Steve Badanes ’65

Architect/designer Steve Badanes began his stint at Wes in 1961, took some time off, and graduated in 1967 as an art major. In 1972, he co-founded the eclectic Jersey Devil design/build firm. One popular project produced by Jersey Devil is The Fremont Troll (built in 1990), a piece of public art in Seattle that’s become a popular roadside attraction. Badanes is currently the Howard S. Wright Endowed Chair of the University of Washington College of Built Environments.

At Wesleyan, the '60s didn’t hit until the middle of the decade. Having been out of there for a couple of years, I was able to catch the tail end, and those '60s values definitely contributed to the path I took after Wesleyan. I think what I got from Wesleyan was a positive attitude and the courage to try anything. It might work. It might not work, but it’s not so bad if it goes either way.

During the summers at Wesleyan I worked construction. I was a studio art major, and I thought maybe I could go into architecture, which would combine both art and building, two things that I like. It turned out that wasn’t necessarily true, but when I did go to architecture school, I got excited about design, and in particular, community outreach or public interest design.  We started a community design center called The People’s Workshop while I was still in school — we opened up a storefront that did non-profit community work, which was a fabulous experience, but when I graduated I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue into the actual profession.

The typical architect’s office at that time seemed kind of humdrum compared to the excitement of school and the hands-on activism of the '60s, so I became a designer/builder. We started a small group of artists, architects, and inventors, called ourselves Jersey Devil, and decided that we could travel anywhere, live on the job site in tents or trailers, and build one-of-a-kind, energy efficient buildings. That was an idea that was strong enough to last for about 25 years. We had a lot of fun, we moved around a lot, we built some interesting work, got some recognition, a few books were written, we got to give lectures on it… but you get further into middle age, and it’s a little creakier going up the ladder, it’s a little scarier to be without health insurance.

I thought maybe teaching architecture students how to build might not be too bad of an idea — a good way to get health insurance, and transfer some of the heavy lifting of construction work to students. It turned out that it was a pretty good move and that teaching is healthy in and of itself. Hanging around with young people who are still optimistic enough to think that their efforts can make the world a better place keeps you from becoming cynical, and it certainly keeps you on your toes and trying to learn the latest thing.

I started teaching at the University of Washington. I used to do visiting teaching gigs, but at the University of Washington we started a thing called the Neighborhood Design/Build Studio. I started it as an adjunct and eventually became an endowed chair. They had a position open and they gave it to me and for 20 years we’ve been building small community projects for nonprofit groups.

The Fremont Troll is sort of an outgrowth of that. That was for a competition for something to do under the Aurora Bridge in Seattle. It was a place, like most bridges in North America, with trash, dead beer cans, mattresses, crack pipes, and rodents, that kind of thing. The Fremont Arts Council got a Department of Neighborhoods grant from the City of Seattle to do something with the space under the bridge. They held a competition to determine three finalists and allowed the public to select the winner in a vote at the Fremont Fair. The Troll is the only public art project I know of that was decided by public vote.

It seems like that old story of the troll under the bridge from "Billy Goats Gruff," is lodged in our brains from childhood. It was not very hard to withdraw it, it came shootin’ right out. I entered with several students, and we got into the finals. The public voted 6:1 in favor of our proposal and came out to help us build it. It’s been a Seattle icon for the last 25 years. Somebody made a movie about it called The Hall of Giants: The Story of Fremont and the Troll.

I spend my time in the fall still working, speaking to community groups, and trying to get a project going for the spring. We spend the winter raising money, and in the spring we build it, which is right now. I guess it’s about noon my time, and in about 15 minutes I’m going to head down to the International District for a site-visit with the students. Class is just starting up. So I don’t know what we'll make, I’m just kind of putting one foot in front of the other and working things out as they develop. This is how it's been for the past 20 years, since we started the studio

We’re working in the Danny Woo International District Community Garden in Seattle’s International District. In order to have a plot in the garden, you’ve got to be over 62 years old and live in the I.D., the International District, so most of the gardeners are Asian refugees. Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese… almost all non-English-speaking. There are a hundred plots there for low-income gardeners.

Most of the gardeners are elderly, but they're starting a children’s program and it’s going to be called The Neighborhood Cookery. It's for "seed-to-plate" meals for school kids, so we have to build a place that school-kids can come, a cooking area, a food prep area and an eating area has to be deployed in a short amount of time several times a week, and then closed back up after the event so that it doesn't become an "attractive nuisance" for the vagrant night-time population of the Garden.