It’s an overcast, April morning and Coleman Coker is crouched low, peering over the edge of a small platform that floats in the saltwater marshlands of Sea Rim State Park. Two students flank him, one on each side, and the three are carefully lowering sections of a 12-in welded steel rail to two other classmates wading in the waist-deep water below. Working quickly to avoid sinking into the decomposing clay muck, the pair passes an impact driver back and forth, finally succeeding in fastening the remaining segments to the perimeter of the wood deck.
With this addition, the platform — a future campsite and unique respite for kayakers — is officially alligator-proof. More students, in kayaks, have taken up lookout positions, encircling the group in the water so that the work can take place. April is alligator mating season, and the team has already spotted one at a distance.
It is difficult to imagine this scene unfolding in any conventional academic architecture studio, but Coker’s Gulf Coast DesignLab at The University of Texas at Austin is anything but conventional.
Over a span of 15 weeks, Coker works with around a dozen students to design, fabricate, and install small, ecologically sensitive venues in communities across the Texas Gulf Coast. These “communities on the edge” face myriad challenges posed by a changing environment, from loss of habitat due to subsidence, to increased frequency of natural disasters, to industrial and residential overdevelopment.
DesignLab embraces an ambitious mission: to create the next generation of environmental stewards through what Coker calls a “poetic”
design approach. Characterized by an emphasis on moderation, small scale, humility, designing for change, and elevating the whole over its parts,
the poetic is as much about instilling a set of values through the design process as it is about appreciating a completed project.
Coker explains that “students are encouraged to look more deeply at when and where to build and when and where not to build; to begin to imagine how to design in ways which actually work with natural cycles, that support natural habitats instead of armoring against them.”
Coker, who has more than 30 years of experience as principal of his own firm, buildingstudio, stresses that architects must recognize that they are part of a chain, ultimately responsible to a greater community and not solely to themselves or their professional agenda. In an industry that both laments and celebrates — yet never ignores — ego-driven “starchitecture,” DesignLab offers a refreshing mindset: that a humble and local design approach enables one to imagine a wealth of alternative means of contributing to a community.
For students, this also means adopting an attitude sometimes absent from a traditional studio producing purely conceptual work. They must work together to balance their collective design ambition with a pragmatic adherence to a schedule and budget. They are responsible for presenting to local stakeholders and securing permits for their work. And, of course, they must actually build their design, typically spending several long weekends as
a group onsite while juggling the rest of their courseload during the week.
Last year, DesignLab celebrated the completion of three projects: “Rise,” “Hide,” and “Float.” Rise is located within Goose Island State Park, eight miles north of Fulton, Texas, on the St. Charles Bay. The park, renowned for its winter bird-watching, is home to the extremely endangered whooping crane. Park officials worked with DesignLab to create
a simple elevated platform that would function not only as a viewing deck for bird-watchers, but also as a venue for environmental educators to speak about wetland stewardship and the local bay system.
The platform is lofted six feet above the marsh and defined by a screened, 70-ft-long ramp providing wheelchair accessibility. A slender, open steel frame rests on minimal concrete piers concealed by the tall grass. The restrained screen wall is clean, composed of vertically mounted wood slats whose depth and narrow spacing offer varying degrees of opacity dependent upon a viewer’s angle of approach. Constructed in time for the migration season, the installation has already been put to good use, offering park officials an opportunity to instigate new educational programs and providing a novel vantage point from which to appreciate the surrounding ecology.
DesignLab also partnered with Camp Aranzazu, a nonprofit organization that recently celebrated its 10th year in operation by purchasing 26 acres of sensitive wetland on Copano Bay. The camp hosts both adults and children with special needs or terminal illnesses for a week of nature-based recreational therapy.
Working with birders experienced in youth education, students designed and installed Hide, a breezy, shaded bird blind that resembles a pair of large venetian blinds. Its open interior can accommodate six wheelchairs, seven able-bodied campers, and a handful of activity leaders at any given time. A cast concrete ledge mounted at wheelchair height features debossed silhouettes of bird species native to the region, and the pavilion’s use of shade not only conceals inhabitants’ movements from birds, but also enables the shelter to maintain a comfortable temperature during critical hours.
When the acreage is fully activated, Hide will be flanked by complementary structures, including an accessible kayak launch, orientation area, education venues, and marsh overlooks.
From its need for a protective “alligator rail” to the tricky limitations imposed by a site with no automobile access, Sea Rim State Park’s Float may be the most technically challenging project DesignLab has undertaken. Intended to foster the sort of environmental intimacy that one experiences kayaking alongside the park’s many trails, the floating platform provides a remote refuge just large enough to comfortably pitch a tent for the night. A well-proportioned trapezoidal tower, serving as both outhouse and wayfinding landmark, is a dramatic addition to the otherwise flat and seemingly limitless horizon of the bayou.
No module of the design could exceed a width of four feet — a constraint imposed by the narrow channels of the marshland — and all materials and tools had to be floated to the site by boat. Students encountered additional design challenges after a funding reallocation occurred midsemester, as well as when a leaky boat forced the team to scramble to find an alternative vessel to transport the prefabricated components to their site. In the face of the unique obstacles facing the studio, Float was completed on time and offers the only campsite of its kind at a Texas state park.
Despite the mounting urgency to address the effects of climate change, especially within vulnerable Gulf Coast communities, Coker is optimistic about his students’ prospects of effecting meaningful change through design. “Twenty-five years ago, most architecture students I knew entered the profession in order to buy a Porsche,” he muses. “Today, they all want to save the world.”
With a compelling design ideology and talented students producing an ever-broadening portfolio of built work, DesignLab is enabling the next generation of architects to do just that.
Coleman Coker, Michelle Cantú, Raquel Royal, and Claire Fontaine contributed interviews for this article.
Christopher Ferguson, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at Clickspring Design and
co-founder of DO.GROUP DESIGN.