Faculty Feature: Laila Seewang & Todd Ferry—The School of Architecture

When is a table not just a table? When it is built by hand? Crafted using wood milled from a tree that was hand-selected for harvest, dragged to a solar-powered mill and kiln, processed and retained in the community? When it is designed with extraordinary intention, bringing together students, faculty, and community members around a shared common space to talk about ways to improve their land and city? When it fits into a larger project that aims to rethink ways of thinking about architecture, land use, and design, recentering traditional indigenous knowledge and ecological wisdom?

The table soon to be residing on the oak savanna on campus aims to achieve all of these goals, and more. It is one piece of a larger ongoing project, led by Sergio Palleroni and Judy BlueHorse Skelton, that aims to restore the oak savanna on campus and build a center for Indigenous Traditional Ecological Cultural Knowledge (ITECK) at PSU. 

This past term, Laila Seewang, assistant professor at the School of Architecture teaching urban design and history theory, and Todd Ferry, associate director and senior researcher in the Center for Public Interest Design (CPID), asked students, how can we rethink the way we interact with forests and land so that they are not just extractive? 

The table was the culmination of one part of that work, a first step to beginning to imagine better relationships with our forest through architectural design and indigenous wisdom. Students in an undergraduate studio in the School of Architecture came up with the idea for the table based on a previous studio led by Palleroni and BlueHorse Skelton– a place where people can gather together and work in one shared space. A modular blackboard/storage unit pulls out of one side of the table. A planter box is installed on another side, simultaneously providing a place for native plants to be nurtured and grown, while also confronting hierarchical dynamics and eliminating a “head” of the table.

For Ferry, the most meaningful and exciting part of the table is its specificity and intentional design: “At most architecture schools, you say, ‘I want this to be made of wood.’ [But we said], I want this to be made of this specific kind of wood after this visit in the forest. And not only that, but [a] specific wood, a specific tree. [They] had it milled and brought it to the site. It wasn’t a generic thing that just happened at a Home Depot. It was linked to the forest visit that Laila set up.”

Seewang’s and Ferry’s students did just that. They visited Peter Hayes and his sustainable forestry business, Hyla Woods. After a tour of his “silvacultural family,” his methods of sustainable forestry, and the trees growing there, the students selected an appropriate tree. They cut it down, tied ropes around the trunk, and dragged it by hand to the mill, where it was milled and then dried in solar-powered kiln. The wood was then brought back to PSU, where Ferry’s students used it to make a table. 

Seewang, Ferry, and their students hope the table can be a place of gathering, learning, and working together as the university continues the project of building the center for ITECK and restoring the oak savanna. Seewang’s students looked at alternative material strategies for the PSU art and design building, which will be a timber building. Ferry’s students are studying local social and environmental problems and coming up with urban design strategy to address them, while focusing on challenging transportation infrastructure.

Both professors are asking their students to think about our relationships to land and forest, on small, medium, and massive scales. “What does it mean to build on this space that used to be a valley that hosted multiple Indigenous tribes as a ground that was managed and shared as hunting grounds?” Seewang asks. “And then what you’re doing has to somehow interact with that history and with the history of Portland as a whole. You’re bringing timber to the site, so how does your site fit in with the regional forests? What kind of structure would you like to put on the ground? How can architecture implement values beyond being a good or bad building? What does it do in terms of a relationship with this environment?” 

These methods of thinking about our relationship to our surroundings are undoubtedly a vital step in moving PSU and our city forward in a sustainable, intentional and respectful way. Restoring native oak savannas to the Willamette Valley could prove a vital part of mitigating climate change, restoring resilient traditional ecosystems to the land. The small oak savanna on the PSU campus could be a small example of how to do just that; students also hope that it can be a place to host important conversation around the southern park blocks having more oaks. And Seewang and Ferry hope that architecture in general can continue to evolve to incorporate ITECK, as we consider and decide what to build – whether a city, building, or even just a table.

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