OAKLAND -- "If You Build It," a documentary making its East Bay theatrical premiere Feb. 28, celebrates the undeniable beauty of grand design.
Stepping beyond literal, architectural construction, the full-length film shows the making of designer activists Emily Pilloton's and Matthew Miller's real world educational program, Studio H.
Pilloton, whose patchwork residential map began in Chicago, moved to Piedmont, migrated to Marin and included earning a bachelor's degree in architecture from UC Berkeley, has circled back to Oakland, by way of Bertie County, N.C. The journey reads like wanderlust, but it's more a wonderful, spiral staircase leading her to, away from and back to her early roots in the East Bay.
Studio H, the documentary's pinpoint, is now based at REALM Charter School in Berkeley. Pilloton has tucked herself into the Lakeshore neighborhood, where proximity to great architecture -- from WPA-generated buildings like Beach Elementary School in Piedmont to a work-in-progress library REALM students are designing -- feeds her soul.
Pilloton said "architectural secrets" can be found throughout the East Bay. Art Deco oxidized copper facades, Julia Morgan-designed homes and new, mixed-use, low-income housing developments earn a nod of respect from the 32-year-old architect-turned-educational activist. She traced her interest in design to an unusual origin, describing herself as "being a total misfit."
Pilloton said her memories of being an outcast "created a sense of inquiry." Wondering how she might find her place, Pilloton designed her own. An accurate picture of the intensely physical, deeply curious Pilloton nearly explains how she wound up in rural North Carolina, wielding a welder and shaking up an educational system with Studio H.
The spark unleashing her energy was the imagination of Chip Zullinger, then Bertie County schools superintendent. Zullinger envisioned the Studio H program as transforming the 13 students' lethargy and the district's high dropout rates into a 2,000-square-foot symbol of hope for a poor community.
Pilloton and Miller agreed to implement the curriculum. The goal was to build a farmer's market for the town. But inside the four walls of an abandoned elementary school they renovated, Pilloton and Miller gave students life-changing creative, technical, leadership and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and math) skills. After funding was pulled, the team stayed on, living on grants and credit to complete the program.
Since Studio H began in 2008, 450 students from the ages of 9 to 17 have participated in the design and building programs. An all-girls summer program, Camp H, will expand in 2014 from 40 to 80 students.
In five years, 24 community design projects have been completed, including the original farmers market, playgrounds, furniture, a classroom and soon, a library at REALM.
Establishing herself as an educator has reinforced Pilloton's belief that teachers don't have all the answers. She's learned to admit to students, "I don't know, but we'll figure it out together."
And students, she said, are "ridiculously brilliant." Pilloton suggested adults aren't doing students justice and said if educators dropped the "intangible virtual talk," schools -- and concepts like design -- would become meaningful.
"Show me the real thing, you know? We're too reliant on online learning. It's quick, like a Band-Aid," she said. "Part of becoming human is being with people you don't agree with."
REALM'S X-Space is "showing the thing" and inviting the public to get involved. The new library will be called "The X Space" and a Kickstarter campaign launching Tuesday seeks to raise $75,000. Pilloton said an "X" will be used as the skeletal structure for furniture, shelves -- everything. The best way to understand the project is to visit the Flickr album at http://www.flickr.com/photos/projecthdesign/sets/72157639815079585/.
Pilloton said the Bay Area is a petri dish for trying anything. She's not interested in scaling the program beyond its present position in Berkeley, but the curriculum is open source on the website and small group tours are available monthly.
"What's special about Studio H -- you can't copy and paste," she said. "But you can copy the spirit. I have faith in people who want to get back to real skills, to looking each other in the eye."
For more information about "If You Build It" and screenings, go to ifyoubuilditmovie.com.
"If You Build It" opens Feb. 28 at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, and on March 1 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The filmmakers will appear on the opening weekend in San Francisco and Berkeley and Emily Pilloton will be at the San Rafael screening.