The 9-acre Experimental Structures Facility hidden in the hills behind California Polytechnic State University is an architectural treasure trove containing a quirky array of experimental structures built by teams of architecture and design students between 1963 and 2009.
Once you enter the Cal Poly Campus from California Blvd or Grand Ave, you’ll eventually get onto Perimeter Road, the road that circles the campus. At Village Drive, turn left to park in the H-4 staff parking lot which doesn’t require a permit and is free to park in during the weekends. On weekdays, visitors must park in metered spaces or buy a permit ($5) for one of the general-use parking lots from a campus pay station or at the visitor center at Grand Avenue and Slack Street.
After parking, start heading north until you reach Poly Canyon Road, a dirt service road that follows Brizziolari Creek.
The creek passes beneath Poly Canyon Road just before a wooden bridge on the right that connects to East Canyon Trail.
This is the turning point for another hike, which climbs to an overlook on a nearby ridge.
To reach the Architectural Design Village, continue along the dirt road until you reach a stone arch entryway which includes a map of where all the structures are located.
This curvy stone lined trail will lead you to the first project…
…the Techite Bridge.
Civil engineering students built the bridge using a type of fiber-reinforced plastic mortar.
There are several interconnecting paths that wind through the village, allowing you to visit each structure along the way.
The “Thin Blade Structure” was one of the last permanent structures to be built within Poly Canyon. It was inspired by the similar looking “Concrete Flower” sculpture from 1964, which collapsed due to improper tensioning in the steel support cables inside the structure.
A caretaker once lived in the canyon which deterred much of the vandalism that is now visible on some of the structures. In response to the vandalism, neglect and disrepair, a group of students, alumni, and administrators banded together to create Canyon Days, an event where volunteers clean up and make improvements to Poly Canyon. The first event was held January 24, 2015.
A knotty/naughty tree along one of the paths that was not part of a student project as far as I could tell.
This structure, built by Cal Poly students, was inspired by a visit to the campus in the 1960s by Buckminster Fuller, who refined and popularized the geodesic dome. Fuller taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina during the summers of 1948 and 1949, serving as its Summer Institute director in 1949. There, with the support of a group of professors and students, he began reinventing a project that would make him famous: the geodesic dome. Although the geodesic dome had been created some 30 years earlier by Dr. Walther Bauersfeld, Fuller was awarded United States patents and is credited for popularizing this type of structure.
The Cantilever Deck
It was built by students during the 1989-1990 school year.
The Underground House
Not really underground but still pretty cool.
The Stick Structure was renovated in 2008-2009.
It was first built in the 1970s to observe vibrations in structures. The metal panels can be used to test for stiffness in different configurations.
Local businesses often donate their services and materials in order to reduce the costs of these student projects.
There’s a lot of bridges here.
The Bridge House is now used for teaching students how to make structures earthquake resistant.
It also appears to be one of the buildings that has seen the most vandalism and neglect.
There’s no shortage of bridges to cross.
This Timber Truss Bridge was completed by students in 1994.
The pavilion’s angular series of concrete beams were inspired by the work of Italian architect Pier Luigi Nervi.
He is widely known as a structural engineer/architect and for his innovative use of reinforced concrete.
Tower of Power
Stairs to the lookout tower.
An arching straw bale structure.
In the 1980s, remote computers were used to open and close the windows of the structure to manage temperature and provide ventilation.
The Shell House has seen better days.
It got its distinctive roof by pouring concrete over a skeleton made from fabric, cables and a telephone pole.
Boarded up windows and “No Trespassing” signs were posted but that didn’t seem to stop the stoners up on the second floor from having a good time. The now heavily vandalized ornate woodwork was added in the 1970s.
At least the view is still good. It also looks like this deck was recently added or redone.
The Modular House is where the caretaker lived before the program ended in 2010.
Even though this sign was found nearby…
…it didn’t appear as though much work was being done on the structure accept for this cool little chicken drawing on one of the boarded up windows.
The road signs were discarded by the state of California and repurposed to create the structures unique looking exterior.
On the way back to the parking lot, we took an alternate route that followed a steep bank along the other side of Brizziolari Creek. This trail was a lot more scenic than the dirt road we hiked in on…
…and eventually took us back to where we began. This 2-3 mile roundtrip hike (depending on how much you explore) is a great scenic side trip to take if you’re looking for something a little different to do while traveling through California’s beautiful Central Coast. (Click here for a map of the Cal Poly campus and here for a map of the trail).
Protecting and preserving historic, sacred, and sensitive sites should be practiced by all. Locations, directions, and names to some of the places found on this site are not listed, please don’t ask for them. Tread lightly, leave no trace and always respect the wonder that surrounds you.