Epicenter’s original manifesto

Spring 2010

The following is the published original manifesto of Epicenter. Its vigor and urgency exposes Epicenter’s original intent of pursuing an alternative model of professional practice along with some of the naiveté inherent in young but passionate doers.

Jack Forinash served as the main author, writing in the fall of 2009 as the building renovation was underway and the first grant (from USDA Rural Development) just received, with editing by other members of the Epicenter’s crew and advisors. The manifesto was once a prominent feature on Epicenter’s website, since removed in recent years.

Supporter and first-class Frontier Fellow artist-in-residence Nicole Lavelle credits this manifesto for her initial connection to - and subsequent history of work with - Epicenter.

The Epicenter (Economic Progress Instigation Center)a is a community-based housing and business resource center, instigating economic progress and creating decent shelter in the town of Green River in the desert of southeast Utah. It is a part of a larger umbrella nonprofit organizationb, which serves the town with a myriad of unduplicated social services, including affordable rental housing, a Boys & Girls Club, a soup kitchen, and a thrift store (the only place to buy shoes in town).

The Epicenter crew is a studio-of-sorts currently made up of graduates of architecture, graphic design, industrial design, theology, Spanish language, and high school. Expertise is valued in any allied design field, or from anyone simply willing to sweat and wanting to build something with their hands. In this rural town, the Epicenter has an opportunity to engage, collaborate with, and learn from a community that the design professions have chosen not to serve. Current projects include renovating a 104-year-old building, developing affordable housing through Habitat for Humanity and USDA, organizing a music, art, and film festival, acting as a liaison for the design and construction of a new community center (designed by Marlon Blackwell Architects), provoking the idea of a river walk as an amenity for the town, applying for grants, involving the community in the construction of a skate park, collaborating to build volunteer housing, and partnering with the University of Utah’s College of Architecture + Planning to bring expertise and enthusiasm for the town.

We see ourselves as part of a change led by students and recent graduates who want more than the ability to work unapologetically for the socio-economic elite (the most prevalent opportunity offered by the profession). We are crafting an alternative model of practice, one that accommodates our fervent desire to collaborate, to provide “shelter for the soul,” and to emphasize place and circumstance. Our insistence for these ideals has led us to a radical mission, to be taken on by “citizen architects” (and citizen designers, more broadly).

The Epicenter was formed by recent architecture graduates who studied at Auburn University and participated in the Rural Studio. That program influenced our path, directing us away from traditional internships we worried might result in disillusionment and instead towards positions to serve. The lack of traditional jobs in the current economy, coupled with the availability of socially minded positions available through organizations like AmeriCorps and Project M, brought us to Green River, Utah, or what we like to call the “Epicenter of the Revolution.”

We have learned to create a framework that is completely adaptable. We talk and write about what we are doing, evaluating ourselves, our abilities, and the community in the process. Based on that critical assessment, we adapt. At first, our inclination was to come up with and execute concise, easy to digest, simple ideas. But through our experience, we have realized that 80 percent of our time and effort is preparation, phone calls, community meetings, estimates, budgets, emails, submissions, organizing, filing, presenting — only after all this do we get to the part the community actually sees: the product, the “architecture.” Our biggest lesson to date is that it takes a significant amount of initial work to create something tangible; we do not presume to come in as “outside experts,” as that would be the wrong approach. We collaborate from within the community by capitalizing on existing systems, infrastructure, and the expertise of locals.

The town of Green River is a rural community of just 971 residents at the junction of the Green River, Interstate 70, and the railroad. We are often asked, “Why Green River?” At first, we didn’t know (and we still aren’t sure). But we know the fact that question is even asked is a significant portion of the answer. If it was easy and simple, then it would already exist. We do know some factors that answer why. The transparency that exists — the ability to understand who the decision-makers are — is requisite for our ability to create the Epicenter. The town is manageably small; it gives us the chance to wrap our heads around the dynamics of decisions made by residents. Even still, because of the context, the town is different and unique enough that when we seek out prototypes and examples from other similar places, they are hard to replicate here.

Our satisfaction comes from the ability to create social change at an individual scale along with the opportunity for creative expression rather than monetary compensation. In school, we learned techniques of design/build through the Rural Studio and DESIGNhabitat, and we felt the impact you can have in working within a community. The Rural Studio has been in Hale County for nearly 20 years; current students benefit greatly from an already-established and proven program that the community trusts. That trust was earned over time. We have been in Green River for a year and a half and sometimes forget that we have not yet earned that same level of trust.

None of us ever met Samuel Mockbee, but his provocative disturbance of both the academy and the profession put into place ideals that have outlasted his physical presence. He said: “Every piece of architecture should express some moral. If it has moral merit, it deserves the title of ‘architecture.’ For me, professional challenge, whether I am an architect the rural American South of the American West, is how to avoid becoming so stunned by the power of modern technology and economic affluence that I lose focus on the fact that people and place matter… Everyone’s too busy trying to make a living. We have to be more than a house pet to the rich; we need to get out of that role.”1 What Mockbee described can only happen by valuing the specificity of a place and the experiences of those who have lived there. We are young and able, but we are often reminded of our limits. We see those limitations as opportunities to include others who can help us achieve our goals. As citizens, we must use our privileges and our talents to serve the public good. We have not learned anything we should be hesitant to provide to others. The elitist status-quo of the profession, selling knowledge products without context, has led to the commodification of architecture and the creation of a built environment that is too often uninspired and irrelevant. It has also created a job sector too easily affected by the pendulum of the economy.

We are entrenched within the community. From this place, a microcosm of so many others, we strive to maximize our role as architects and citizens. We value the potent outcome of collaboration over the egotistical assignment of credit, community participation over subversive upheaval, and local solutions over top-down decrees. To this Revolution we hereby pledge allegiance.

1. Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, “The Hero of Hale County: Sam Mockbee,” Architectural Record, 2001.

(footnotes denoted by letters [below] are author’s notes as of 2017, made for clarification)a. “Epicenter,” or sometimes “EPIcenter,” was a backronym created for the purpose of appealing to the grantor’s priorities in the USDA RD original RBEG grant application. “The Epicenter,” as was often the phrasing, became simply “Epicenter” (without the acronym) soon after.
b. Epicenter became an independent nonprofit, as part of a long-established strategic plan, in September of 2014.