Physical Spiritual Concrete
by Brian Libby
When the United Indian Health Services (UIHS) prepared to build a new health center in the coastal town of Arcata in Northern California, they knew they wanted a structure that would respect Native American architectural traditions. But the traditional building material for the "People of the Redwood" was in scant supply.
In a novel approach to accommodating cultural preferences, their architect suggested a surprising adaptation of a modern material. Despite some initial skepticism, the UIHS clients eventually agreed that precast concrete, when properly stained, could be an acceptable substitute for the endangered redwood.
The UIHS had invited Seattle-area architect Bob Weisenbach to design the Potowat Health Center because they admired the Takopid Health Center that his firm, MulvannyG2 Architecture, had built in Puyallup, Washington in 1995. "It was the first facility that they thought really reflected Native American culture," recalls Weisbach. "With its high ceilings and intricate carvings, they knew that was what they wanted."
Unfortunately, construction by traditional methods is no longer feasible. The redwood forests of Northern California are either decimated or off limits to logging. Weisenbach was challenged to create traditional forms using nontraditional materials.
Building as Village
The $18 million, 44,000-square-foot (4100-square-meter) Potowat Health Center sits on forty acres (16 hectares) of seasonally wet meadows and ponds which have been meticulously restored as part of the project. >>>
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A "wellness garden" is the focal point of the Potowat Health Center designed by MulvannyG2 Architecture.
Photo: Gary Lufkin
The northern side of the health "village," which is actually a single structure made to look like 12 small buildings.
Photo: Gary Lufkin
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