City Repair: Portland Residents Create Community Through Green Building

An architect and corporate refugee, Mark Lakeman helped his neighbors build community using nothing more than mud and paint. Now, many other Portland, Oregon, neighborhoods are following suit.

| January/February 2003

“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.

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