SDSU design students collaborate on Volga sign

By: Jodelle Greiner, The Brookings Register

Design students at South Dakota State University used grant money to take a sign from an idea to installing it on a Volga street corner, say Jameson Berreth, Volga city administrator, and Brian Rex, associate professor and head of SDSU’s Department of Architecture.

The students transformed the corner of Kasan Avenue and Second Street, turning an empty area into a place to hang out.

“Every year, we pick a town in South Dakota and we just study it with the freshmen,” Rex said.

The students observe the town’s layout and how people utilize it and then come up with ways to improve flow and aesthetics. Before it’s done, all the design students are involved in some way.

They’ve done projects in Mobridge and Webster, which added travel time, and wanted to find a city that was a little closer, so they picked Volga.

They met with city officials and explained their project.

“They thought it was interesting and wanted some tangible solutions,” said student Guillermo Gonzalez-Cebrian.

They learned a lot about the town, Rex said, like it’s surrounded by water. They divided Volga up into sections, and groups of students made blue foam models of their section with the buildings, trees and curbs.

The students identified seven different places in town where they could build their project, Rex said.

The corner of Kasan and Second had a particular interest, Berreth said, due to its location in downtown and as a site for parades and marching band competitions. The city also wanted to use it to draw people into town from Highway 14, he added.

Lots of input

The students worked with a committee made up of business owners, a city councilor, and civic groups like the Lions Club, Berreth said. The students would present ideas and the committee would give them feedback so the students could refine their design.

“Make it into something that was useful to our town and obviously something that is pleasing to look at,” Berreth said

“It wasn’t a sign right away; it was a lot of different things,” he added.

That’s all part of the process, Rex said. The students threw out ideas, what they wanted, what would work, what wouldn’t.

Iqra Abbasi, a one-semester exchange student, came up with an idea.

“It was just a little cardboard set of V’s,” Rex said.

The class considered two or three more designs, but kept coming back to Abbasi’s V’s.

“She was very eloquent about describing it,” Rex said. “She thought that the idea of building a wall was too much and kind of fake. This was something different.”

The class “fell in love with it,” Rex said, but that didn’t mean it was finished.

“It was just a line of V’s for a long time,” Rex said.

The plain V’s presented some practical problems, as well as raising the question of how people would interact with them as opposed to them just being a type of wall.

That’s when architecture instructor Brian Lee started asking questions, getting the students to think about how the committee wanted the lot used and how it could attract people. He suggested pulling the V’s apart at the bottom and expanding that base to be used as seating areas. It looks a bit like two hockey sticks with the bottoms touching and handles going in opposite directions.

“It was a shift from the façade to this sort of totally different shape,” Gonzalez-Cebrian said.

Then, they had to take it from a 3-D model on a computer to the real world. The students had to consider the way the corner was used, with floats, bands and traffic coming by – even ice cream socials, “stuff that made the site even more rich than we realized,” Rex said – and how that affected the design. They also realized things as they worked on construction.

“At one point, it was right up against the sidewalk and then we realized we were going to wreck the sidewalk,” Rex said, so the design had to be changed.

“You have to make decisions in the certain moments,” said student Iman Ebaki Paskiabi. “There were lots of moments for me that I had to decide on different alternative. Just make the decisions and go for it.”

Working with actual construction materials changed some aspects and gave the students an education.

“We actually learned a lot” about structure and concrete, said student Tolulope Oyeniyi. “I can now go beyond my normal reason. I can think better. I can think of something more complex. It changed the way I approach my project now.”

“Here we experiment with concrete. We figure it out all the way down to the bolts and how we could actually build it,” said student Alejandro Marin. “I think it’s a really good learning experience, how all these pieces fit together, which I think is probably the most important thing.”

While they were doing all this physical labor, people would come up and question, “‘Why are you spending our money?’” recalled Rex. “It’s fun to go, ‘We’re not.’

“I’ve heard through the grapevine, ‘Why is the city spending money on stuff like that?’ I say, ‘Well, actually, we didn’t,’” Berreth said.

The SDSU students were awarded a grant from the Precast Concrete Industry for about $30,000, which paid for the materials like metal and concrete, as well as equipment they used, Rex said.

“We’re the only school in the U.S. that actually builds anything with their grant,” Rex said. Other schools use it for testing, experimenting and other things.

The project is 95 percent complete, according to Rex, but people were still puzzled about why it is there, according to Gonzalez-Cebrian.

“So I’ve been going there for hour, half an hour, with my coffee and a book and I’ll just sit there and people just walk by or drive by … ‘What is that guy doing?’ Some people stop (and ask), ‘So, can we actually sit on that?’” Gonzalez-Cebrian said.

When he confirms they can, they come and sit down.

The group hopes people will get more comfortable with it and it becomes part of the community, even to the point where the city starts adding things, like a flag pole.

Rex is looking even further ahead.

“There’s gonna be a little kid who’s gonna become an architect because of this thing,” he predicted, recalling how the kids would come and watch while the students worked.

“We’re really proud of the way it turned out,” Rex said.

Contact Jodelle Greiner at jgreiner@brookingsregister.com.

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