By Robyn Kontra Tanner
Photos by Joe Johnston

Walking through the town of Paradise, California — taking in the piles of twisted metal, the persistence of newly sprouted wildflowers, and the clatter of debris removal crews — it’s easy to feel caught between two vastly different worlds. There is the town’s history as a quaint bedroom community of 26,000 that once sat among the ponderosa pines just outside Chico. Then, there is the reality locals have been grappling with since the Camp Fire ignited Nov. 8, 2018, and forced a frenzied and traumatic evacuation. After more than 18,000 homes and businesses were reduced to rubble and 85 people died, displaced residents are knee-deep in an exhausting, complex cleanup effort.

A destroyed structure in Paradise, CA. Photo by Joe Johnston.
What once was a commercial space on Paradise’s Foster Road sits in ruins with charred pines, twisted metal and a melted streetlight, frozen in place. Photo by Joe Johnston.
A charred vehicle sits in front of a neighborhood reduced to rubble in Paradise, CA. Photo by Joe Johnston.
A hollowed-out vehicle sits on Fir Street in Paradise. More than 13,000 homes burned in the Camp Fire, California’s most costly blaze ever recorded. Photo by Joe Johnston.
A blistered mailbox stands with a destroyed house in the background in Paradise, CA. Photo by Joe Johnston.
A blistered mailbox is all that remains of a home in Paradise. Eighty-five people died in the fire that ignited in the early morning hours of November 8, 2018. Photo by Joe Johnston.
A sign in Paradise, CA, reads, "Paradise Veterans G[r]oup Thank You EMS We Are Family Butte Strong." Photo by Joe Johnston.
Makeshift signs throughout Paradise reflect the town’s resilient spirit and express hope for its future. Photo by Joe Johnston.

In January, third-year architecture students from Cal Poly stepped up to help locals envision an entirely different state: an optimistic future where new homes stand strong and local businesses thrive. Cal Poly’s work, with the guidance of faculty members Stacey White and Kent Macdonald, has taken shape in both the technical redesign of the town’s structures and the emotional reconstruction of a community that has the courage to come back together on its scarred landscape and hope again.

As the design process began, students had to confront the destruction firsthand. “When I stepped off the bus, I could almost travel back in time to when the fire started and envision people running to their cars,” said Alyson Liang of her first trip to Paradise in January. “For me, it was really emotional. Last year, I had to evacuate from the Santa Rosa wildfire … I literally had to get out of my house at 2 a.m. with my family.”

Liang and her classmates set out to develop cohesive town plans and resilient designs of civic buildings, including downtown businesses, a conference center, a health care campus, and even a memorial for those who lost their lives in the fire. The design work ran parallel to community brainstorming and strategic planning led by consultants Urban Design Associates.

“We’ve taken the stance that, for rebuilding to be worth it, you have to do it right — we can’t afford to build temporary towns anymore,” said White after facing questions on whether the town should rebuild at all.

“If the town is built like it was, it would be at risk to the same thing happening again in 10 years. These students are being asked to consider a different way.”

Architecture students work on designs in their studio on campusto help rebuild the town of Paradise. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Students spend most of their time in the studio refining technical specifications, building virtual reality walk-throughs, and constructing scale models of the structures they’ve designed. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Post-it notes on the walls of a Cal Poly architecture studio saying "Here to serve you, not save you." Photo by Joe Johnston.
Cal Poly’s presentation posters line the studio, including post-it notes from students’ first meeting with Paradise residents. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Katherine Young and Nathan Chudnovsky look over their design in the Cal Poly architecture studio. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Katherine Young and Nathan Chudnovsky pair up to discuss their design project in the studio. Partnerships with peers help budding architects solve problems from different angles. Photo by Joe Johnston.

For many students, this Learn by Doing experience was their first opportunity to design for a real client. But the first few meetings weren’t always easy to navigate for the students or the locals they aimed to serve.

“To be honest, when I first heard about the group coming here, I was kind of taken aback,” said Paradise Town Council member Melissa Schuster. “My knee-jerk reaction was more like — and I’m being very candid here — ‘Oh no, we can’t have a bunch of kids coming in and telling us how to rebuild our community. They don’t know our community.’ We were still very, very raw when they first came in.”

The dynamic between the students and their clients posed a major opportunity for students to empathize and leverage the design process to aid healing. While imagining new storefronts, bike paths, and a more walkable community, students like Jarrett Boynton realized they had the chance to harmonize the town’s haphazard layout and establish pride in architectural continuity.

“At first it can be hard because you want to help, but then it’s hard for them to feel like you’re helping,” Boynton said after navigating his first meetings with Paradise residents. “There’s no one firm that’s going to fix this — it takes a collective effort, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.”

Other universities partnered with the town throughout spring as well. Cal Poly’s design work for Paradise complemented student and faculty research from CSU Chico’s College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management, which focused on an emergency notification system along with water and sewer infrastructure. Architecture students from Montana State also developed residential community designs for an existing neighborhood with 100 households.

“If the town is built like it was, it would be at risk to the same thing happening again in 10 years.” —Stacey White, architecture faculty member

Nolan Delgado, a Cal Poly student developing a library and internet café, saw this collective design process lift the spirits of many residents wading through daily obstacles, from insurance claims to tainted water. As locals clarified their own vision for their community, he says it gave Paradise more energy to endure the cleanup phase of recovery.

“You could see the hope sparkling in their eyes as they envision a new future of the town,” Delgado noted after speaking with high school students who were forced to move out of Paradise. “Our project is helping those who were affected remain hopeful, and that motivates me to keep moving forward with the designs.”

After rounds of feedback from residents, the cohort’s nervous energy tempered into steely resolve. Cal Poly students — whose numbers grew to 50 across three studios — made it their mission to both reflect and advance the community’s ruggedly independent idea of itself through self-reliant buildings that collect all the energy and water they need on-site. Many designs also featured locally sourced materials and a persistent connection to the region’s natural beauty.

“This is the point where progress accelerates exponentially,” said White, “and you see work come to life at a rate that even surprises the students, even though they’re generating the work.”

Long nights in the studio, seven-hour bus rides north for site visits, and spring break field trips to other communities that have recovered from disaster cemented the designers’ trust in one another. The cohort’s bond proved essential during the iterative design process where dozens of original ideas were critiqued and winnowed down to more complete proposals for the town’s consideration.

A student sketches the details of homes in regions of New Orleans rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Robyn Kontra Tanner.
Architecture student Alessandro Zanghi sketches a home in New Orleans. Photo by Robyn Kontra Tanner.
A group of Cal Poly students listen while Tulane faculty member Byron Mouton talks about the URBANbuild program. Photo by Robyn Kontra Tanner.

Watch the video about this Learn by Doing project for Paradise

Liang and Boynton collaborated on a design for a new recreation center with an occupiable green roof leading to the slope of an adjacent park. They hope to use the area’s readily available timber with non-combustible fiber cement panels for the façade.

“We understand that nature is not our enemy,” said Pacific Austin, nodding to the wood interiors and natural light permeating different projects. Austin and her classmates learned that lesson firsthand on her studio’s field trip to New Orleans, a city still piecing itself back together after Hurricane Katrina. After she saw some designs succeed while others faltered in the face of climate change, she realized, “you can’t fight nature — nature will always win.”

Elsewhere in the studio, a few projects leaned into a more youthful vision for Paradise. Elisabeth Frizzell designed a group of mixed-use buildings that fit within the proposed town plan while appealing to young professionals. In her schematics, one- and two-bedroom flats topped retail space, normalizing more densely populated streets and freeing up square footage for pedestrian sidewalks and parking.

“I was most struck by how in alignment the projects that the students did were with the wishes and desires of the community.” — Melissa Schuster, Paradise Town Council

In reality, many of Paradise’s retirees have scattered to other locales not weighted with traumatic memories or years-long rebuild timelines. That includes alumnus Glenn Bruno (Architecture ’70), who based his design/build firm in Paradise and constructed dozens of projects in the area before narrowly escaping the blaze in November.

“It’s hard. The one that hit me the hardest was my dad’s house,” he said tearfully taking stock of his favorite homes, now destroyed. “Those early houses I did, the really sad part is they were all hand-drawn before 1985. All those plans burned up too.”

Bruno and his wife, Sherry, have relocated to Montana, buying a log cabin to live in while he builds their new dream home in the foothills of the Bridger Mountains, east of Bozeman. While they felt pangs of guilt for leaving Paradise after 45 years, they were inspired by a presentation students made to locals in April. He took time to discuss solutions for a revitalized downtown with his fellow Mustangs and explored several virtual reality walk-throughs.

“They’re looking at bringing medical industry here,” he said. “That’s cool. I hadn’t even thought about that. I just looked at this as a bedroom community to Chico.”

Architecture student Foster Westover shares his building concept with alumnus and architect Glenn Bruno in Paradise. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Student architect Foster Westover introduces his designs to Cal Poly alumnus Glenn Bruno (Architecture ’70) at a presentation at Paradise Alliance Church. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Architecture students Alessandro Zhangi and Zoey Fox present their project to Paradise Town Council Member Melissa Schuster in Paradise. Photo by Joe Johnston.
“When I talked to the students, both from Cal Poly and from Montana State, what I heard was they had fallen in love with Paradise. It occurred to me that these could be our future residents.” — Melissa Schuster, Paradise Town Council, speaking to students Alessandro Zanghi and Zoey Fox. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Hands holding a tablet displaying a student's virtual rendering of a building designed for Paradise, CA. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Cal Poly’s final product included immersive virtual reality walk-throughs that locals could experience on a tablet computer. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Faculty member Jermaine Washington speaks with two architecture students in front of their final design poster. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Sirina Law and Reii Nelle Del Campo discuss their final designs with architecture faculty member Jermaine Washington in front of the cohort’s model for Paradise’s reimagined downtown plan. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Architecture student Natalie Giombi talks to Paradise resident Charles Brooks about her design project at CSU Chico. Photo by Joe Johnston.
Natalie Giombi takes feedback on her plans for a water treatment center from Charles Brooks, founder of Rebuild Paradise, at a presentation at CSU Chico. Photo by Joe Johnston.

The student’s big ideas also caught the attention of State Treasurer Fiona Ma, who invited Cal Poly students to present to her team and the Lieutenant Governor’s office in April. Students received a front-row seat to better understand how optimism in the town’s future could translate to tangible investments in the recovery effort.

Those real-world epiphanies are what faculty member Stacey White lives to create for her students. “Not only are they learning the technical content, they’re seeing the impact their profession can have and better understanding what role they might play,” White said as students prepared their final deliverables. “You can see students get excited that they might have found their place in architecture.”

Community leaders like Charles Brooks, founder of local aid organization Rebuild Paradise, have the power to leverage Cal Poly’s final reports, open-source plans, and virtual reality renderings to anchor grant proposals and garner investments in the recovery effort. Looking ahead to reconstruction in the next five years, Brooks hopes to see 2,000 of the town’s homes rebuilt with a cohesive plan to connect the community’s past, present and a more resilient future.

“To have some conceptual ideas and visuals to present to potential investors is going to be phenomenal,” echoed Town Council member Melissa Schuster. “It’s important to have those outside eyes that don’t have that emotion — that aren’t wrapped up in the drama and the grief process. We needed to have eyes of a younger generation making these recommendations to us.”

A lot has happened in Paradise since the Camp Fire. With the cleanup effort charging ahead and recent rains greening the ridge, locals committed to rebuilding seem inspired by the new trajectory toward a more sustainable future. Cal Poly’s student architects take solace knowing their work — from the tough conversations to the final designs — helped Paradise step closer to that future.

“I was most struck by how in alignment the projects that the students did were with the wishes and desires of the community,” Schuster remarked. “Seeing their projects and seeing that alignment changed my attitude entirely.”

Cal Poly architecture student Nolan Delgado in the studio. Photo by Joe Johnston.

"Initially touring Paradise was very shocking and sobering as we saw the true devastation that was unleashed on these people's lives." — Nolan Delgado, architecture student

Cal Poly architecture student Elisabeth Frizzell in the studio. Photo by Joe Johnston.

"I had the opportunity to talk with Paradise High School students and was amazed at their hope in the wake of tragedy — I would be honored if, through this project, I am able to help solidify their hopes by giving them a concrete vision of the future of Paradise." — Elisabeth Frizzell, architecture student

Cal Poly architecture student Pacific Austin in the studio. Photo by Joe Johnston.

"We encourage harmony with the built environment, the physical environment and the natural environment. We want those to coexist together." — Pacific Austin, architecture student

Jarrett Boynton smiles in the Cal Poly architecture studio. Photo by Joe Johnston.

"You just have to be respectful and know that you'll probably never understand their situation — what they went through." — Jarrett Boynton, architecture student

Cal Poly architecture student Alyson Liang in the design studio. Photo by Joe Johnston.

"Most of us keep our building form elegantly simplistic and subtle because we want our projects to look like they belong in Paradise instead of invading it." — Alyson Liang, architecture student

Cal Poly architecture faculty member Stacey White in her design studio. Photo by Joe Johnston.

"It's really a series of first steps in the right direction. For me, it's about the process and knowing that my students made a difference." — Stacey White, architecture faculty member

Rebuild Paradise founder Charles Brooks in CSU Chico. Photo by Joe Johnston.

"I don't know how it's going to feel to smell smoke during fire season in Paradise." — Charles Brooks, founder of Rebuild Paradise

Cal Poly architecture student Alessandro Zhangi in the studio. Photo by Joe Johnston.

"In terms of design, I think the one thing I learned from this, especially this quarter, was to be patient if you don't have something. It kind of taught me to sit with that discomfort and just work through it to the point that you do like your project, and then go from there." — Alessandro Zanghi, architecture student

Architect and Cal Poly alumnus Glenn Bruno looks at design presentation with student Foster Westover in Paradise, CA. Photo by Joe Johnston.

"Junior year is the hardest year. It's the burn out one, and it's the most fun one because it's when all the studios become close." — Glenn Bruno, Paradise resident and architecture alumnus