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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Take a Trip to the Poly Canyon Design Village

May 23, 2017 11:00AM ● By Kendra Kaiserman

Hiking by Design

June 2017
Story and Photos by Bob Hull

Trekking along a trail above the California Polytechnic State University campus in San Luis Obispo, a hiker encounters an eerie structure that appears to be out of a 1970s sci-fi movie. As she looks around, she sees this is just one structure amongst many spread out in a meadow. 

She has come to a place named Poly Canyon Design Village. Cal Poly prides itself as a “learn by doing” university, and Design Village started in 1964 as a place where architectural students could experiment with full-sized projects. One can only imagine that these future architects once spent their young childhoods playing with Legos and Transformers. 

Each spring, students from the College of Architecture & Environmental Design compete in the Design Village Competition during Cal Poly’s open house weekend. Competitors design and construct the shelters on campus, dismantle them, transport them up a trail, reassemble them and must inhabit them for the duration of the Open House.

In the past, students built permanent structures. Today, only 20 remain. One of the most interesting is a house without corners called the Underground House. If you were looking at it with a creative mind, you might see an undersea creature with protruding tentacles.

Another interesting project is the Geodesic Dome, resembling an old-fashioned jungle gym that supports itself without any interior columns. Inspired by the work of famous architect Buckminster Fuller, it was built in 1964 from aluminum tubing and old war surplus boiler pipe.

The Shell House, a shapely and delicate structure, has a roof that looks like one of the Seven Dwarves’ hats. Inside, there once was an operable waterfall that flowed underneath the stairs.

Sitting on a hill is a four-legged, double-barreled arch structure that seems to be out of place until you discover it is made from straw bales. Today, architects use straw bales because of their inexpensive insulation and environmental qualities.

Another creation is a platform suspended out into space, like the bow of a ship. The deck uses strong cable anchors to demonstrate the use of a cantilever, allowing it to appear floating in mid-air.

All of these projects are in some sort of decay, as if this is the place where they came to die. As such, it has earned an ominous nickname: the Architectural Graveyard. One such structure is the sundial, once a beautifully crafted piece made of concrete ribs; today, it has collapsed and looks like the skeletal remains of a beached whale.

Each year, the design competition has a unique theme. One year, the theme was Landfill Luxury, which challenged the students to build from recycled materials and use their creativity to lessen future impacts to the environment.

Exploring the Design Village along with the hike to the village makes for an enjoyable family outing. Rina Chu of San Luis Obispo was out on a recent Sunday enjoying the Design Village with her son, Devin. “I see lots of families enjoying the hike up here,” she says. 

The hike up to the Design Village is easy as it follows the tree-lined Brizziolari Creek, but becomes more moderate on the interlocking pathways around the Village. The formal entrance passes through a tall archway of delicately placed serpentinite stones. The hike to, around and back from the Design Village covers about 3 miles. Several trails can also be explored above the Design Village.

Pack a sandwich and take it with you on the hike. There are many places to sit around the Design Village, including shady spots along the creek.