Architecture to go

Inventive mobile structures take services where they’re needed

Todd Ferry and Molly Esteve pose for a photo


PSU’S CENTER for Public Interest Design (CPID) has taken on a particularly tricky design challenge: How can you create meaningful, useful architecture that is entirely mobile? Instead of focusing on how to bring people to services, mobile placemaking, a moveable form of design, brings services to people. The approach can also be considered a form of activism, said CPID senior research associate and architecture faculty member Todd Ferry. 

“All of this work is rooted in a recognition that rising property costs and income inequality are pushing a lot of folks outside of city centers where they often don’t have access to key amenities.” Mobile units, he said, allow organizations to serve people where they are.

Opera truck
CPID's first mobile placemaking project was a truck for the Portland Opera.

IN THEIR FIRST mobile placemaking project, a collaboration with the Portland Opera, Ferry and his students converted a standard Grumman Olson step van into an elegant moveable performance cart. Opera a la Cart features a fold-out stage and overhead shelter, a vertical screen that suggests a proscenium arch and storage space for props and instruments. 

The design, which received the 2017 Regional Arts & Culture Council Innovative Partnership Award, makes it possible for the opera company to deliver pop-up performances all over the city, instantly transforming a park or street into a stage where the magic of live opera performance is shared with people from all walks of life. (The cart has had limited use during the pandemic.)

“We were excited to be able to help Portland Opera expand their outreach to include a wider range of audiences, regardless of their income or neighborhood,” Ferry said. “The project’s goals included breaking down the social, physical and financial barriers that tend to keep people from having access to this transformative art form.”

All of this work is rooted in a recognition that rising property costs and income inequality are pushing a lot of folks outside of city centers where they often don’t have access to key amenities.

WHEN THE CPID partnered with the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls in 2019, the designers seized the opportunity to further develop their mobile placemaking practice. 

The nonprofit, which operates its summer rock camps in rented school classrooms and community centers, does not have a permanent studio space of its own. They needed a portable studio that they could bring to the camps, offering a consistent space for teaching and performing. 

Enter “Rosetta,” a 1989 RV, which Ferry and recent graduates Molly Esteve MArch ’20 and Becca Taylor MArch ’20 converted into a mobile rock classroom and performance venue. 

“It had to have acoustic properties, rather than the echoey, tinny sound box of an old RV,” Ferry said. “So we used thermoform panels as acoustic baffles. Then we added mahogany wood rails with brass standoffs, and bass traps that look like old radio speakers. Molly added chalkboard panels, and installed storage boxes that double as benches.”

When COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Rosetta will be decked out with a bold, colorful exterior wrap. In the meantime, the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls used it this summer for solo shows by local musicians, which they live streamed to their virtual rock camp students.

Mobile Play
Ferry and Esteve’s newest project, Mobile Play, seen here in their drawings, will transform an ordinary truck into a fun-filled portable playground for children participating in Portland Parks’ Free for All program.

FERRY AND ESTEVE’S newest mobile placemaking project is a moveable playground called Mobile Play, funded through a grant from Bank of America for the Summer Free for All program, in partnership with the Portland Parks Foundation.

Through the Summer Free for All program, Portland Parks & Recreation serves 100,000 free meals and activities to children in lower-income neighborhoods around the city. 

“Part of the work that we do is to reduce the stigma of coming to get a free meal,” said Chariti Montez, who leads Summer Free for All for Portland Parks. The program offers a drop-in day camp with counselors who lead basketball clinics, storytelling or music lessons, she said—anything to make it less daunting to families to come get food 
assistance. (This summer, the program switched to a grab-and-go lunch model, with take-home art kits and other remote activities.)

Many participating families live in East Portland, which has fewer parks than the rest of the city, and fewer locations that work for the lunch program. Montez said they set up in apartment complexes when parks or playgrounds aren’t an option. Ferry and Esteve’s mobile playground will turn apartment complexes and barebones parks into fun, welcoming places for kids to play and eat.

Mobile Play will be made from a standard bread truck, outfitted with colorful artwork representing Mount Hood on one side and Forest Park on the other. A climbing ramp, hammock swings, a tunnel for crawling, a large peg board, and a fold-out table for eating and crafts are all a part of the current design. It is expected to roll out in 2021.

THIS FALL, Ferry and Esteve are teaching an architecture studio together. The goal is for students to learn from international case studies and contemporary mobile efforts in order to generate new mobile placemaking proposals that aim to solve critical societal problems. New strategies for rethinking mobile services and the infrastructure that supports mobility have emerged in the wake of the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and the affordable housing crisis, all of which will inform the students’ design process. For instance, students will look at the re-designation of streets for recreation purposes in response to the pandemic, the adaptation of streets and public space for protests and community organizing, and the creation of mobile hygiene stations to better serve people living without shelter.

For Esteve, her Master of Architecture degree and graduate certificate in Public Interest Design have opened the door to a new career. “Since graduating this year, I am now the design director of The City Repair Project, where I will continue to work with communities on mobile placemaking, with a particular focus on place justice,” she said. “Mobility is a tool at the forefront of social causes, which is where I seek to align my work.” 

Opening photo by So-Min Kang