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Dal's free-lab builds on real life 

Dalhousie architecture department’s annual free-lab projects brings students out of the classroom and into the community.

In the summer of 2004, a group of Dalhousie architecture students set up shop in Cheticamp where, under the guidance of a few profs and in collaboration with the local community, they spent two weeks designing and building a permanent outdoor children's theatre. Le Theatre Petit Cercle went on to win a handful of prestigious architecture awards and, in the process, became one of the most talked-about projects to emerge from the school's annual free-lab exercise.

Richard Kroeker was one of the professors who led the Cheticamp theatre build. Another of his projects, the Murdena Marshall Meeting Hall in Eskasoni, took three years and the involvement of many students to get from initial design to completion. This year, it will be showcased in the Venice Biennale Architecture Exhibition. Using innovative and appropriate building materials and techniques, these projects, says Kroeker, "show how small-budget ideas can make itin the world of high architecture. We've taken undervalued material and added value by design."

Marking the end of the summer academic term, free labs allow students to trade the confines of the studio in for a full-scale building experience and to learn how those lines on the drawing board relate to three-dimensional structures in the real world. Last summer, a dozen students worked with visiting professor Peter Sassenroth (the German architect behind Berlin's Chapel of Reconciliation) on a rammed-earth bicycle shed in a north end backyard---a study to determine how an ancient building technique would stand up to harsh maritime weather. Work on this year's projects begins within the next week. Some, such as the Spencer's Island outdoor cinema, are community-based. Others, such as professor Susan Molesky's Marsh Instrument, are more experimental in nature.

Over the next two weeks, Molesky will be asking students to build a landscape installation, in response to the natural marshland environment of Grand Pre, currently campaigning for UNESCO world heritage designation. A recent recruit to the Dal faculty, Molesky---responsible for last year's urban park beside the Salvation Army on Gottingen Street---cites the Cheticamp free lab as what initially attracted her to Dalhousie. "There's nothing better for the students than to actually build something. It's invaluable to their next steps as architects."

Here in the city, another group of students will design and build a 75-foot-long "community art" (read: graffiti) wall, which will be temporarily installed on the Halifax Common. The project was initially proposed by now-Masters students David Cocks and Mike Cook, in response to the graffiti bylaw passed by the city last year. The wall will experiment with a variety of surfaces---"with a chalkboard on one side to address the playground beside the skate park," says Cocks---and will be monitored and documented as a living work of art over a two-week period, ending August 16.

After being installed, the wall will be left alone and the public invited to use it as a canvas. In the fall, Cocks and Cook hope to find an exhibition space for the piece that results---whether at the university or in a local art gallery.

Meanwhile, Kroeker's students will continue to look at ways of using locally available materials---designing and building a prototype bent-wood construction that takes its inspiration from traditional Mi'kmaq and Algonquin lodges and longhouses. The end result will be a shelter and studio for visiting professors and former students.

"We hope to raise the stakes with each ," Kroeker says. "My first free lab with the school was a birchbark canoe. Another year, we built a structure out of surplus phonebooks. I just want to get these guys building something with as little energy inputs as possible."

A back-country shelter, a concrete sink, a timber frame, a yet-to-be-determined structure on the former Africville site, a mixed planning-and-architecture exercise in Shoal Lake, Manitoba: Whatever form they take, this year's free labs promise to build on a long and valuable tradition of getting students out of the studio and into the community, working with real materials on a limited budget.

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