Free labs, real‑world discovery

Architecture students show off summer projects

- August 11, 2011

Student Tina Wang weaves webs in building her free lab project. (Nick Pearce photo)
Student Tina Wang weaves webs in building her free lab project. (Nick Pearce photo)

In late July, the doors to Dalhousie’s Medjuck Building were overarched by geometric, spider web-like nets. Visitors who passed under the nets and into the building were met by equally dreamlike sights: an origami half-orb big enough to envelope a human being, woven branches of dried knotweed from Crystal Crescent beach.

This wasn’t summer theatre or a modern-art installation. Students from the School of Architecture were to spend the afternoon presenting their “free lab” projects, and visitors passing through the doors abruptly understood that theirs would be no formal and by-the-book report.

The School of Architecture’s free lab program was established in 1991, enabling students to close their books and spend two weeks of the summer applying themselves to a hands-on project, frequently a community or environmental endeavor. This year the program is coordinated by Emanuel Jannasch, and each student group is headed by a faculty member or outside guest.

After twenty years, the free labs have something of a heritage. The blog of a 2009 “bicycle shelter” free lab is still online. A Coast article from 2008 speaks approvingly of a children’s theatre in Cheticamp, “Le Theatre Petit Cercle”, which won architecture awards after being dreamed up in a free lab, Another, from 2006, documents the construction of an urban garden outside Gottingen Street’s Salvation Army headquarters by free lab participants.

Is it possible that so much documentation and positive attention has made the ‘ghost of free labs past’ a little difficult for current students to one-up? Perhaps, but these presentations proved that both the vision and execution of this year’s projects held their own against those of bygone years.

Camera obscura

The giant, origami-like structure in the Medjuck Building was revealed by one group as actually being a camera obscura, an artistic tool created in the free lab headed by professor Maria-Elisa Morales. Explained a poetic wall display the group set up: “The camera obscura is a viewing device where the magical properties of light and the power of the poetic image transform the mundane and enable its user to see the world in a new way.”

The faceted, origami-like structure of the finished camera obscura—which resembled nothing so much as some gargantuan precious jewel—was intentional, the group revealed during their presentation. The form was meant to represent “different facets.” “It’s surprisingly roomy inside,” joked one student. “We had a lot of kids inside and a lot of really impressed people.”

In this project, the portability and weight of the structure were of paramount concern, and the group demonstrated succinctly how well they had mastered these challenges – to conclude their presentation, they lifted the camera obscura and folded it to a fraction of its former size, to the delighted applause of the onlookers.

Challenging knotweed

Another group was tasked to grapple with the knotweed running wild along Crystal Crescent beach.

“I’ve been trying to eradicate it for five years,” said free lab leader professor Susan Molesky, speaking to the invasive plant’s ability to invade her own lawn. “And my neighbor’s been trying to eradicate it for thirty years.” The group’s original plan was to run a fence alongside the knotweed, but they were challenged by their inability to bring their work home with them, since a single fallen knotweed leaf on a front lawn can germinate a permanent patch.

Despite their occasionally frustrating task, the group felt “totally beloved” by the local families they stayed with during their lab, and were even able to appreciate the weed’s whimsical qualities: they enthused about various knotweed recipes they found online (apparently, you can’t get rid of it, but you can eat it), and claim that the dried stalks sound like wind chimes in the breeze. “It’s like another world out there,” one team member said. “It blocks out snow, wind, rain, everything.”

Anyone who missed the group presentations would do well to check out the blog of The Deanery Project, a free lab dedicated to rejuvenating an Eastern Shore community center, or the Cape Breton Post’s article on free lab students’ collaboration with Chapel Island’s band council and community on a storage space for local high school students. As wildly different as the free lab projects were, each seemed to share an implicit understanding: these labs, far from being theoretical or intellectual exercises, were intended to enrich and give back to the communities that allow Dalhousie to thrive.


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