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The Built Environment

At Local Dam, Students Investigate Architecture’s Impact on the Environment

A student in a white t-shirt points to architectural drawings regarding the Salinas Dam on a wall.
Written By Cynthia Lambert // Photos by Joe Johnston

Just 30 minutes from campus, the Salinas Dam rises 135 feet high, holding millions of gallons of water in Santa Margarita Lake and serving as a testament to the engineering and construction feat achieved during wartime conditions in the early 1940s.

Two people, one wearing a face mask, look at drawings from an architecture studio class regarding their work at the Salinas Dam.
Two architecture faculty members admire photographs at an exhibit featuring student design proposals, pictures and original construction drawings for the Salinas Dam.

For about 40 Cal Poly second-year architecture students, the dam represents more than that. They spent a quarter researching its history and designing their own interpretive centers for the site.

“Sometimes we forget how we impact the world around us,” student William Bearden said. “We have to consider how our architecture impacts the way we perceive the natural environment, and try not to impose further upon it.”

This introspection is one of the goals of the studio classes, led by Architecture Department faculty members Kelle Brooks and Ana Ozaki. Each year, students visit a rural site that has been impacted by human development to consider the relationship between architecture and the site.

“Often we think of building as an improvement,” Brooks said. “But any time you’re given a site, you have to consider the impact the building will have on the site.”

A student points to architectural drawings regarding the Salinas Dam.
William Bearden points to one of the drawings in an exhibit featuring photographs, original construction drawings and student design proposals of an interpretive center for the Salinas Dam.

This is the first time the Salinas Dam has been included in the exercise. The students toured the dam in January, conducted research in teams and then worked on individual projects to design an interpretive and research center located at the site.

Some of their photographs and final projects, along with original construction documents of the Salinas Dam, are included in an exhibit in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design lobby (No. 5, Room 212) through June 10.

The research challenged students to think of dams beyond representations of strength and progress, delving into the ecological impacts, altered hydrology, settler colonialism, Indigenous sovereignty and resistance, and other social, political and natural contexts.

Black and white architectural drawings regarding designs for an interpretive center at the Salinas Dam.
A detail shot of photographs from the exhibit.

“Through my research, I was most struck by the fact that dams can be quite beneficial for things like water storage and recreation, but there are also many downfalls to constructing them, usually regarding changing the natural environment,” student Cat Borner said.

San Luis Obispo County’s biggest concrete dam was built in 1941 by the War Department to supply water to Camp San Luis Obispo. Soon after it became a water supply for the city of San Luis Obispo, contributing to the city’s postwar growth and providing water and recreational opportunities.

But the dam also forever altered a natural river with abundant fish and wildlife that once served Indigenous people and facilitated the development of Spanish missions.

A collection of drawings in an exhibit about architecture at the Salinas Dam.
Photographs and research on the Salinas Dam hang during the exhibition.

Many students considered this change to the natural environment when designing their interpretive and research centers. Borner chose to span the river that originally ran through the canyon, to emphasize the effect the dam had on the landscape.

“I hope that my project inspires deeper thought about architectural form and about the effects that the built environment can have long after it has been constructed,” she said.

Student Hans Romine placed his interpretive center within view of the lake and the dam, so visitors could see the stark difference in flora and fauna on both sides.

“You have to think about how people interact with your project, and how they move through it,” he said. “It was interesting seeing how you can use architecture to form different ideas and create an experience for visitors.”

A student stands in front of a wall covered in paper architectural drawings.
Josh Pucé stands in front of drawings displayed at the exhibit.

And after digging into the materials and weight of the concrete dam, Bearden chose to put his interpretive center on stilts, to provide contrast and avoid further encroachment into the land.

“Ultimately, I wish to convey a sense of hope, not only for the environment, but for architecture as well,” he said. “Sites vary drastically, each containing their own unique qualities, and I hope that my project can influence the way architecture responds to its site, developing a more meaningful symbiosis.”

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