Southern Oregon University and community folk broke ground Thursday for a pavilion on "The Farm" on Walker Street. It will be north of the school’s organic, sustainable vegetable garden on the 3.5-acre property, where it will serve as an open-air classroom where students can “dream big” and research and innovate on sustainable ways to feed the world.

Called the Thalden Pavilion after donors Barry and Kathryn Thalden of Ashland, the soaring structure will also be used for arts, drama, music, dance, weddings, events and parties. It will also be available to students across Walker Street at Ashland Middle School and Walker Elementary School, and other schools, SOU President Linda Schott said at the ceremony.

The structure, she said, is “a wonderful example of community support for SOU” and, along with the adjacent organic garden, illustrates how committed the school is to the vision of sustainability for the planet.

The pavilion, designed by local architect Christopher Brown of Arkitek, will not be a square oriented to north and south, but rather like a honeycombed hexagonal grid, with a “openness that future technology can take advantage of. It’s end use, we don’t know.”

About 100 people gathered under canopy tarp, with the main players each using a shovel to break ground while pictures were taken.

The pavilion will be a locus for “highlighting the world’s most pressing problems … and we’re already getting overwhelmed with ideas for it,” said Vincent Smith, professor and chairman of Environmental Science & Technology. “Our new (university) president is dedicated this, creatively and boldly.”

The philanthropist Thalden couple have already “made their mark on the community,” Schott added, with the retrofitted downtown street lamps and flower baskets and murals on Calle Guanajuato and the Ashland Emergency Food Bank.

Why are they doing it? “We want to create something incredible and it needs to be something big, where people will say ‘wow, what’s going on here?’" said Barry Thalden. "It makes me feel like Kathy and I are contributing something wonderful that’s going to move the world forward in a positive direction.”

Kathryn Thalden, who started the Las Vegas Unity Church when the couple, both architects, lived there, said “One of the most powerful energies in the universe is gratitude. It forms everything into magic. We’re so grateful for SOU and the culture it beings to our community and the creativity it unleashes.”

She lauded how the program is helping bring healthy food and sustainability to the planet from the garden.

Barry Thalden told the crowd that “an outrageous innovation is happening here, with students and faculty dedicated to sustainability, which is recognizing that your actions today affect future generations. It’s already incredible and will be more and more so, as we move along.”

The garden, dubbed The Farm by the university, is already gaining national recognition for developing better ways of producing food, he said, “and that’s the most important thing in the world. Who would guess that’s happening right here?”

Thalden pointed out that the cedar being used in construction is from a tree cut down to make room for expansion at SOU — and the bricks being used are from “The Bricks” at the center of Oregon Shakespeare Festival on Pioneer Street, which is currently under renovation.

He compared the pavilion to the obelisks in the 1968 movie “Space Odyssey,” scattered about the world and marking important events, such as taming fire and walking on the moon.

“This is a place where something is happening and it’s a thing we can’t imagine now, but it will happen here.”

Construction will start now, said Janice Fratella, SOU Vice President for Development, with completion expected in mid-June.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.