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Designing a Dominican Republic Playground

Monday, February 8, 2010

An architectural project in the Dominican town of Samaná during Jan term 2010 proved not only a test of Diana Pun 07F's design skills, but also a chance to see how those skills translated in a real-world situation.

Traveling with the Yestermorrow Design/Build School, which is based in Warren, VT, Pun joined fellow Hampshire student Andrew Carney 07F and students from other institutions participating in the 2010 Dominican Republic Design Build Class in constructing a new playground atop a neglected concrete platform on the hillside of a neighborhood's common green. Shaded by palm trees and with worn brick paths leading to the park's popular baseball diamonds below, the platform had long been used mostly for informal political meetings and dog and cock fights.

"Most of my projects were hypothetical, done for studio classes, before this trip," says Pun. "This was a much bigger challenge."

Pun enjoys designing sustainable architecture geared towards children, and she quickly began sketching ideas for the playground. She drafted her initial plans at the town's Whale Museum and Nature Center (Samaná is one of the world's largest marine mammal sanctuaries and a whale watching destination for tourists) before rejoining the other members of the group to discuss the best approach for the town's children.

"The people I worked with were absolutely wonderful. They were great collaborators," says Pun, who said 10 to 12 hour workdays were often the norm. "It was so intense."

The final plan included an easily accessible treehouse with a slide, hopscotch courts, sculptural bamboo gates, and a mural painted by the local children. Pun's designs focused on freeform concrete additions to the existing platform, and being involved in the actual construction was eye opening.

"It definitely changed my idea about building and working with concrete. If you make a form, it can be shaped into anything," says Pun.

Though completed within their three-week stay, the project was not without its challenges. The Haiti earthquake struck just 200 miles away during their visit. Obstacles included heavy rains, material delays, electrical outages, and somewhat tense negotiations between Samaná's mayor and an environmental group after a truck driver accidentally knocked down a wall and several trees. Pun saw it all as an important hands-on learning experience. All worries were put behind them when the children and their families arrived for the playground's grand opening on January 21.

"There had not been a children's park in the town since the early 60s, so you can imagine that the whole community was excited," says Pun. "Some of the kids had actually never used a slide before. There was a huge line for it."

Pun feels the experience in Samaná will play an important role in her Hampshire studies. Her focus this semester includes European architecture and digital design, academic foundations for planned fieldwork with Yestermorrow in Pacific countries this summer.


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