Inspired by the children’s book The Giving Tree, Overland Intern Coordinator Ben Rosas set out in March to invest in the growth of the firm’s aspiring architects, leading them through a small design-build project of a Little Free Library. Seven interns split into two design groups, and their proposals presented for selection to the project’s donor family. I sat down with each design team to learn more about the origins of their concepts and the design process to date. Today’s post shares insights from one of the intern teams—Italia Aguilera, Aaron Stone, Nikhila Ramineedi and Fay Stables.
What were your initial thoughts when Ben told you about the Little Free Library project?
Nikhila Ramineedi: When Ben invited us to design this project, it was quite exciting for us. He could have done it on his own, but he wanted us to design it. It was a very good opportunity and a challenge for us to explore and apply what we’ve learned in school to a real-life project, which is something that not everyone gets to do.
Italia Aguilera: I first pictured this as more of a sculpture rather than an actual birdhouse. We wanted to make this beautiful so that it would be pleasing to see and interact with it. My first thoughts were more of approaching this project as an art piece.
Aaron Stone: I’m in the same boat too. I wanted to explore a design beyond a typical Little Free Library—more interactive and more of a catalyst for the park.
Fay Stables: I also imagined it as more of a sculpture than your typical Little Free Library.
What were you initially discussing after finding out what the project could be?
AS: We wanted to do something that brought everyone from the community—across all generations—together. Our idea of the beacon would make this thing visibly accessible from all sides, and the creation of different spaces around the beacon would ensure that everyone could interact with it, no matter what your age.
IA: It was all about community engagement.
AS: We figured since it’s in a public park it shouldn’t be solely for one group of people or even one neighborhood.
NR: And the intention of the Little Library is to be an asset for the community. This represents the biggest quality of Birdie: selfless giving. We wanted children and people who visit the park to notice it and be drawn to it. We wanted it to be inviting from all the sides so that no one would miss it, and inviting for all ages, which resulted in creating multiple spaces for each kind of person.
AS: And we didn’t want something prescriptive either. We didn’t want a bench to only be a bench. We wanted the form to allow multiple interpretations, so the visitors get to decide how to use it.
What has the design process been like?
NR: All of us were interested in making this into a sculpture or a beautiful beacon. We started to think, “What if this beautiful beacon is not seen? It’d be a total waste.” There are many examples of beautiful structures that have failed because they are not seen That’s when we realized that we had to start with the process of analyzing the site with respect to the experience when you’re walking. We all went to the site. We found a common optimal boundary so that it’s seen from different angles. The next step was to create the sculpture, the object, or the beacon which was a major task.
AS: Once we found the optimal site, then the big question was, “What is this thing? How’s it going to come together?” We were going through multiple concepts, but we were always drawn to modules because we could create ambiguous shapes and forms that allowed for interpretation of how to use it. What led us to our actual frame—rotated 45 degrees—were quilting patterns. We were looking at them and contemplating how we could stitch together all the different program pieces: the library, the seating, the artwork, and the planters. In the old tradition of quilting bees, the whole community would come together and share different quilting patterns and textiles. There was this community building event and a creative group effort, and the quilts would be given to graduates or as a wedding gift. It was always about community engagement. Quilting tied people together. We were able to take a quilting pattern, abstract it, and produce a module to start playing around with.
IA: The form of the beacon came from the uplifting diagram we created in connection to Birdie about learning and sharing knowledge through books. Our beacon, which would hold a lot of the books, was what drove the form to become something that would rise from the ground. This and the quilting pattern inspired the overall form.
What informed a lot of your decisions with your creative ideas?
AS: In the beginning, we were really inspired by urban furniture, like cubes that were stacked and offset, which people use in all different ways. That gave us some direction for the scale of the space and maybe the movement of the actual object. Other things that informed it were pragmatic like where shade and sunlight fell on the site. Our design placed the beacon tower element in the sun with seating in the shade.
NR: We wanted our design to blend with the landscape while remaining visible, which was a very difficult task. In an urban context, sometimes people sit on steps rather than in a seating area. You never know how people start using things. Sometimes the usage of an object evolves with each person. That’s why we incorporated users into the design. The seating doesn’t look like a seat at all. Kids can go down and play underneath the step. That’s why we wanted it to be incomplete but complete, functional, but open to interpretation.
AS: When we were just thinking about the program pieces, we played around with different shaped objects similar to a book shelf or a seat but that didn’t really look like those things.
NR: We took a long time to figure out the quilt option and to figure out that it works better than any other shape. We worked with cubes and triangles, and came up with one single shape—a combination of both. It was a long iterative process, working with paper and bouncing ideas off of each other to get a clear idea of how to move forward.
AS: The exploration of different module sizes and shapes was helpful when we were thinking about its spatial function. Experimenting with the quilts completely altered how we were thinking about the module, which became a frame and a structure design rather than a repetitive piece that would be stacked or screwed together.
NR: And the quilting word itself supports our desire to bind the community.
IA: It was hard for us to fit in lots of books into triangular shapes, so we had to alter the quilting pattern and our thinking of what the frame and the overall structure was going to look like in order to accommodate them. After the structure came the infill process. Programmatically we wanted to infill the frame with books, fruits, and seeds, to engage with and be for community. It would be an expanded version of the Little Free Library Concept: visitors are encouraged to take and enjoy not only books, but these other items, and just like the idea that if you take a book you bring a book, those who are growing trees or fruits in their backyard might be inspired to leave fruits or seeds for others.
AS: There were multiple possibilities. We could put some things in there to get activity going, but the community could even start taking ownership of this frame that’s just sitting around. We would imagine an elementary school art class pinning up drawings or paintings for others to enjoy. The community could really start shaping this the way they want it to.
IA: I feel like the structure was about offering a place for the community to do whatever they could imagine. Our design didn’t dictate where to sit or where to read. It was open to interpretation. It could be anything.
How was working directly with the client impactful to your design process?
NR: The donor family helped us understand who Birdie is and what she is passionate about, which inspired the form and the infill idea.
IA: We did research on landscaping and what attracted butterflies because they’re something that she loves. We also wanted to make it really colorful based on her story.
AS: The family didn’t give us specifics on what they were looking for. They gave us a story and why they appreciate her, and we interpreted that into this really engaging communal thing.
What were some of the interesting things that you took away from working on this project?
FS: Working in a team where everyone works differently is hard. Trying to understand everyone’s process of how they do things helps you grow into a better designer.
AS: In architecture school, a professor holds your hand throughout the design process. Working on this project made me realize that there is no set process in architecture. You’re always experimenting and hoping that something leads you to a new and exciting idea that you can explore further. [Working on this project] gave me a different perspective on how I approach a project from the beginning.
What did you learn from this experience that you might apply in future projects?
AS: Starting with some sort of experiential research is really kick starts everything.
IA: Observing the place was very important. Walking around the site, just looking around at what people were doing, how are they accessing the park, driveways, everything that’s around you—sometimes we don’t pay attention to those little details.
NR: I learned the value of working back and forth between group members with respect to the design. Somebody would like the shape and the rest of us did not. Then, I’d like the shape and everyone else didn’t. It took a while to get to a point where all of us were like, “Yes! This is what we want.” Taking time to go through that is important. I think I like that process.
AS: I think I would always strive for a strong collaborative process moving forward. That not only validated the good ideas I had, but also the bad ones. Sometimes when you’re by yourself you’ll make a bad idea work but you don’t have the people around you to learn from.
IA: That did happen. When we were playing around with the triangles, I think I was the one that was against it. They were pushing it and I kept thinking, “It just doesn’t feel right.” I gave you guys a tough time and I feel like it caused some tension, but it was for good. It made us question why the shape we were working with wasn’t working. We had to take a step back and then we came up with the research of the quilt. That’s when we had our ah-ha moment. Everything just clicked. At the end, I would say that I’m pleased with the outcome. In hindsight, the process and the stress and the struggles were worth it.
What was Overland’s part in realizing the design of your proposal?
AS: We invited others into the process through design pin-ups. We’d still be fuzzy conceptually and then we’d present it and then no one would understand it. They guided us more conceptually rather than dictating to us what the form should be. Overland really guided us with the big idea and keeping our heads straight in the right direction.
NR: Allison gave the hardest critiques and she was right. When someone is able to tell you when they see something is wrong, it’s helpful. We were lacking with very minor details, and Allison pointed them out. She tried directing us in such a way that we’d get to a point.
IA: She didn’t tell us what to do. She asked questions that stimulated our thinking.
How has being a part of this project had an impact on you?
FS: I enjoyed working on this project because you had to think about the client rather than how it is when you’re in school. There, you make design decisions based on what you want to do. It was a good experience for that.
IA: Even though it wasn’t the chosen project, I still think it has the potential to be constructed. It would be really exciting to find a new home for this project.
NR: Be open to any kind of decision. I think that’s the major takeaway.
AS: We think that the ideas we had for it and the way it was going to be used can be of value to another community somewhere. We wouldn’t build this exact thing because it would be a different community and site, and Birdie’s Nook was for a specific family. But we could take our process and implement it in another park to help another community.
Construction and unveiling of Birdie’s Nook took place this past weekend. Read more next week for the conclusion. Behind-the-scenes images can be seen on Instagram and Twitter under #BirdiesNook.