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Community Garden Blossoms

As crits go, it was unusual: Under a hazy afternoon sky, in an open-air pavilion with a view of the Blackstone River, 68 students from a spring 2011 Architecture Design studio presented the thinking behindBlossom, a community garden they designed for the city of Pawtucket, RI.

The design for a community garden: from concept...

The crowd included a a local designer, a church minister, a YMCA director, a mom bouncing a toddler on her hip and the half dozen Architecture faculty members involved in the studio: Silvia Acosta, Adrienne Benze, Hansy Better, Enrique Martinez MID 98, Andrew Tower BArch 04 and Jason Wood MArch 07. They gathered inside one of two pavilions the students had designed, spilling out onto a wide deck. And as students walked the crowd through the site, handing out gifts and taking the microphone with equal parts analysis and exuberant pride, the crit at 333 Roosevelt Avenue began to take on the feel of a community block party.

“What you have done is so incredibly exciting and wonderful and beautiful,” notedMorris Nathanson, a well-known interior designer and Pawtucket resident who helped advise students on the project. “What you’ve done here is show us the meaning of what it is to give something to the community by giving of yourselves.” reality

Led by Professor of ArchitectureSilvia Acosta, the 12-week studio introduces students to the relationship between design and the hands-on work of construction. This particular iteration of the studio culminated in a project designed to meet the needs of three groups that share the urban site: members of the Chinese Christian Church, elders at the adjacent Roosevelt Community Housing complex and children visiting the Heritage Park YMCA.

Looking to bridge these diverse constituencies, students designed and built two pavilions and a radiating community garden. They used the simplest of materials – pressure-treated wood and steel – to transform a busy parking lot in an industrial area into a space for contemplation and connection. CalledBlossom, the garden and pavilions provide a space where preschoolers, the elderly and everyone in between can play or rest, listen and learn, plant seeds to harvest or break bread across a table.

Something of value

Elegant yet complex, the upper pavilion features raised planting beds and a water-collecting roof system that allows for irrigating the garden. It also offers a potting bench and storage for gardening tools, a trellis for vines to create shade, and sitting areas both under and outside the enclosed structure.

At the bottom of a short hill that connects the upper and lower parking areas, the lower pavilion offers river views, a large picnic table and several new landscape elements, including an outdoor fire pit for grilling. A gravel path lined with trees separates users from moving traffic.

Creating the community garden was an enormous undertaking that involved a sudden change of site part way through the project and ongoing interaction with city officials, property owners, residents, gardeners and other local stakeholders. But more than anything, students and faculty say, it demanded teamwork among 68 students executing a single, shared idea.

“Designers, by nature, are stubborn. We have always been told to fight for opinions,” explains Jessica Luscher BArch 14. “This semester we all learned to butt heads, but whether we were arguing about roofing styles, stain colors or simply about who would get to hold that nice impact drill for the next 15 minutes, we learned to articulate our ideas, to make connections, to listen and to discuss options with an open-minded, proactive approach.”

Acosta agrees. “It was an amazing semester for all involved and one that will stay with us for a while,” she says, adding that work on the site will continue into early summer. “The project was ambitious but the best thing about it was that it came from the hands of 68 students. That has never happened before in this course. The work demonstrates that students can creatively work together to produce something of value to, and in, the world.”