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Bringing New Life to Poly Canyon

By Diego Albeloos

Since the 1960s, the Poly Canyon Experimental Structures Facility has been a space where architecture students could experiment with full-scale design and construction. For evidence, look no further than the 21 fanciful and unique structures that still stand there.

More recently, however, funding and infrastructure issues have left the secluded space near Poly Canyon Village isolated and unprotected — and as a result, beset by vandalism. One faculty member is now working to return it to its former glory.

College of Architecture & Environmental Design (CAED) Associate Dean Kevin Dong earlier this year organized two clean-up efforts — dubbed Canyon Days — as part of a larger goal to resurrect the area. Dong said the idea developed approximately a year ago, after several CAED students and alumni approached him with concerns about the facility’s deteriorating state.

“A lot of Cal Poly alumni have lived out there in the canyon and they look back on it with fond memories,” said Dong, noting that the college previously recruited students to live in the canyon in exchange for basic maintenance work. “So it does have a special place with a lot of them and their experience here.”

Poly Canyon is a popular hiking spot, yet some of the facility’s structures were considered unsafe after vandals smashed windows, leaving shards of glass strewn everywhere. Several structures were also marred by graffiti.

“We started thinking that we needed to do something out there in the canyon – mainly to make it safer – and what it would take to do that,” said Dong, who organized a one-day clean-up effort in January.

To his surprise, 120 students, as well as several faculty members and alumni, took part in an effort to landscape pathways, repair broken railings, sweep up broken glass, and apply fresh paint to some structures.

“It was a large response, and a lot of that was due to students who were interested in the canyon,” said Dong, who led a second cleanup day in April and now plans to make it an annual fall event. “We thought that if we could at least better the appearance of what was out there, it might spark a little more respect from the people who were coming in and damaging things.”

Dong envisions a revamped canyon once again serving as a learning lab for Cal Poly students. “The hope is that we have students wanting to do senior projects out in the canyon again,” he said. “It would be great to just get others involved because it would raise awareness about what’s out there.”

The college is seeking new partnerships with industry and alumni for the effort. The next Canyon Days volunteer event is planned for Oct. 10.

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