I may have told this story before, but I got into architecture without really knowing what it was. I made it through middle school and high school knowing somehow that I wanted to do it, but not meeting anyone who could really tell me what it was. This surprised me a lot when I got to college and found out it was much less about drawing plans and much more about creative problem solving. Over the years, though, it’s become less and less surprising, since basically nobody outside of architecture understands what we do. That’s part of the reason that I like to be involved in anything that teaches architecture, or architectural values, to kids. Programs like EQUIP Backpacks, run by Carnegie Mellon University, are a great way to introduce those values.
Here’s how it works. Elementary school teachers pick from a few different “backpacks” that they think their kinds could learn from. Each backpack has supplies to teach a few lessons on architecture. For example, my backpack is called “Architecture Without Walls” and teaches kids about landscape architecture through a terrain model and some workbooks. Eventually, they’re going to design a pavilion in a park, but these first few lessons have been about learning the vocabulary and how to represent an idea through drawings and models.
I was really nervous heading into the first session. I met with the teacher from the school, Arsenal Middle School, beforehand. She said that there would be a few students that are non-native English speakers, that there were now students from several different countries attending Arsenal. I’m always worried about being able to get people to participate, and this only made me worry more. I’m seldom able to get people who understand me to be enthusiastic, let alone people who barely get what I’m saying.
As usual, I spent all my time getting worked up about nothing. From the very start, the kids weren’t afraid to take chances and be fantastically wrong about the difficult vocabulary we were teaching them. And in equal shares, they were astonishingly correct.
One area that they were significantly less confident in was their drawing ability. This was the only area that I encountered nearly across-the-board resistance to. I had to provide one-on-one coaching just to get most students to pick up their pencils. It reminds me of something that Dan Rothschild said to me in an interview, which is that most people stop drawing at an early age so most people go through life drawing at that level. It breeds a self-consciousness that makes it even harder for someone to develop those skills further, because the longer you go without drawing, the more painfully apparent it is that you aren’t good at it. The biggest shame of it all is that these kids aren’t even bad at drawing. With few exceptions, I was able to understand what they were trying to draw. And that’s architecture at a fundamental level: communicating an idea through pictures, through whatever means possible.
I’m no great artist, but I know how to sketch just well enough to get an idea across (most of the time). This basic skill was really impressive to the kids, and I have to admit, it was intoxicating to be able to impress someone with my drawing skills for the first time in 12 years. They were particularly impressed with my sofa that I built with cubes. I drew one for almost every kid in the class, then let them add onto it with their own drawings. I’d like to think that this was actually helpful and not just an ego boost.
We have a lot to get through in every 45 minute session. It’s hard to strike a balance between doing the formal instruction and letting them have fun with the more exciting stuff. Ideally, I’d find a way to blend the two, but I’m not that skilled yet. So for now I just hustle through the vocabulary and then let them bust out the scissors and tape.
It’s been a lot of fun, and they actually just finished their final models today. I’ll have more pictures for you soon, but here’s a sneak peek:
Also, I keep saying “I” up there, but I didn’t do this by myself. I had the help of a fellow architect and the students’ regular teacher, and I couldn’t have done this without both of them.
Got more stuff planned for this week so stay tuned, and happy Thanksgiving. Here are some lizards for no reason.