Workbook: The Music of Architecture

Bamboo arches, designed by Portland State University Architecture students, form the threshold at Pickathon, a three-day music festival held just outside the city. Image courtesy Portland State University.

Summer. The season of outdoor festivals and, it seems, innovative, temporary structures that seem to capture the fleeting pleasures of the season itself. At Pickathon, a three-day music event held just outside of Portland, Oregon, the two have converged. It all started last year, when the director of Portland State University’s architecture program, Clive R. Knights, and Zale Schoenborn, one of Pickathon’s key players, began talking about engaging PSU students in a design-build project for a structure that would serve as the event’s main entry point.

Enter Travis Bell, an assistant professor of architecture, who teaches design and sustainable architecture at the university (he also happens to be a regular PIckathon attendee). “We started brainstorming about how it would take shape in the fall,” explains Bell.  “In the winter studio class, we began to look at gates or thresholds and came up with the conceptual designs.”

By the time the summer term rolled around, things kicked into high gear. That studio class, which included a number of veterans from the winter session, started poring over the initial concepts, using those as a jumping off point and zeroing in on some of their most promising principles.

What followed is an evolution Bell describes as a magical: “We went through a consensus-based design process. The students shared their thoughts, had discussions and did a lot of drawing and modeling. There was no vote, and they all had ownership of the process.” At the end of three weeks, the students had a final design—and were simultaneously harvesting the bamboo for the structure at a local nursery.

With the festival opening today, the site has been transformed into a small city with people, lights and generators. A few weeks ago, though, it was an open field, where “we parked ourselves and started building,” says Bell. “Some students even camped there.” Once on location, the project evolved somewhat based on input from the festival organizers, as well as the reality of the site’s conditions and the condition of the bamboo itself (most notably that it got stiffer as it dried).

The completed structure serves as a powerful counterpoint to the fabric installations that serve as one of the key visual elements at Pickathon. As the design of the structures took shape, “we wanted to do something sympathetic to them but wouldn’t mimic them,” says Bell. To that end, the bamboo has something of the sensuousness of textiles but still registers a solid materiality. The first structure festival-goers enter is a series of twisting, curving, wrapping arches composed of bundles of bamboo. The organic feel of the initial experience yields to “a more formal geometry,” says Bell, in the shape of an oculus that spreads out in waves.

In the end, “We wanted to make sure that it didn’t feel like people dropped off bamboo and built inutuively,” says Bell. Instead, the finished structures balance a lyric sponteneity along with a structural rigor—almost like music.

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