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Back to Building

Notes from Deborah Snoonian, P.E., Senior Editor

The Manhattan firm archi-tectonics is headquartered a scant two and a half miles from Record’s editorial offices, but by happenstance I recently met its principal Winka Dubbledam in Bozeman, Montana. She was there to deliver an evening lecture at Montana State University ; I’d come to Bozeman from Red Lodge, where I’d given a brief talk at Meeting in the Mountains, the annual gathering of the AIA Billings Architectural Association. When I introduced myself to Winka we both laughed. Here we were, neighbors, meeting for the first time in a student lounge some 2,200 miles from our point of origin, chatting about a mid-rise residential building her firm is completing a few blocks from my apartment. I suppose this chance encounter is one of globalization’s minor ironies.

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But generally speaking New York was far from my mind when I was in Big Sky country. Those who came of age in an urban setting, as I did, will have a difficult time visiting Montana and believing that buildings matter on any level at all. The gargantuan amphitheater of the mountains, the raw geology of the cliffs and hills—the spectacle of Montana’s topography makes the built environment take a backseat. Late one afternoon, after getting drenched in a downpour during a short hike along Bozeman Creek, I saw a full rainbow arced over a farm, mountains perched majestically in the background. Its beauty was so untouched and postcard-perfect that I’m ashamed to say it raised the specter of Ed Harris’s weather-manufacturing scene (“Cue the sun!”) from the utopic-dystopic film The Truman Show. I brushed aside this irksome thought, but the point was made: Clearly I don’t get out of the city enough.

As enamored of the landscape as I became during my four days there, I still left Montana convinced that buildings and architecture matter a great deal. This was in no small part due to what I learned at Meeting in the Mountains. Nathaniel Corum, a 2003 Rose Architectural Fellow and community design director of the Red Feather Development Group (whose founder Robert Young won a Volvo for Life award last year), described the organization’s collaborative model for building housing and community facilities at Native American reservations, and empowering tribal members to sustain these efforts in the long term. Cameron Sinclair brought his laptop-and-cell-phone-enabled Architecture for Humanity headquarters on the road for a two-hour talk about sponsoring competitions for the design of mobile structures deployed for various humanitarian, disaster-relief, and public-health purposes—and helping the winning entries get built.

Both of these alliances have proven the power of harnessing the social consciences of designers and volunteers around the world. The get-involved mantra worked on me, I have to say. I’m going to do some building this summer—perhaps volunteering on one of Red Feather’s projects, or a Habitat for Humanity effort closer to home. After spending the last few years writing about design and construction, I looking to getting my hands off the keyboard and into the work again.

 

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