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If You Build It: Better Education Through the Power of Design

By Nguyen Le · January 26, 2014

Having déjà vus at the title? You have to: it’s the first half of the classic opening line in Field of Dreams (1989) starring Kevin Costner! While one’s about baseball and this documentary is anything but, both are great portrayals about vision and the goodness that shows upon following it.

If You Build It begins in a field, one of grass (and being dug up) at noon instead of rows of corn as the sun sets. This site, in the upcoming weeks, will house the ultimate project of Studio H – a shop class that pays attention to “humanity, habitats, health and happiness". A creation of couple-and-colleagues designer Emily Pilloton and architect Matt Miller, the class’s purpose is to have its students build things that not only demonstrate creativity but also benefit the community. Cue the setting of the documentary, Windsor, North Carolina, a town inches towards dying and ailing from ‘brain drain’ as skilled individuals buy a one-way ticket to the cities. Following a total of 10 sixteen year-olds in the first semester of the class, like them viewers are introduced to design fundamentals, how design can affect the world and the self.

That said, nowhere in its 85-minute running time does If You Build It glorify this particular creative discipline. Instead, much like the purpose of Studio H, the documentary is very “the bigger picture”-oriented by shifting its focus between Emily & Matt, their students and the town. Of course, it’s not always sunny down in Windsor and tensions are apparent throughout – Emily & Matt having to take a complete pay cut, the school board’s creating obstacles to the program, the weather and attempts in trying to pique interest in the kids who for most of their lives see their futures as nothing but a haze. Opportunities to be manipulative like those “screaming-and-crying-competition” moments you see on *cough*reality*cough* TV are plenty, but director Patrick Creadon (Wordplay and the nicely titled I.O.U.S.A.) manages to avoid those. Does design really have the ability to shape betterment? Or that Emily & Matt are going too far and the county’s school board is right to question their actions? That’s up for you to decide since the film doesn’t forcibly push you either way (at least not in a notable manner). And for that I’m glad.

By being quite balanced, when you get to see how design makes an impact on the people and ultimately the community, you’ll find yourself accepting, and even supporting, Studio H’s vision. Wait until you get to see the work from the students. I’ve never seen such amazing-looking ordinary things before (hint: one relates to a lawn game and one is reserved for the animals). Of course, the prettiness comes with purpose here and as a result the projects shown are not only a showcase of skills but also potential of many positive things that can be produced from classes like this. It’s joyful upon seeing the kids realize there’s a humanitarian angle to all this and discover they can do more than what the run-down surroundings dictate to them. We get to experience a complete switch of their selves, from those sharing the sentiment of departing the town “because there’s nothing to keep me here” to individuals realizing what they do is more than just about them. When the film reaches its finale, building a farmers’ market pavilion, the stakes are high enough that you intensely hope what Studio H sets out to do will carry through.

While I’ve said that the complete issue is shown here, the less bright side of things is not explored deep enough. Maybe because the director doesn’t have access to them, but the arguments between Matt & Emily, the school board, and the effect of the latest recession on an already-bruised town could’ve had some footage. However, many might be bothered with the further overload of storylines. Then there’s the music, which at times I wish composer Peter Golub (Frozen River) had restrained himself because many key scenes have their impact greatly reduced due to over-scoring.

“If you build it, he will come” – and by heeding the voice, Kevin Costner’s character discovers an end to his conflict. The same applies for If You Build It, a personal, engrossing and meaningful documentary which clearly shows amazing things do happen if you have a ‘can-do’ mindset.