Brad Deal is an assistant professor of architecture at Louisiana Tech University. He is also a filmmaker and the winner of both the Grand Prize and People’s Choice awards for the AIA’s recent I Look Up Film Challenge. His film, Arch 335: Rebuilding Medcamps, is the product of a lengthy collaboration with fellow professor Robert Brooks, Assoc. AIA, and Medcamps, a nonprofit organization that provides free summer camp experiences to children with chronic illnesses and disabilities. In just three minutes and 30 seconds, Deal captures how design has impacted Medcamps’ mission and how architecture’s influence can lead to better lives.
This film might be the first time liberal arts broke into the athletics world at Louisiana Tech. As voting for the Film Challenge’s People’s Choice Award was going on, they showed our film at a football game and urged the crowd to vote. It was just one specific example of grassroots community networking, something the university embraced and we’re grateful for.
Arch 335: Rebuilding Medcamps is my first real film effort. I’ve always had an interest in photography, and the idea of making images in part powered my undergraduate days as an architecture student. Four years ago, when I started my teaching career and took over the design/build program at Louisiana Tech, I began to notice how others were documenting their projects. Other teachers had amazing video diaries on their websites, sharing their work in detailed fashion. I showed a few examples to my students and said, “We need to do a project that is worthy of videos like these.”
That began the push to document everything we were doing. At the end of the project, I would collect their videos and their photos and put them together in a glorified slideshow. Over time—as I got more and more familiar with the editing software and we graduated to nicer cameras—the end product got better and better.
By the time the I Look Up Film Challenge came along, and when I saw the initial film on the outstanding work Rural Studio is doing in Alabama, we got the idea to enter ourselves. In fact, Karl Puljak, the director of our program, said, “You’re already making these videos. So, why not put a little more effort and enter one into this challenge?” And now here we are.
Robert Brooks, my teaching partner, and I can stand up and speak about Medcamps for hours. We live it, we love it, and like most things that are done really well, it’s a passion. In the three years that we’ve been working there, we kept saying, “We have to publish this work somewhere.” We would share it with colleagues in the architecture and design community, and they would say, “Why is this not out in the world?”
As a follow-up to our film’s success, I was asked what I learned in the process. To be honest, I didn’t learn much about architecture—I already spend my days teaching about that—but I learned the power of having a story bottled up in a three-minute package. It’s incredibly accessible and perfect for getting the word out, having people embrace the power of architecture and design in a beautifully conducted way. In fact, the hardest part of the process was cutting eight hours of interviews and background details down to these few minutes.
A lot of credit for the way I’ve come to teach should go to my mentors, of which there were many, at the University of Texas at Austin. But in particular Steven Moore, who prioritized presenting complex ideas in plain language, and Stephen Ross, who turned every class into a life-changing experience, both had a strong impact on how I approach the work of our design/build studio. Those lessons have stuck with me, and I think they come through in the film that so many have embraced.
There are times when we interact with architects or design professionals who have worldwide influence, such as those who confront climate change for major cities or the federal government, and their mission seems so impressive. They’re very far removed from where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, but they have the potential to impact millions of people. It can make what we do feel small, but it can also reinforce the value in touching only 20 or 30 people but making such a deep imprint. I can only hope that these humble projects are planting the seeds in our students and our audience to aspire to accomplish things they truly believe in without getting bogged down in the complexities of the process.
One thing I share with my students: If you can’t explain your project to your grandmother, you don’t know it well enough yet. When it comes to the film, it is helping us take these smaller-scale meaningful projects to a larger audience. It’s an exportable, accessible format, and thanks to the AIA it’s been shared with people at all different stages of their careers.
I hope it’s a reminder, for those who’ve been in the profession for a while, as to why they went this route in the first place. It should help us recall that we’re here to solve the problems we see in the world. And I hope anyone thinking about architecture or design as a career watches our film and sees how design can create powerful solutions for all kinds of people. —As told to Steve Cimino