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Designing in the desert: U architecture students reimagine downtown Vernal

While the word “desert” may bring to mind images of vast, barren landscapes, people who live in deserts know that’s far from the truth.

This past semester, undergraduate seniors and incoming master’s students studying architecture at the University of Utah explored the politics and practicality of design in the desert during a semester-long studio focused on reimagining the downtown of Vernal, Utah.

“There is something politically charged around the notion of deserts as being empty landscapes,” said Valerie Greer, director of graduate studies at the School of Architecture + Planning and one of the professors who taught the studio sessions. “They are very much not empty. Being able to frame these places around what resources are there—climatically, ecologically, culturally—and really looking at the sort of richness of places is something I wanted students to gain from this studio.”

Studios provide students with real-world opportunities to apply what they are learning. In the case of their collaboration with Vernal City, students created projects that explored what the future of the city’s downtown could look like. Thanks to a Teaching Grant Award from the University of Utah, students in this studio were able to travel to Vernal multiple times during the semester.

They started their project with a three-day workshop in Vernal, touring downtown and meeting with city employees and leaders, local business owners and other stakeholders to learn about the community and what it needed.

Architecture + Planning students present their work in Vernal City.

“When the students first came to Vernal and we were showing them around, it was super fun because they were asking all the right questions and they were really engaged in our town,” said Gabby Blackburn, Vernal assistant city manager and planning director. “Because we are so far away from everything, it can be hard to get people to care about us, so it felt good to have them here and interested.”

Students agreed that visiting Vernal laid an important foundation for their project.

“It is probably near impossible to create a catered architectural solution for a place you’ve never stepped foot in or engaged with,” said Alex Ayre, one of the undergraduate students who participated in the studio. “The ability to walk the streets and see the town completely opened my eyes to what is possible when it comes to designing for this city.”

After the initial site visit, the students spent the semester designing ideas for a specific block in downtown Vernal that the city is working on acquiring. From their observations and conversations, Greer says, the students chose to focus their designs for the block to address health and wellness in the town—including mental health; food and cooking as part of an economic shift in Vernal; maker and entrepreneurial spaces; and a performing arts center.

The semester culminated with students presenting their projects to the community in early December. While the students’ ideas are theoretical, Blackburn says seeing them has a real impact on city decision-makers.

“Communication is such a big deal in government,” Blackburn said. “Not everyone can just imagine what a city center is going to look like. Having all these students put their skills into visualizing what our city could help city council members and staff imagine how certain concepts could fit into our community.”

Architecture + Planning students Bianca DeKlerk, Chloe Coleman-Houghton, and Caleb Brown present their work in Vernal.

Chloe Coleman-Houghton, another student who participated in the clinic, said it was exciting to see how their projects were received.

“As a cohort, we had a big imagination,” said Coleman-Houghton. “I was interested to see how the city would respond, and they were really open to our ideas. That was an important takeaway for me from this whole experience—if you build with a lot of intention, people will be super receptive and that can totally change the project.”

From the project, Greer hopes her students will take with them the power of partnership. For any architectural project to be successful, a good client is essential, she said. And just as architects design projects on different scales, she wants her students to see they are designing relationships and networks on different scales.

“I think there is a lot of importance to small and medium-sized towns moving forward,” Greer said. “Traditionally, there has been a lot of focus on bigger cities like New York and Los Angeles. They certainly have a very important role to play in the future of where we live and design. But I do think in the post-pandemic era, where people can work in a number of different places, reimagining what small towns are within the context of global influence is really important.”

In addition to Greer, studio sessions were taught by professors Lisa Henry, Jörg Rügemer and Dwight Yee.