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IT'S ALIVE! The Architecture Graveyard | Bartell's Backroads

Walk the trail at Cal Poly Canyon University Experimental Structures Laboratory and see one of the strangest collections of buildings you'll ever come across.

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — Some are standing, some are in ruin and a whole lot of them are covered in graffiti. Google Maps labels this place the "Architecture Graveyard," but the word "graveyard" is not how Professor Mark Cabrinha describes it.

“For those of us here, this is actually a living thing for us,” said Cal Poly professor Mark Cabrinha.

The correct name for this area is the Poly Canyon University Experimental Structures Laboratory. It may not be as catchy as Architecture Graveyard, but it truly is a working laboratory for students at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo.

“You could think of this as crazy and there is some crazy, but it's also rational-- rational expressionism,” said Cabrinha.

The geodesic dome at the beginning of the trail was the first structure to be erected in Poly Canyon in the 1960s. It kind of looks like a piece of playground equipment but Cabrinha says it’s a testament to the university’s motto: learn by doing.

“The geodesic dome was about how can we create the largest span with the least material possible and this is it,” said Cabrinha.

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Over time the architecture evolved. Take for example the Shell House. Built in 1963, the oddly shaped home touches the Earth in just three places and looks like someone draped a concrete sheet in the air. Actually... that’s kind of what students did.

“The rebar was draped in this position by a crane from a compression ring then the shot concrete around it,” said Cabrinha. 

Just in case you are wondering, yes. Students lived in the house up until the 1990s.

Experimenting with different materials is also a big part of what happens in Poly Canyon. Take for example the Hay Bale Arch. In 2004, students stacked up hay bales like bricks, covered them in concrete and are still watching to see how it all holds up.

Poly Pavilion is a fun one. At first glance it looks like one big spider web of concrete, but it’s not.

“It looks like it is one continuous construction but it's actually pieces made in our shop down the hill,” said Cabrinha.

Everything you see in Poly Canyon was built by students under deadline, but not every deadline was met. A great example is the Underground House, which never actually made it underground.

“Yes, never completed but it is still here and again -- if you think about experimental structures -- it's crazy strong,” said Cabrinha.

Unlike most laboratories, Poly Canyon is open to the public. You can walk the hiking trails and enjoy the living architecture. 

“The idea of a graveyard is tough to think of. This is part of our legacy, part of our DNA,” said Cabrinha.

ANOTHER ODD BUILDING FROM THE BACKROADS: There aren't any old ladies living in this particular shoe, and if you drive through Bakersfield, California, it's hard to miss. 

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