July 22, 2007

Architecture as an alternative

A couple's call to action leads to a competition to reenvision land use near Joshua Tree National Park.

LA Times
By Ann Japenga

IN 20 years of fighting to block a monster garbage dump from moving into their backyard near Joshua Tree National Park, jojoba farmers Donna and Larry Charpied have filed lawsuits, staged rallies and resorted to all the usual activist tactics — without a clear win. They needed a new tool, so they called an architect.

Architecture traditionally has been thought of as an elite endeavor. In the 1960s and again recently, some groups such as Architecture for Humanity have embraced social awareness — green building, affordable housing and other goals. But rarely have architectural skills been used to try to change the outcome of a controversy in the way one might use tree-sitting or monkey-wrenching. Now, a small group is doing just that in the Charpieds' neighborhood, an isolated outpost called Eagle Mountain.

Donna and Larry Charpied resorted to a tactic of resistance not out of any high-minded architectural notions but because the usual means weren't working. Ontario-based Kaiser Ventures, with the support of Riverside County, has been planning for years to build a landfill on its property at Eagle Mountain. If the dump is built, as many as 20,000 tons a day of L.A.'s garbage will wind up at the abandoned ore mine site. Each time the Charpieds and their supporters win a round in court, there's the inevitable appeal. Currently Kaiser is appealing a ruling that the plan didn't meet an environmental review to a federal appeals court.

In an attempt to break the standoff, the Charpieds decided not to wait until the land was technically "saved" but to make an alternate plan. "I don't want to go to my grave fighting a dump," says Donna Charpied, a sun-browned organic farmer with a rock 'n' roller's bravado. "Something is going to be done with that site, and we might as well have a say in what that is.

"After a series of steps, they ended up hooking up with architecture students at leading L.A. schools and young professionals to compete for alternative ideas for the desert site, hoping the designs would be more than an academic exercise.

The Charpieds first called on Eric Shamp, a Redlands architect they'd met at a conference. Shamp says there's a higher threshold of responsibility for an architect than an artist or fashion designer because his or her creations are not transitory.

"If you're an artist it's OK to do 'Piss Christ,' " says Shamp, referring to the work by Andres Serrano. "But architects are really shaping the built world, and if you want the built world to be a better place, you have to be an activist. It can't all be about style.

"The Charpieds put to Shamp and designer Eric Stotts the challenge of designing a research institute, eco-tourism site and heritage center — all powered by renewable energy — for the abandoned mining town. Shamp and Stotts, in turn, challenged the L.A. chapter of the Emerging Green Builders, who then adopted the "Vision for Eagle Mountain" as a design competition.

The Emerging Green Builders was founded by students and young professionals working in architecture and other design fields; their inaugural meeting was at the Greenbuild expo in Austin, Texas, in 2002. The group has grown nationally from three chapters to 90 in the last few years and has been enlisted for projects such as creating a sustainable design for a Boys and Girls Club gym in Santa Fe, N.M. They are accustomed to talking about sustainability and solar power, but guerrilla-style activism was new to most of them.

It was new to Kaiser Ventures as well. Terry Cook, executive vice president and general counsel, says he would have thought the Charpieds and the Emerging Green Builders would have consulted his company before making plans for their property. "It would be like me submitting your house for redesign without your permission," he says.

An iron ore mining site

If you drive along Interstate 10 from Palm Springs to the Colorado River, the Eagle Mountain site is tucked up in the hills to your left, out in a lonely stretch inhabited by bighorn sheep and big-eared bats. The Kaiser Steel Corp. extracted iron ore from the mountain for 30 years; the site also once housed a private prison. What's left today is an abandoned company town of boarded-up homes, along with deep mining pits and mountains of tailings (waste material from the mines), all surrounded by pristine desert. The Charpieds have started a campaign called Give It Back! intended to return nearly 30,000 acres of surrounding land to Joshua Tree National Park in accord with a 1952 land use agreement between the mining company and Congress.

The couple's anti-dump activities have earned them support — and some enemies as well — in the communities of Twentynine Palms, Indio, Coachella and other towns likely to be affected by the proposed landfill. The pair lives in a 1954 Airstream trailer surrounded by a 5-acre carpet of bright green jojoba plants, desert shrubs whose oils are used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The nearest neighbor is a mile away; it's a 60-mile drive for groceries. In their years of opposing the dump, the Charpieds have focused on protecting the natural habitat. They never saw much possibility in the old Kaiser site itself until six years ago, when Donna Charpied attended a conference on community natural assets. She was asked to give a presentation envisioning a use for the abandoned buildings and mining relics.

"Up until that time I had a very poor vision of our community," she says with a hint of a blue-collar Pittsburgh accent. "Everybody felt: All we are is trash. It does a lot to your psyche. I never saw anything good until I was forced to make that PowerPoint presentation. When Larry and I went home and started looking around, we thought: 'Man-o-day! This isn't a ghost town. These are wilderness huts. Over here is a science class.' "

Charpied shared her excitement with Shamp, and he came out to visit during a rare wildflower bloom. At first, the architect couldn't quite picture a sustainable community rising amid the pits and tailings. But the more time he spent with the Charpieds, the more contagious their belief became. Soon, he could envision something like what happened in Marfa, Texas, where the late Minimalist artist Donald Judd transformed former Army hangars into art galleries. His efforts, supported in the early days by the Dia Art Foundation of New York, transformed the desert town into an art center. "If ideas get out there, that's the start of it," Shamp says.

The Charpieds are accustomed to silence and 100-mile vistas in their little outpost near Desert Center. So they were out of their element during a recent visit to the concrete halls of SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) in downtown L.A., where winning entries in the design competition were on display.

Techno music bounced off the walls, and hip students milled around the exhibits. Twenty-five teams had come up with models for Eagle Mountain; those entries had been culled to four winners.

As non-architects, the Charpieds didn't know quite how to read the slick graphics and symbols. But they recognized the rebellion in the room. Larry Charpied shook contestants' hands vigorously and vowed to take their ideas to Riverside County, hoping together they could save Eagle Mountain.

The leading entries

The winning entry, "The Nest," was conceived by Beryl Lopez and Marlen Alvarez, undergraduates at Cal Poly Pomona. (The third- and fourth-place prizes also went to the students of professor Pablo La Roche at Cal Poly.) In Lopez and Alvarez's model, electric trams run along the old Kaiser Steel railroad tracks, delivering researchers to an underground laboratory and tourists to a Universal Studios-like back lot tour of historical mining operations. Among the features incorporated by other contestants were a space camp, a habitat for bats and an environmentally responsible golf course.

The winning pair will go on to a national competition at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Chicago in November. To encourage further discussion, the Emerging Green Builders of L.A. plans to publish the winning designs.

When the hand-pumping and celebrating was through, the question remained: Can twentysomethings adept with 3-D software really change the minds of big business and government agencies? The concept has mostly been bandied in academia. A few professors, such as Jeff Hou at the University of Washington, teach courses in design activism. And blogs such as Activist Architect discuss the matter in theoretical terms. The trend toward architecture-as-resistance has seen fewer expressions in the real world. Shamp says architecture is still a big-money business and professionals can't afford to alienate potential clients with activities that go beyond socially aware to radical. He took pains to keep his firm's name out of the Eagle Mountain competition.

Even if monkey-wrenching were cool with the bosses, there is still the problem of profit. The Eagle Mountain landfill site is perceived by supporters as an economic boon to Riverside County. A wilderness heritage site and research center — however visionary — less obviously profitable.

Given the clout of Kaiser, it's easy to dismiss the contest as a pie-in-the-sky exercise. Professor La Roche says he doesn't necessarily expect the winning plans to be built. But a completed development is not the goal so much as changing people's perceptions of the site. "These students are young and enthusiastic," he says. "Sometimes people like that change things."

Kaiser Ventures spokesman Cook had this response for the winning contestants: "If they want to pay me the value of the land — $85 or $90 million — they can have at it."