In the summer of 2010, two young big-city architects moved into a modest house in Bertie County, a small farming community in eastern North Carolina, with a mission: to revolutionize the way we approach public education.
They had a simple idea: Teach children to be actively and creatively involved in the life of their town with a one-year design course that would directly serve the community’s needs.
Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller stayed two years and left Bertie just a little transformed.
Their story is told in If You Build It, an inspiring, educational, highly enjoyable documentary from director Patrick Creadon, best known for 2009’s I.O.U.S.A., which chronicled America’s less-than-healthy fiscal condition.
Pilloton, who studied architecture at Berkeley and product design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a passionate advocate of humanitarian design — creating products that are user- and community-friendly — which she details in her first book, 2008’s Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People.
Miller has worked with a variety of nonprofits, including Architecture for Humanity in Uganda. In 2008 he designed and built a house in Detroit that he gave to a low-income family.
The duo put together a 12-month elective design course for high school juniors called Studio H (H for humanity, habitats, health, happiness and more).
So what’s a design course?, asked the 10 kids who signed up. Housed in a spacious makeshift studio, the class initially seemed nothing more than a souped-up version of wood and metal shop.
It was so much more. Pilloton and Miller taught the kids how to look at objects, houses, cars, toothbrushes. How to really look, to discern the relationship between form and function. Then they taught them how to break down a design into its component parts. Eventually, the duo showed the students how to design their own project — and carry through by actually building it.
Over the course of 12 months, the class worked on a variety of things, always with the community in mind, including water filters and chicken coops.
The course culminated with a project conceived in consultation with community leaders. Hoping to reinvigorate the local economy, the latter asked Pilloton and Miller for a full-size, functioning farmers market.
Each teen submitted a design, then all put their own sweat into building the winning one.
If You Build It is a remarkable, moving chronicle of how activism, however modest, however local, can create real change.
Exclusive: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth