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Alternative landscapes

A couple's call to action leads to a competition to reenvision land use near Joshua Tree National Park.

July 22, 2007|Ann Japenga | Special to The Times

IN 20 years of fighting to block a monster garbage dump from moving into their backyard near Joshua Tree National Park, jojoba farmers Donna and Larry Charpied have filed lawsuits, staged rallies and resorted to all the usual activist tactics -- without a clear win. They needed a new tool, so they called an architect.

Architecture traditionally has been thought of as an elite endeavor. In the 1960s and again recently, some groups such as Architecture for Humanity have embraced social awareness -- green building, affordable housing and other goals. But rarely have architectural skills been used to try to change the outcome of a controversy in the way one might use tree-sitting or monkey-wrenching. Now, a small group is doing just that in the Charpieds' neighborhood, an isolated outpost called Eagle Mountain.

Donna and Larry Charpied resorted to a tactic of resistance not out of any high-minded architectural notions but because the usual means weren't working. Ontario-based Kaiser Ventures, with the support of Riverside County, has been planning for years to build a landfill on its property at Eagle Mountain. If the dump is built, as many as 20,000 tons a day of L.A.'s garbage will wind up at the abandoned ore mine site. Each time the Charpieds and their supporters win a round in court, there's the inevitable appeal. Currently Kaiser is appealing a ruling that the plan didn't meet an environmental review to a federal appeals court.

In an attempt to break the standoff, the Charpieds decided not to wait until the land was technically "saved" but to make an alternate plan. "I don't want to go to my grave fighting a dump," says Donna Charpied, a sun-browned organic farmer with a rock 'n' roller's bravado. "Something is going to be done with that site, and we might as well have a say in what that is."

After a series of steps, they ended up hooking up with architecture students at leading L.A. schools and young professionals to compete for alternative ideas for the desert site, hoping the designs would be more than an academic exercise.

The Charpieds first called on Eric Shamp, a Redlands architect they'd met at a conference. Shamp says there's a higher threshold of responsibility for an architect than an artist or fashion designer because his or her creations are not transitory.

"If you're an artist it's OK to do 'Piss Christ,' " says Shamp, referring to the work by Andres Serrano. "But architects are really shaping the built world, and if you want the built world to be a better place, you have to be an activist. It can't all be about style."

The Charpieds put to Shamp and designer Eric Stotts the challenge of designing a research institute, eco-tourism site and heritage center -- all powered by renewable energy -- for the abandoned mining town. Shamp and Stotts, in turn, challenged the L.A. chapter of the Emerging Green Builders, who then adopted the "Vision for Eagle Mountain" as a design competition.

The Emerging Green Builders was founded by students and young professionals working in architecture and other design fields; their inaugural meeting was at the Greenbuild expo in Austin, Texas, in 2002. The group has grown nationally from three chapters to 90 in the last few years and has been enlisted for projects such as creating a sustainable design for a Boys and Girls Club gym in Santa Fe, N.M. They are accustomed to talking about sustainability and solar power, but guerrilla-style activism was new to most of them.

It was new to Kaiser Ventures as well. Terry Cook, executive vice president and general counsel, says he would have thought the Charpieds and the Emerging Green Builders would have consulted his company before making plans for their property. "It would be like me submitting your house for redesign without your permission," he says.

An iron ore mining site

IF you drive along Interstate 10 from Palm Springs to the Colorado River, the Eagle Mountain site is tucked up in the hills to your left, out in a lonely stretch inhabited by bighorn sheep and big-eared bats. The Kaiser Steel Corp. extracted iron ore from the mountain for 30 years; the site also once housed a private prison. What's left today is an abandoned company town of boarded-up homes, along with deep mining pits and mountains of tailings (waste material from the mines), all surrounded by pristine desert. The Charpieds have started a campaign called Give It Back! intended to return nearly 30,000 acres of surrounding land to Joshua Tree National Park in accord with a 1952 land use agreement between the mining company and Congress.

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