Student perspective/ The Life Organic
Down on the Farm
Story and photo by Peter Enzminger '08
The Farm feels a world away from the rest of campus. South of the Wash,
east of Frank Dining Hall, tucked into the farthest southeast acreage of
campus lies a free-form redoubt of organic creativity, home to hundreds
of fruit trees, countless plants and flowers, and one
student-conceived-and-constructed earth dome.
From its beginnings nearly a decade ago, the Farm has been a living,
growing, photosynthesizing testimony to what student initiative can
accomplish. Like the trowel-wielding progeny of Che Guevara and Alice
Waters, the original Farm collaborators gardened clandestinely, working
below the radar. Since then, it has evolved into a fixture on the
curricula of many environmentally-focused classes and a place many
students enjoy visiting—even if only to pick some flowers.
The Farm has a more prominent profile nowadays, thanks in no small part
to the construction of a rammed earth dome that arises amid the gardens.
The structure, which actually consists of one central dome with four
smaller ones connected to it, grew out of an independent study class
mentored by Politics and Environmental Analysis Professor Rick
Worthington in the fall of 2001. “A few students approached me about a
course in sustainable architecture, and I agreed to helm a five- or
six-person class, but before I knew what was happening, 19
students had enrolled,” Worthington recalls. “There were assigned
readings and small group projects, and the dome became the fruit of
these labors.” Researching “green” architecture led them to the
California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture and the innovatively
low-tech domes championed by its founder, architect Nader Khalili. At
the Farm, these students found a nurturing environment for their
commitment to sustainability, and a perfect staging area for the intersection of academia and its practical application.
Students devoted long hours of manual labor to create the dome. But the
dome that stands today is actually the sequel to the original effort.
Because it was built without the required city permits, the first earth
dome was torn down in August 2002, a disappointment to the students who
built it. But a new and larger dome arose from the rubble in January
2004, and reckoning with the details of city planning turned out to be a
constructive experience for many
involved, especially environmental analysis major Bowen Patterson ’06.
As a freshman, Bowen learned of the dome’s demise and helped spearhead
the effort to get a new dome approved and built. For someone pursuing a
graduate degree in city planning, the approval process provided a unique
experience with the real world nuts and bolts of contractors, city codes
and architectural commissions. Domed structures were not even allowed in
Los Angeles County; sections of the code had to be re-written before
approval could even be considered. The city also required the addition
of iron rebar and concrete before construction could proceed.
The dome symbolizes a commitment to learning above and beyond the
academic call of duty, but it is also a symbol of compromise and
collaboration: it might not have been possible without the financial
underwriting of the College administration and the steady moral and
logistical support of the programs in environmental analysis and public
Nonetheless, the spark came from students, a detail which makes all the
difference when describing the Farm’s value. Last spring, students
learned that the College planned to relocate the Farm as part of its
Master Plan for the campus. Though the new space would be
larger and the dome would remain, the plan would replace years of
student-tilled space with oak trees and a relocated soccer field.
Students who loved the Farm precisely for its un-transplantable
qualities considered that outcome untenable. They sprang into
action—meeting with President David Oxtoby, sending mass e-mails,
signing petitions, staging protests and painting Walker Wall. Their
impassioned efforts persuaded Oxtoby to create a new planning committee
incorporating student and faculty voices into the official dialogue of
the Farm’s future. The Board of Trustees approved a compromise reached
by this committee in May, and the original Farm remains, albeit with a
few nips and tucks.
When he heard about the drive to preserve the existing Farm, Alex Cohen
’08 knew he had found the perfect opportunity to apply his passion for
environmentalism. “School focuses so heavily on a cognitive
understanding of social, economic, scientific and environmental issues,
but there is something about working with soil, about being in a natural
environment, that is not captured by words and lectures,” he explains.
“I think a lot more people would be environmentalists if they got
outside and saw why people want to conserve and preserve nature.”
That is what the Farm is for.