '60s, who said,
“The hardest time in a commune, particularly Drop City, is the time after the building gets done. While everyone is working together on actual construction the energy is centered, there is fantastic high spirit, everyone knows what he is doing all the time. But after the building is done comes a time of dissolution. There’s no focus for the group energy, and most hippies don’t have anything to do with their individual energy.” (Voyd, Bill, “Funk Architecture,” in Paul Oliver, ed., Shelter and Society. New York: Praeger, 1969, p. 158)
It's a different world now and we're not building a Drop City. We aren't building a commune or even functional living structures, but what strikes me about these words in this context is the notion that building can and does mobilize groups of people. Building is an incredibly potent practice. It keeps the world in motion, keeps people in motion. It gives meaning to time and resources. It's a source of agency, collectivity, and functionality.

I continue to learn from these group experiments in building and besides all the esoteric observations, I have fun too. There's nothing that satisfies, fortifies, and unifies quite like the act of building.

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