May 14, 2007

One Final Update

The semester is over; I'm back in Minneapolis. I realize that I have not written in over a month as the last month of classes in Biloxi was a bit more busy, as they tend to be, than the previous few. Much happened in the month, more than I can convey in a short writing, but I will give you a highlights tour of the month.

For our classes, our projects continued. The reconstruction project made much headway, with spits and starts at times. By the time we left we had passed all of the needed inspections to continue and had begun on the finished of the house, starting with the drywall. We are, sadly, leaving the completion of the house to others as a necessity as the group had to depart to the four winds for the summer. Our studio project also went well and we were able to present a more or less comprehensive plan for a commercial and residential building for a main street in the neighborhood we were working in.

In April we took a trip to visit the work of the Rural Studio in and around Greensboro, Alabama. The Rural Studio is a part of the architecture program at Auburn University that works in rural Alabama building great buildings with often found materials, earlier on, and as of late using more innovative and higher tech building methods. The Studio has produced many interesting and great works of architecture. Though the work is inspiring, the situation that these buildings were made is is much different than that of Biloxi where funding, more stringent building codes and the possibility of hurricanes and flooding force a different approach to design. While we were in Greensboro we spent some time at a print shop where we learned the process of making a poster on a printing press and produced a great poster for the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio.

Another highlight, other than all the work, was a final trip to New Orleans. On the first Sunday in May I ventured to the Big Easy with a group of friends and atended the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The day was sunny and hot, with a high near 90 degrees Ferinheight and the crowds were huge. We arrived mid-afternoon as on the way to New Orleans we stopped St. Rose de Lima, a Catholic church in Bay St. Louis with a gospel choir that would make most Baptist churches proud. If you are ever on the Mississippi Gulf Coast on a Sunday morning, you must make your way here. We then spend the afternoon and into the early evening listening to a nearly overwhelming amount of Jazz and Gospel. We capped the day with a dinner of pizza from a restaurant in the Garden District before driving back to Biloxi.

The semester in Biloxi was great in both the meanings of the word. I am still not able to comprehend everything that we worked on and accomplished. I am far from understanding all of the lessons I will take from the time I spend in the south studying. There were moments when things were infuriating and frustrating to no end, yet there were many equally joyful and pleasant times in both work and play. I am grateful for my fellow students who have become my friends. I am also thankful for all the people who were not a part of the Studio who gave us lessons, time and friendship. I appreciate the help and support we received from so many people.

I see that I am waxing poetic, so I'll cut myself off. It has been a pleasure.

Cheers,

Peter

April 5, 2007

Spring

The cold cloudy days of winter have passed; they have been replaced by the warm clear days of spring. Here in the south spring sneaks up on you unlike the frozen north where springs arrival is clear and certain. Here there is no snow or ice to melt away to indicate the waining winter. The grass never really died, their blades holding a bit of green throughout the winter. Yet one can perceive the arrival of this new season. The days get longer, the sun waking us earlier and slipping below the horizon later. The birds pass by as they return to their northern homes. The flowers bloom. Some days it seems as if nearly every plant here is in blossom. Bushes, trees, and even the grass spring forth in flowered array. The trees join the season as they wake from their winters rest and set new green leaves upon their limbs. Though it is only early April the Gulf Coast is a verdant landscape. The world is again filled with life, back from the dormancy of winter. It is as if world celebrates Easter with us.

March 29, 2007

Lessons

Studying here in Biloxi has been a great experience so far. One of the things that has made the experience extraordinary are the intangible lessons we have had to learn. These lessons are many and of many sources. One large source of these lessons has been the renovation project we are working on. (see previous entry for a link to the O.A.N. website to track the projects process) For example last week we were in the process of arranging for a plumber to work at the house and due to factors beyond our control we were thus left to wait. The waiting lasted for the better part of three days. During most weeks this would have been frustrating, but since it was our spring break we were a bit more patient. It can be difficult to wait, but when events are beyond your control you must wait them out and do what small things you can in the mean time. Patience, as it often does, showed its merrits here. Working on the renovation and construction of the house has showed us the value of good planning and also showed us that things don't always move at the rate you expect they should. Sometimes, though not often, they move faster, but most often they move much more slowly.

The lessons we have had to learn extend beyond the actual classes we attend. We have had to be ultimately flexible in our existence and work here in Biloxi. We do not yet have a studio space to work from, which at time can be difficult. The spaces we work in at the East Biloxi Coordination Center are spare and we often have to move or find new furnishings as other groups at the center need the space we occupy for meetings. Working this way, as a waif on the land, makes me appreciate the working conditions I have back at the University of Minnesota. To have a desk in a secure, comfortable location is truly a privilege. When I look around Biloxi and I see FEMA trailers on many, many lots and in parks like mini, depressing subdivisions, I think that it is more appropriate that we work this way. Maybe in this way we get a minuscule taste of the struggles that many are going through as they wait to go home.

March 24, 2007

The Shed

The people on the Gulf Coast know how to have fun. Take The Shed for example. The Shed is half shed, half outside, half family BBQ spot, half bar and all fun. Coming from the frozen north, as I do, I have never experienced a place quite like this. The buildings is a tin covered shed with large windows open to the outside. In a gravel yard between the main building and a small stage about twenty picnic tables are arrayed like theater seats around the stage. Each Saturday night The Shed features a live band ranging from folk to blues to oldies cover bands. One orders food inside The Shed at a window and then finds a seat inside or out. Your food is delivered by servers who walk the premises and shout your name until they find you. The BBQ is the best I have ever had as the meat falls off the bone. The potato salad and all the other sides live up to the standard the ribs set. Sitting under the Mississippi stars, enjoying the company of friends some good food and good music makes for a great evening.

March 21, 2007

House Renovation

As I have mentioned previously we are working on renovating a house damaged by Hurricane Katrina as part of the classes we are taking here in Biloxi. The project has been challenging as we have had to deal with every step of the process, both design and construction. We have a real client with real expectations and a real budget. For most of us these are new things with which we have not dealt previously. The house is to have two uses, first as a home for volunteers working in Biloxi and then after a few years the owner will turn it into a house to rent. As such, we have had to design it in such a way as to meet both uses with an easy transition between the two. One of the other major challenges has been the budget, as the owner has a limited budget within which we must work. Another challenge has been coordination between us, the volunteers we have had working on the project, the owner and the organizations that are donating materials and resources to the project. I have learned so much in the last few weeks working on this project, it sometimes boggles my mind. If you would like to see pictures of the house and follow its progress, go to this link:

http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.org/node/524

We haven't loaded much information yet, but we will continue to update the site as we make progress on the project.

March 20, 2007

Surreal part II

Here, as promised, are the other strange events from Tuesday, March 13th. As mentioned in the last entry we are in the midst of an inundation of college students volunteering during spring break. At Hands On, as part of the events for the students, has initiated the Tuff Stuff Challenge. The challenge entails learning seven facts about Biloxi and doing 2000 of a combinations of push-ups, crunches or pull-ups. During the morning in a quieter moment at the house one of the other grad students and I did crunches in the house while others scraped the outside. Every where you go and find volunteers staying at Hands On, you will find people doing crunches and push-ups. It is a bit odd to see a group of five or ten people on the ground doing crunches after lunch.

Skip forward to dinner. A couple of us were sitting at a table in the cafeteria area of Hands On waiting for dinner to be served. Nearly every table and chair was filled with people hungry from a hard days work. About ten minutes before the scheduled dinner time, a group of about twenty people who had been having a meeting stood up at the same time. This set off a chain reaction where nearly every one waiting for dinner got up and into line. There was one problem: there was no food, and it wouldn't be out for about ten minutes. By the time we realized what was going on the line was about two hundred people deep, which meant a long wait for dinner. We decided it was better to eat else where, so we headed to the Backyard Burger for dinner.

When we returned Hands On after eating the last of the surreal scenes from the day greeted us. We walked into a date auction of a few long term volunteers from Dartmouth College who were to leave in a few days. The scene was not what one would expect. The proceeds went to Hands On and the process was all in good fun. The bidding started with individuals, lead to groups of friends pooling their funds and eventually tables and halves of the room bidding against each other. The craziest auction was of one of the people who runs Hands On who attended Dartmouth. The bidding eventually pitted one man with a group that was comprised of most of the rest of the room. It was quite the scene.

Life here in Biloxi can be very odd at times. Sometimes you drive by a site one day and on the next you'll find a house there, trucked in from the other side of the city. It is a place where things move so slowly you wonder how anything gets done and at other times moves so quickly you can barley keep up. In Biloxi you never quite know what you'll get.

March 14, 2007

Surreal

Sometimes life down here is very surreal. Take Tuesday for example. The day started with a breakfast prepared for the departure of two students from Dartmouth University, a school known as "Big Green." Someone making breakfast for the group is not an unusual occurrence as it happens every day, but the food was: green eggs and ham. Now, colored food isn't unprecedented, see the pink grits served on Valentines Day for breakfast, but on Tuesday the breakfast didn't end there. At about five minutes past seven two of the Dartmouth students read "Green Eggs and Ham," by Dr. Seuss. Again it gets weirder because they were not only reading the story, but they read it antiphonally, calling and responding across the balcony. What a way to start the day.

The job site at the house we were working at was a flurry of activity as spring break is in full force. We have a contingent of undergraduate students from the University of Minnesota working with us this week which means there are about twenty people working in a very small house. On Tuesday most of the people were scraping paint off the siding of the house while some people worked on the framing inside the house. A cacophony of noise resulted inside the house from the scrapers scratching on the siding and the hammers pounding on the inside. After lunch I made it back to the house before the other volunteers and it was nearly devoid of activity and quiet, quite a change from the morning. Then another surreal moment occurred. As I sat on the floor of the quiet house, a voice drifted in from outside. The voice was deep and smooth with the about the cadence and tambour of Martin Luther King Jr. The voice was indeed the one of a preacher preaching over a loudspeaker some blocks away.

Those were not the only odd occurrences of the day, but its getting late, and I am tired, so I'll write about the rest later.

-Peter

March 8, 2007

Feild trip

Greetings All,

Ah the joys of being in school in Mississippi. Today we took a field trip to Picayune, MS to see the Pinecote Pavilion at the Crosby Arboretum. The structure is a simple canopy made of standard lumber situated on the edge of a small lake set in the woods of Mississippi. The previous description does not belie the simple grandure of the pavilion or the peace of the place. All in all it was a great way to spend the afternoon; seeing a good work of architecture and wondering around the woods under the warm Mississippi sun. A few photos from the trip follow.


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That's all for now. Have a good one.

-Peter

March 1, 2007

28FEB07, one day, much work

Yesterday was a busy day, more hectic than most, but it also covered much of what we are doing down here. The day started with the usual 7 AM breakfast followed by a quick sprint to our makeshift studio across town. We then spent the morning working on the two main projects that have been our focus for the past few weeks.

For one of the projects we are designing housing for the East Biloxi neighborhood. After hurricane Katrina, most of the residents of the area were left homeless or with badly damaged homes. Prior to the hurricane increasing the amount of affordable housing in the neighborhood was a major concern of the citizens of the area, something that the damage of the hurricane makes more poignant. We are working in the studio to produce new ideas for housing in three areas, an attached rental unit to supplement the income of a single family home, a mixed-use commercial residential project for a main street in town and lastly a higher density multi-unit building/development. For each of the three housing types we are trying to bring new ways to house people that extend beyond the single family homes and duplexes currently in the area. We are dealing with issues of zoning, code and elevating the buildings off the ground to comply with FEMA regulations. Making sure that the designs we produce meet these requirements is important, as the possiblest exists that one of these projects may be built as a part of the studio.

We worked on this project and another through the morning and presented our work in the afternoon. At about 3:30 PM we got a call that a few volunteers were needed to help pour a concrete slab at a project nearby. We jumped at the chance to help and dove right in. Pouring concrete is messy and a lot of work, but it was fun. Just as we were cleaning up we got word that a potential client for our other project was in town and ready to meet with us. We sprinted back to the studio and presented the plans and ideas we had produced to the client. The project we presented involves a house in the neighborhood that the owner needs to renovate after the storm. He would like to donate the use of the house as a home for volunteers for a period of time and then turn the house into a home to rent. We presented plans and a cost estimate to the home owner that we had prepared as part of our classes. We are currently waiting to hear back from the owner as to what he would like to do. This meeting ended our day, at least as school was concerned.

Dinner is about to be served, so I should run.

Cheers,

Peter

February 27, 2007

Pictures from Biloxi

Good Evening All,

The semester here in Bilxoi continues to go well. The pace of the work has increased a bit as we prepare for the influx of volunteers that spring break will bring. Here are a few pictures from around the city.

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The sun sets over the train tracks that bisect the city.

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A live oak, a tree that abounds in the area.

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A clearing created by the storm in east Biloxi, the neighborhood that we are working in this semester

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View down Water Street, one of the few areas with historic homes left mostly undamaged by the storm.

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Piers in the water on a foggy day.

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The casinos of Biloxi viewed from neighboring Gulfport.


I hope that all of you back in Minnesota are enjoying the snow!

Cheers,

Peter

February 23, 2007

Tri-pong

Life here in Biloxi is busy, but we do manage to have fun as well. Also, the well of our collective creativity never seems to run dry. One such example is the invention of a new game by some of my colleagues, tri-pong. The game is based on ping-pong but with a twist. Here at Hands On there is no ping-table, yet some of those in the group desired to play the game. To overcome the problem they took three round dinner tables and arranged them in a triangle. They then began to hit the ball back and forth between the three tables with one person stationed behind each table. Thus, tri-pong was born. The game has continued to evolve with an equilateral, wooden triangular net added to increase the challenge and competitiveness of the game. To keep score, each player starts with twenty-one points and deducts a point when they miss a shot. When one player reaches zero, the other two continue play with the net raised, like a pyramid, to create the "triangle of destiny." Play continues until one of the two remaining players score reaches zero. The game is most entertaining and an example of the unending creativity of this group.

February 10, 2007

A Long Day

Greetings,

Today, Saturday, February 10th has been a long day, yet it illustrates how
varied the days can be here. My alarm roused me at 5:20 am so that I could
cook breakfast for the rest of the people staying at Hands On. Three of us
made spiced pancakes, banana pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage, cereal and
coffee by 7:00 am. I ate breakfast with friends from school and then got
ready for the rest of the day.

By 8:30 we arrived at the construction site of a house in Biloxi. The
weather was a bit chilly at this time, the thermometer reading only about
45 degrees Fahrenheit at the time. We spent the rest of the morning and
into the afternoon learning how to frame stud walls. We laid out, cut and
assembled the appropriate pieces and by about 1:00 pm nine of us had
successfully completed three small, uncomplicated walls. We then broke for
lunch.

A few of us decided that it would be fun to see the Mardi Gras parade in
Biloxi. The construction site was only a few blocks from the start of the
parade route, so we made our way there. To our dismay we found the back of
the parade a few blocks in front of us. Apparently, we had missed the
entire event. We started walking to catch the last few groups and floats
and for the next hour walked with the whole parade. The route looped back
on itself, so we were able to see almost all of it. The parade was similar
in many respects to many small city parades I have seen, with floats, and
groups of cars, horses, a high school marching band, thrown candy and the
like. The parade had three firsts for me: first, Mardai Gras beads thrown
to everyone, by everyone. They were everywhere and they littered the
streets. Second, being greeted with, "Happy Mardi Gras." And lastly, moon
pies, not that I have never seen one before, but that I have never had one
thrown to me at a parade. Also, a local dance troupe, Soul Patrol, provided
much entertainment to the crowd and showed much spirit as they danced
their way along the route.

On the way back to the car from the parade, I greeted a woman we meet on
the street and asked her how her day was. She stated she was good and I
wished her a good day. She responded with a large hug, something I am not
used to from a stranger, and a hearty, "God Bless you," a sentiment she
repeated three times in the next minute or so as we parted ways. It was an
experience I will not soon forget, as I cannot imagine the same thing
happening on the streets of Minneapolis.

We then proceeded to buy a quick, cheap, delicious lunch from a Vietnamese
bakery. We were back at the construction site by 2:30 and completed a
couple more walls in short order. By about 4:00 pm we made our way back
home to Hands On and in short order, a few of us set off for Mobile,
Alabama. We intended to go to a Christian music concert, Winterfest 2007,
but we arrived too late. The concert proved very popular and by the time we
arrived 20 minutes late, they had locked the doors. We made up for the
missed concert with dinner at Sonny's BBQ. The food was tasty and plentiful
the company good. One could hardly ask for more. We then made the hour
drive back to Biloxi and called it a day.

Each day here in Biloxi has been quite different. Some days are spent
studying, working on projects and reading. Others are spend at a
construction site, while on others it may seem we don't get much of
anything done. Yet every day is filled with a vast array of new experiences
from the grand opening of a community land trust complete with a gospel
choir to eating craw-fish at a local restaurant (see previous post) to the
everyday necessities of living in between. One thing is for certain, my first
few weeks here have been anything but mundane.

February 8, 2007

Craw fish

Good Morning All,

Last night I had a new experience, a craw fish boil. Class ended late, so we were unable to make it back to Hands On for the evening meal. We thus decided it was a good night for craw fish, especially since it is the start of the craw fish season. We piled into cars and drove thirty minutes to the west to the small berg of Waveland, MS where S&B's awaited us.

We had been to S&B's a couple weeks before, and had called ahead, so they where expecting our arrival. The restaurant and bar is the ultimate mom and pop place, specializing in southern fair and local sea food. The menu includes such delicacies as craw fish boil, shrimp boil, fried catfish, a plethora of po-boys, hush puppies, corn nuggets, beef fries, sweet potato fries, banana pudding, and pecan pie. Everything, save the boils, po-boys and the deserts come from the deep fryer. This is the best of down home southern cuisine. The ambiance is what you would expect, clean but a little bit drab. A bar dominates the middle of the establishment, yet there is plenty of seating for those wanting to enjoy a meal at a table.

One orders the craw fish boil by the pound, and is served a steaming heap of whole, bright red animals. The whole body is intact and one eats a craw fish by breaking off the tail and removing the shrimp like meat. Then one crushes the head and body cavity and sucks out the juices from the craw-fish and the boil. The flavor is spicy, salty, and of the sea, but more mild than shrimp. As we ate, the shells of the fish piled up, the juices of the biol dripped down our arms and our lips burned and our noses dripped from the spices. Between eight of us who ate craw-fish 24 pounds were consumed. Many locals will start with five pounds and keep going from there, so we were apparently light eaters.

If the food at S&B's is good, which it is, the service is even better. Our server, Jessica, was kind, polite, sweet and patient with our loud, rowdy group. We called ahead, and when we arrived we discovered four tables pushed together to accommodate our large group. They dealt with our changing orders with ease, taught the novices how to eat a craw fish, laughed at our utter quirkiness, split our check thirteen ways, and generally seemed to enjoy our presence. I have never had service that even approaches this level of greatness. So, if you ever find your way to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, make your way to S&B's. They may be part of a ubiquitous set, but they are certainly the essence of it.

Cheers,

Peter

February 3, 2007

The Way we Live

Good Morning

Our living arrangements while studying here in Biloxi have been described as M.A.S.H. meets bible camp. The facilities at Hands on Gulf Coast, an organization that currently provides housing, meals and work for individuals seeking to volunteer in the Biloxi region, are located behind a Methodist church. The main building is a multipurpose structure with a kitchen, a large central gathering space, restrooms and offices on the first floor. A second level mezzanine encircles the main meeting/dining/gathering room where the bunks for volunteers are located. If you imagine a pole barn with a gymnasium inside, you'll get the idea. When we first arrived Hands On did not have bunks for us inside, so we set up regular camping tents inside an army tent in the large open space behind the main building, hence our MASH like existence. Some of the group have moved inside, yet the out door living has not been bad even with the cool, damp weather we have experienced here in Biloxi.

The days at Hands On are regimented and revolve around the volunteer work the people who live and stay here do. Each day begins at 7:00 AM as the lights are turned on and breakfast is served. At 8:00 the work crews go out and we begin the studying or work for the day. Lunch is provided for all the volunteers in working in Biloxi at a converted stadium by the Salvation Army. The other volunteers continue to work in the afternoon as we have class. We all gather for dinner at 6:30 pm. After dinner, a meeting is convened to greet the people who have newly arrived, hear reports from the crews that worked that day, sign up for chores and hear from those who will be departing the next day. At Hands On we, those who live here, do all the work; cooking meals and cleaning. If nobody signs up, it doesn't get done. The evening is ours to work, study or play as the rest of the volunteers relax after a hard days labor. The lights are extinguished at 9:30 PM so that those who will be making breakfast or who will leave on the 6:00 am framing crew can get some sleep. Thus, ends the day at Hands On.

The accommodations here at Hands On are a bit rustic, but all the basic needs of life are provided for. We have three meals a day, a roof over our heads, a free washer and dryer to clean our clothes, and hot showers to keep our bodies clean. The shower are out doors, which can make for an exhilarating bathing experience. Take this morning for example. The temperature at 8:30 this morning was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit when I decided it was a good time to take a shower. I disrobed under the canopy of the sky and quickly jumped under the scalding hot water. I lingered under the hot water, reluctant to leave its warm, comforting stream. When I was warmed through to the core I turned off the faucet, shook off as much water as possible and toweled off quickly as possible. I threw my clothes on and lingered for a moment as my body slowly lost the heat of the shower to the cool air around me. The experience is not that different from taking a sauna, except that you do it all exposed to the heavens above.

Our life here in Biloxi, at Hands On, is quite unlike my normal life at home. At home we work at school and then part our separate ways to our own little enclaves, but here we work together and live together sharing car, meals, chores and work. Our days have so far been paced not so much by the homework and studies that we need to accomplish, but by the schedule of those who are volunteering in this place around us.

Cheers,

Peter

January 26, 2007

Welcome to Mississippi

Greetings and Salutations,

The entries that follow are a conical of my trip to Mississippi. To call it a trip is a bit of a misnomer as I am really down here studying for the Spring semester. As part of the second year graduate architecture program at the University of Minnesota, I have the opportunity to move to Biloxi, MS to study at the Gulf Coast Community Design Center. Twelve students from the U of MN, Mississippi State, Auburn and the BAC make up the studio.

I arrived in Biloxi on Sunday, January 14th to discover that the place we are living, Hands on Gulf Coast, did not have beds for us. It seems our arrival got lost in the shuffle of paper work. We were provided tents which we were able to pitch just before sundown. We improved our accommodations on Monday by moving our small camping tents into one of several large Army tents on the property, an arrangement we have kept to this day.

On Monday the 15th we attended a Martin Luther King Jr. parade where we met an older woman named Mrs. Johnson. She asked us if we were volunteers and expressed much thanks and gratitude for the assistance the workers had provided for her.

During the week of the 15th classes started and we also spent time working on a renovation of a building for the East Biloxi Coordination and Relief Center, the organization that contains the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio. On one day a few of us learned how to install Sheetrock. The next day two of us who had one days experience lead two teams and completed the instillation of the Sheetrock. During this week we did not have much classroom time, but the time spent working with our hands was well worth it.

The first two weeks here in Biloxi have been great. As the semester goes by I hope to give you a glimpse into my life an work here in Biloxi.

Cheers,

Peter

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