In 2010, designer-activists Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller of the nonprofit design and architecture agency Project H Design moved to the poorest county in North Carolina. Their objective was to set up Studio H, an innovative shop class engineered to help teach rural high school kids how to rebuild their withering community, and their own sense of possibility, through design.
Pilloton and Miller lived on credit and grant funding while teaching the students how to engineer, prototype, and build everything from a chicken coop to the 2,000-square-foot Windsor Super Market, a covered farmer’s market intended to help jump-start the local economy and foster a sense of community.
If You Build It, which opens Friday, Jan. 10, at the IFC Center in New York City, is a new documentary that chronicles the ups and downs of the yearlong building project, which culminated in the opening of the market in 2011. Directed by Patrick Creadon (Wordplay, I.O.U.S.A.), the movie is a heartening story about the power of design to galvanize young people in a school where physical education classes are taught online and kids can’t wait to grow up and get out of town. And it’s an equally disheartening tale of the narrow-minded adults at the local school board who withdrew financial support for the program after the departure of the superintendent who had initiated it. That economic reality forced Pilloton and Miller to leave Bertie County in 2012.