Late one fall day, Robert, a young Alaska Native, was homeward bound, traveling in his flat-bottom riverboat up the Yukon River. At nightfall, he pulled over to a sandbar to rest. Robert cooked a meal and built a fire, falling asleep next to the flames.
He awoke to his pants on fire. When he arrived home, the villagers noticed his burnt pants and, after learning the cause, renamed him “Bob-O-Que.”
Hearing playful tales like this were common while I worked on an architecture project in 2010 with my former University of Oregon classmate Johnpaul Jones, BArch ’67. The storytellers were members of the cultural advisory committee for the building we were designing together in my hometown of Fairbanks, the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center, which would serve Native Alaskans.
The center is one of several project collaborations between Johnpaul, of Seattle-based Jones & Jones Architects, and my own firm, Bettisworth North Architects and Planners. Listening to the people for whom we design is essential to our process.
In this case, it was listening to the committee members who came from several of the 42 villages scattered across 135,000 square miles of interior Alaska. What we learned was that this facility was to become an important gathering place where long-lost friends would catch up about family, host village and regional events, and laugh at shared stories.
Johnpaul said, “humor is a path to healing”—a value that needs to be prioritized in this health center, a place of healing. The result is a building organized with waiting rooms and conversation areas that foster community and storytelling among friends, old and new.
To visit the center today is so heartwarming, seeing folks at home in the space, filling it with laughter.
Johnpaul and I met in the mid-1960s, in what was then the School of Architecture and Allied Arts (now the College of Design). We were selected to participate in a design studio taught by Donlyn Lyndon, the new head of the architecture department. This studio was in the “Vets Dorm,” the plywood living quarters built for veterans of World War II and the Korean War. The studio provided a special time to talk design, collaborate, and learn, creating a process where “what if” questions generated new inquiries, ideas, and, ultimately, project resolution.
Collaboration was important for a 1986 project Johnpaul and I undertook in the small town of Ketchikan, the new Alaska Public Lands Information Center, our first project together. I’ll never forget working in the Jones & Jones loft space on a cold and rainy winter Saturday, where the ideas Johnpaul and I discussed came to fruition. Using as a reference the old southeast Alaska cannery buildings, with their high ceilings, steeply pitched roofs, and heavy timber post-and-beam construction, I sketched a concept plan and façades. Johnpaul transformed these into large-scale building cross-sections. What fun, this back-and-forth creative process was. The center went on to win an honor award from the American Institute of Architects.
Johnpaul has gone on to successes of his own, as well. As a Native American architect, he led the design of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
Now we’re working together on the design of an indigenous study center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Again, we are working closely with an Alaska Native advisory group to help guide planning and design. By working in this way, we can tell our clients that these projects are truly theirs, not ours.
—By Charles “C. B.” Bettisworth
Charles “C. B.” Bettisworth, BArch ’67, is the founder of Bettisworth North, a team of 40 Alaska architects, landscape architects, and interior designers in Fairbanks and Anchorage. He has technically retired but is working part-time as a mentor.
Photos courtesy of C.B. Bettisworth and Alex Cipolle, College of Design