Two Penn State professors have gained national recognition for their work on The Secret Life of Public Spaces , a project that collaborated dance, design, and architecture.
The mission was to encourage action through research across various disciplines in the public spaces of University Park. The team — made up of students and faculty — wanted to create a connection between the campus students and their environment through dance and design.
Marcus Shaffer , assistant professor of architecture, and Peter Aeschbacher , associate professor of landscape architecture and architecture, were awarded the 2012-2013 Creative Achievement Award by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture for their work on the project.
“It's an extremely competitive field. Hundreds and hundreds of people put their projects in to try to get those awards,” Shaffer said. “It was a great feeling [to be recognized].”
Planning for The Secret Life of Public Spaces began in 2009. Funding to support the project was provided in 2010 when the Center for Performing Arts was given the Creative Campus Innovations Grant by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters . The $200,000 grant was funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
“The faculty team, assembled by the CPA, had regular meetings for months leading up to the grant deadline, to plan the project and present a solid and fully realized proposal,” said Amy Vashaw , the CPA’s audience and program development director.
According to the APAP’s website, to be awarded the grant the college’s idea should “deepen the aesthetic experience and the expansion of mind and spirit through innovative partnerships between arts presenters and their colleagues.”
The five faculty members involved in generating the idea focused on the dysfunctional areas of University Park where people may be consumed in their everyday lives, unaware of the world moving around them.
“What we suggested was that dance, art, engineering, architecture and landscape architecture could change people’s isolation and distractions and get people out of those ruts,” Shaffer said. “We knew that we had to have some commonality.”
-----The different majors were important individually throughout stages of the project. Engineering and architecture focused on building mechanisms for the dancers to perform in public spaces on campus, like the Old Main lawn, the area surrounding the HUB-Robeson Center and the Arboretum .
After the proposal was accepted, work on the project began. Over the course of three semesters, five faculty members and about 73 students assembled together to create a memorable experience, including Alexander Bruce (senior-architecture).
Bruce was a key component in building one of the biggest creations of the entire project called “Dance Vehicle-01 ”— a 17-foot wide, with two 12-foot tall wheels that were operated by the movement of people. As the people walked in the large steel wheels, the machine was pushed forward.
After construction on the vehicle was finished, dancers would move it through campus by pushing it forward through dance performance. Not only did the “Dance Vehicle-01” take dance out of the studio and into the streets, but it also made the connection between walking and performance in public space. The team was saying to students, “if you can walk, you can dance,” Shaffer said.
“Being trained as an architect, working with engineers and dancers gave us a unique view into their design process, which is very different from our own,” Bruce said. “It was difficult, exciting, and fun to work outside on a hands-on, full scale design project that would eventually be seen by the entire campus and beyond.”
The project did go outside the boundaries of University Park. During the summer of 2011, 10 students (five dancers, two landscape architects, two architects and one engineer) traveled to California to work with the project’s West Coast collaborators, the Diavolo Dance Theater .
“For those who participated in the project, it changed their approach to their discipline, this really began in California,” Shaffer said.
The students, along with faculty members, piled into a van for 10 days, traveling as far north as Santa Barbara and as south as the United States-Mexico border .
The Secret Life of Public Spaces was more than just a project. It incorporated education with real-world experience for students and allowed the faculty members involved to put their research to the test.
Recognition for hard work can be satisfying, but for Shaffer it is the experience, overall, that holds more weight.
“As someone who is involved in education and interested in many different perspectives in architecture, I’m really against the notion that architecture was one set thing,” Shaffer said. “[The project] really fed into that.”
For more information on the project and to see videos of the performances visit: creativecampus.psu.edu.