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Online Architecture School Students Reimagine Commons Space in SF’s Bayview-Hunters Point

A courtyard in Bayview Commons is the focus of the latest design challenge for students in Academy of Art University’s online architecture school.

In collaboration with the San Francisco Housing Development Corporation (SFHDC), fifth-year architecture students in the School of Architecture‘s B.Lab program are addressing an underutilized courtyard in the affordable housing complex.

For the Kids

It’s the third collaboration with SFHDC for B.Lab students; the relationship has been made possible by architecture school Executive Director Mimi Sullivan. Creating a plan for the courtyard space began with a series of meetings with residents of the Bayview Commons’ 30 units, where 29 children live.

Overwhelmingly, the residents said that better commons spaces for the children should be a priority.

Improved play spaces were a priority in the project.

Learning From the Source

“It was important for us to have respect for the children’s visions,” says architecture student Adam Nuru. “A lot of people…think they know what kids need, and then design without their input. But actually trying to get to know them one-on-one and figuring out what they want—that was pretty cool.”

Nuru adds that understanding the youngsters’ needs will be advantageous in understanding adult clients’ requirements once the students receive their architecture degrees and begin professional practice.

Modular Installation

For the courtyard space, B.Lab students designed a series of flexible, modular pieces to be used as seating, play structures, and even a vertical herb garden. Constructed primarily from steel, nylon rope, PVC, and cedar planks, the furniture will be fabricated entirely by the students.

View of the redesigned courtyard showing the track.

Using the vibrant hues of an existing mural (done by B.Lab students in 2018), the project team also included a track, color-coded to guide residents through the space. Unsurprisingly, the design incorporates social distancing concerns for this unprecedented time in history.

Social distancing diagram from the project.

Creating Virtual Options

The ongoing pandemic forced students and residents alike to shelter in place, cutting short in-person meetings. But the B.Lab team seamlessly transitioned to a virtual design office, conducting client meetings through Zoom. Despite the challenges of keeping children in front of screens engaged, the meetings gave students an intimate setting to get to know their clients.

B.Lab Coordinator and Studio Faculty member Sameena Sitabkhan said the process was complicated but ultimately rewarding. “I think this was all new to a lot of the families and the kids—having a computer in the house and having online distance learning, and then dealing with us online and [dealing with] everyone’s schedules.

Aerial view of the project.

“We were sitting there and…the kids were bouncing offscreen [and] back in. And so that was really fun for everyone to try and keep their attention and show them activities, tell jokes, and ask them questions. But we probably got to know them a little bit more than we might have through just a traditional community meeting.”

Getting Crafty

During the project, B.Lab students lost access to their workshop on campus, which posed a challenge in the model-making phase of their project. Paired with the fact that art supplies were often difficult to come by, students had to get crafty, using household objects instead.

“For the models, we recycled material, like our T-shirts,” says B.Lab student Corona Xiaohuan Tao. “I think it was [a success].”

Good Design Is for Everyone

The students were determined to create a space that showcased the best of their Academy education—creating a polished yet whimsical design the community could be proud of.

“I believe kids deserve good design,” says B.Lab student Dylan Ingle. “It should be for both the youth and adults—there doesn’t have to be a disconnect between the two. That’s why we wanted to do elegant design that also encourages intergenerational play at the same time.”

The B.Lab program is offered as an alternate thesis course to architecture students before they graduate with their professional degrees. The program focuses on cultivating and fostering diversity, equity, and advocacy for public projects. As students’ semesters were radically altered in spring 2020, they realized that public good would still come from their hard work.

“Taking the knowledge and skills that I’ve learned from school and then being able to build it into the community…pushed me forward and kept me motivated,” says B.Lab student Markish Sion.

Building on Experience

B.Lab students had already created one outdoor space for the residents of the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood: Last semester, the students installed an outdoor gathering space in the Northridge CommUNITY Garden, referred to as the Unity Pavilion. Taking advantage of the fresh produce grown there, B.Lab students designed and built a gorgeous pavilion entirely of redwood—a gathering space for cooking demonstrations as well as a place for hosting community events.

“In a way, for us, this was good because we had both sides of the project,” says student Fabio Lemos, who took the B.Lab class a second time this spring. “Last semester we did all the building with the Unity Pavilion, and this semester it was much more design.”

Though the building process has been delayed due to COVID-19, B.Lab students plan to make the courtyard a reality by the end of 2020. To help bring the community this vibrant new gathering space, they’ve launched an IndieGogo campaign to raise funding to complete the courtyard.

All images courtesy of the School of Architecture
Original article by Greta Chiocchetti of Academy Art U News,

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