“I was marinated in corporate architecture,” says Portland, Oregon, architect Mark Lakeman. “And I had the heroic perspective that I could change the world through sculptural buildings that would inspire people.”
Instead, the award-winning architect found a corporate culture whose structures were monuments to their builders, designed with little regard for their surroundings or inhabitants. An office tower might be a showcase for grand architectural gestures, but, Lakeman points out, “The people inside are essentially slaves. They get to come out at lunchtime and sit in a wonderful courtyard that I designed, but I don’t see them dancing or taking off their clothes.”
Frustrated after three years in conventional design firms, Lakeman quit to travel around the world, eager to see societies whose dwellings and cultures still allowed people to connect with each other and the places where they lived. He wanted to understand why buildings and public spaces in the United States are so sterile compared with, say, the vibrancy of an Italian piazza. Journeying through Greece, Italy, North Africa, New Zealand, and Central America, he stayed in villages and small towns. “I learned what they don’t teach in schools, but should: that you can’t just design a shell. You’re creating a setting for human relationships.”
"Just build it"
In the rain forests of Central America, a Lacandon Maya elder told Lakeman, “Never ask permission to create a public place. Just build it.” He took this wisdom back to Portland, where he helped found City Repair, a collaboration of designers, artists, builders, and urban activists working to remodel the city along the lines of a village, and to transform private and public (or, more accurately, government-owned) spaces into communal gathering places. The group’s projects have garnered awards from the American Institute of Architects, Portland’s mayor, and the governor’s office.
An example of City Repair’s philosophy at work is the earthen Solar Sanctuary, recently completed in a backyard in southeast Portland. It’s earth-friendly in its materials, but just as important, it was designed to bring neighbors together. “We wanted to involve our community in the building and help them acquire the skills to do this on their own,” Lakeman says. City Repair offered a ten-day construction workshop, led by natural builder Joseph Kennedy, at a break-even price so that low-income neighbors could attend. Workshop participants built the walls, interior benches, fireplace, windows, entry, and brick ceiling vaults. Over the next few months friends, neighbors, site resident Pedro Ferbel Azcarate, and project coordinators Jenn Rawling and Trillium Shannon completed the structure. The venture transformed strangers into good friends and helped cement a community.
A low-impact building
The Solar Sanctuary has a tiny ecological footprint. It’s an oval building made of cob—a sturdy blend of clay, sand, and straw that can be sculpted into nearly any shape. Cob’s advantages are many: It is inexpensive, easily repaired, available nearly anywhere there is soil, and has high thermal mass—that is, it can store large amounts of heat on sunny days and release it slowly into the interior at night.
Cob, however, is a mediocre insulator with a low R-value per inch. On cool days, heat from within bleeds steadily outward. To circumvent this, City Repair designed a double shell: two six-inch walls of cob separated by eight inches of insulating straw. On each side of the straw is a wattle wall—flexible sticks woven into a solid barrier—to hold back the cob. This makes for a thick wall, twenty-two inches through.
The roof is equally innovative. Above two-by-six rafters salvaged from shipping pallets lies a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) membrane. (PVC offers the best protection against leaks but its manufacture produces toxins. Other options include liquid asphalt or a rubber membrane.) Atop this is a living roof of sedum and other drought-tolerant plants that can withstand Portland’s often dry summers. Rain trickles through the greenery, down bamboo gutters, and into a set of sculptural ponds that hold water for the garden. This reduces pressure on both Portland’s water supply and its overtaxed storm-drain system.
The design is passive solar. Ample south-facing windows—all salvaged—let in plenty of light and heat from the sun. A tiny fireplace offers warmth on cloudy winter days.
Nearly all the materials were collected from the building site or salvaged. The foundation is rubble from the driveway, joyfully torn up to make room for a garden. Ceiling insulation is supplied by dozens of old wool sweaters. Almost all of the lumber is recycled or trimmed from nearby trees. The soil for the cob walls came from the site.
The sanctuary is now a retreat and gathering place for the neighborhood. The next step—already under way—is to cut gateways through the fences of surrounding yards so the entire block has a central meeting place. This city block is beginning to shed the isolation imposed by its grid of disconnected yards.
Reconnecting the community
The urban grid—cities carved into rectilinear blocks, blocks partitioned into fenced-off yards—is designed to isolate. “The grid was devised by Rome and other early empires to easily control subjugated people,” Lakeman explains. “In any organic village, wherever roads or paths meet there is a gathering place. But where people gather, revolutions can brew.” Conquering armies tore out winding village streets and public squares, and they imposed a grid that eliminated meeting spots. One sentry at a corner could monitor all activity down the length of two ruler-straight streets.
In 1785, the U.S. National Land Ordinance laid a grid over all land west of the Ohio River, precluding the organic village patterns that give character to older cities such as Boston and Philadelphia. By design and neglect, American cities were robbed of communal places. “There’s lots of common ground in our cities,” Lakeman says. “But it’s all traffic corridors. It’s for cars, not people. So City Repair is about restoring the village, taking back the common ground, reconnecting the city’s fragments.”
City Repair’s first project was a community café in the Sellwood district of southeast Portland. In 1995, after the exhilaration of his world travels, Lakeman was living in a garage and having a difficult re-entry into American life. “I’d been staying in places where people held land in common, where their language, agriculture, beliefs, vision, and philosophy reflected themselves in participation with the earth,” Mark says. “I couldn’t reconcile that with the violence I was seeing here.”
In Lakeman’s garage was a pile of windows and doors he had collected over the years. One day, deep in his frustration, he had a vision of a shimmering glass teahouse made from the windows and doors, a place where neighbors could gather and find common ground.
He carried the garage’s contents into the yard and arranged the doors and windows in circles around a cluster of trees. Some salvaged timber completed the café, which Mark named the T-Hows. At first, a few neighbors dropped by to sit on pillows, chat, and sip free tea. “Then neighbors heard from other neighbors that there was a neat thing happening,” Lakeman recalls. “People would just sit, be in communication with each other, and feel wonderful.” Word spread, and soon thousands of visitors had experienced the T-Hows.
City officials got wind of the structure, which was unpermitted, and demanded it be destroyed. Lakeman cadged a six-month delay. Meanwhile the neighbors decided they wanted more of the village-like atmosphere the T-Hows had created. Lakeman and neighborhood planners helped them envision ways to overcome the grid’s effects by transforming a nearby crossroads into a public place, a project they called Intersection Repair. To slow traffic and identify the new village, they would paint the intersection and streets in bright colors. Every village, the neighbors agreed, needs a heart, with a meeting place, a market, and a café. These would be built on the corners.
The group asked the Portland Department of Transportation (PDOT) for permission. Citing lack of a precedent, the PDOT said no. Eventually the city granted a permit, but for little more than a block party.
On the appointed day, the group closed the roads and painted the intersection with brick patterns and rainbows, forming a mock traffic circle. Emanating from the new piazza were broad white stripes down each street. On the corners they built a community notice board, a giveaway box for cast-off goods, a tea station, and a library. The weekend ended in a huge celebration.
The next day city officials accused the neighbors of vandalism and threatened enormous fines. Lakeman and his companions went first to the city council and then to the mayor, Vera Katz. Katz took one look and understood. Though unorthodox, the project was meeting the city’s goals of enhancing neighborhoods, slowing traffic, creating community, and reducing crime, all at no cost to the government. The mayor turned to her ombudsman and told him that all of their resources were at the group’s disposal.
“The commissioner of transportation has had a complete awakening,” Lakeman exults. “He now says that in Portland, the public right-of-ways belong to the people!”
Creating the inspiration
Intersection Repair has spread to other neighborhoods; several new piazzas now exist or are under way. And City Repair’s projects are multiplying. One is a mobile reincarnation of the T-Hows called the T-Horse, a portable café that blossoms from a pickup truck. It looks like a giant butterfly, its gauzy wings sheltering tea-sipping visitors from Portland’s frequent rain. Another is Dignity Village, an intentional community of homeless people, designed by its residents, who are creating a permanent home on City of Portland land. The self-governed tent city features organic gardens and the beginnings of water harvesting and graywater treatment, as well as solar power generation.
“Our challenge,” Lakeman says, “is to give people models of what to do. Not just to protest about cutting down trees, but to build beautiful places without cutting trees. We need ecological prototypes that are socially inspiring.”
In this vein, in May 2002, City Repair hosted a weeklong Natural Building Convergence, in which hundreds of participants created examples of sustainable building on several Portland street corners and storefronts: cob archways, walls, monuments, memorial sculptures, and a sauna; a straw bale studio; and a timber-frame cabin. Countless passers-by—from ice-cream vendors to cops and little old ladies—stopped to ask questions or lend a hand. The event exposed a huge population to the benefits of natural building, and the participants had a blast.
In his public presentations, Lakeman asks people what they want from a city. “The answers are always the same,” he says. “Feeling safe, having a voice, connecting with other people.” But most people don’t get that from their cities. “City Repair says the way Portland operates now doesn’t meet those goals. But in the village model, where those goals are being met, we have a pattern that works every single time. To me the question isn’t knowing what to do. We know what to do. It’s whether all of us working together can have enough of an effect in time.”
For more information on City Repair, visit www.CityRepair.org.