Architectural Voices – Part I

In documenting our architecture project, I’ve struggled with how much to interrogate the children about their buildings.

Tell me about your building?

What’s this?

What’s that for?

All of the questioning gets a little tedious for both of us and the buildings themselves speak so strongly on their own that I wonder about the need to layer text on top of that.

Part of this project, for me, was to validate building as an important language of expression by really digging into in and creating longer-term building projects instead of the build and break construction projects that kids create every day using blocks, tiles, cups, etc…

I’m astonished by the diversity of their work and by how clearly they’ve communicated their own personalities and thinking without using a word.  To say that they are different from each other isn’t enough – in many ways they are their buildings.

But, once they take their buildings home all we will have left are photos and text, so I decided, in the interests of posterity, to ask them to tell me whatever they thought they would like people to know about their architecture. I’ve formatted them as poetry because it seemed to fit – one language for another. Here are the first two:


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The roof is straight and not bendy.

The steps help you get up and down the slide.

There’s a stove on the roof.

That part (the V) is for bad guys to trip… it’s the tripper.

The chimney is for smoke.

The flower is for people to see it.

The diving board is for people to jump off; water is there.

The square behind the slide is for bad guys not to get in the house.

No Santa allowed in the house; there’s no more Christmas!

The hole is for people to pop up. There’s an invisible trampoline underneath.

It’s all done.


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I don’t have any chimney

There’s a window in the wall and in the roof.

There’s a gate and around it is to hold the gate up.

There’s a triangle mouse hole on each side ‘cause the mommies and the daddies go in one hole and the babies go in the other hole.

There’s a surfboard on the roof.

The glue is snow.

There’s a chair inside the back door.


I couldn’t have made them more different if I’d tried – the buildings or the girls who built them.  I’m still not sure about how much to value the text but I’m hoping that we are becoming more multilingual these days; maybe we can speak architecture and English without privileging the latter.

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Some kinds of help

Our architecture project continues and we’re moving towards building scale models of our 3-D sketches.  This has been a challenging part of the process for us as it requires more adult helping than I would usually be comfortable providing.  While the children are able to take on some parts of the process, they are often assuming more of a fore-person role in directing the adults as we wield the utility knives and the super-sticky glue.  It’s been challenging in other ways too as the educators have been forced to develop skills that aren’t usually part of our jobs; precise measuring, cutting wooden dowels, using ratios to adjust the size of the model to suit the materials; balsa wood, it turns out only comes in certain widths.  We’ve also had to think about our own roles as teachers who may want to influence the process (towards making a building a little simpler, for instance) but who are trying to remain true to the students’ creative intentions.

The students’ creative process has been interesting to observe.  Several students worked on their 3-D sketches over the course of many weeks, adding small details every few days.  Now, they have to make their sketches more permanent and they’re torn about what elements to keep and what they’d like to change.

U.E.’s curved, sculptural house with a courtyard is being simplified as he re-creates it. He’s particularly fond of his new asymmetrical doorway.  We’re still not sure how to tackle the roof, which he also wants to be curved.

The tape is there to hold the pieces while the glue dries.
The tape is there to hold the pieces while the glue dries.

F.I.’s building has changed significantly as we discovered that museum board can be cut to create curves and that it holds its shape much better than cardboard or plastic.

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M.K.’s tall building has stayed true to its original design but she has added a perimeter fence as well as two mouse holes on opposite sides of the structure so that the mice can run through.  It’s a delightful combination of pragmatism and whimsy.

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Embedded in Ontario’s Arts Curriculum document is the Creative Process Chart.  Teachers are asked to facilitate student creativity by becoming aware that their ideas will flow through this process and that they should be given an opportunity to revise and refine their work after it’s been presented for feedback at an initial phase.  For grown-up architects, scale balsa wood models and drawings are their preliminary works.  For our students, however, the scale models are the final product they create after having refined and revised the ideas they developed by creating 3-D sketches.  Being an observer and a contributor to this process has been both challenging and fun.  It’s hard to know where the line is between being a “usefully ignorant co-worker in the thick of the action” (McWilliam, 2008) and taking over the project.  We’re all learning as we go.  Part of our learning as educators has been to think about how much help is too much help when we’re in the throws of a project that requires some adult assistance to be safe.  It’s a balance we’re still trying to find.  It reminds me of the line from the Shel Silverstein poem Helping:

And some kind of help is the kind of help

That helping’s all about.

And some kind of help is the kind of help

We all can do without.

I’m interested to hear how other educators have handled this dilemma.  How much help enlivens creativity, allowing students to bring their ideas to life?  How much deadens it?  How much is too much?

A real girl builder

Our partner architect visited the class for the first time yesterday; what an exciting visit! As MF exclaimed… “a real girl builder!”

architect speaking to kindergarten class

She had so many great ideas to share with our students and we all (adults included) learned a lot.  As non-architects it’s a big leap for us, as educators, to help the children through this inquiry and her visit gave us a much-needed shot of confidence.

She had a great strategy for teaching perspective drawing.  She brought in two green peppers and used them as a substitute for a building because, as she pointed out, peppers have walls and interior space.

architect demonstrating drawing techniques using a pepper

She showed us how to draw the pepper from the front (architecture term, elevation), from the top (plan), and with the front wall cut away (section).  The children were captivated by the idea that there was more than one way to draw an object.  They asked great questions and had amazing ideas about what kinds of buildings architects design (prisons, hospitals, shopping malls).

architect demonstrating drawing techniques using a pepper

KC shared that it was important to make a diagram of your building and we talked about how we might measure our drawings so that a builder could follow them accurately.  Our architect then showed us how to measure our model buildings so that we could translate them into drawings too.

architect showing students how to measure model building

She showed us how we could draw our buildings from elevation, plan, and section perspectives – this was especially interesting because it got the children thinking about shape; a triangular building looks rectangular when you view it from the top.

architect demonstrating measurement techniques  architect drawing a model house

After all that learning we got the chance to do our own drawings!  The children amazed us by applying their new learning so immediately and by using rulers, for the first time, with confidence and precision.

children drawing a model building  children drawing a model building  children drawing a model building  child measuring her drawing on grid paper

 

I just used my imagination…

Where do ideas come from?

While A-frames were a popular building style in the 1960s and 70s, most children aren’t familiar with them.

And yet SN built one.

a-frame house built with cardboard

Where did she get the idea?

She says: “I just used my imagination. It was a little bit easy to build cause you could grab the two squares and put them together and then make a box around it.”

In her reflection, she captures the ease of building that made A-frames so popular 40 years ago.

When I was at Bennington College in the late 90s, the college had recently undergone a process known as Symposium.  This re-thinking of college life had seen the elimination of Art History as a discipline and the re-evaluation of the reasons for teaching the history of art.  In my own dance classes, Dance History was taught as a required, but not-for-credit, section of a dancer’s course work.  The rationale we were given at the time was that we were there to make dance history, not to read about it.

What interested me as I moved out into the world was the ways that we, knowingly or not, make and re-make the histories of whatever discipline we are working in.  Often what children make, whether they are building or dancing, reflects the history of the form.  As in the development of concert dance, children will often make narrative dance/dramas before they are ready to venture into abstraction and post-modern chance dances of pure movement.  We are seeing the same kinds of explorations in our Architecture inquiry, as children are drawn first towards the forms that they are familiar with (square and rectangular boxes, with flat and pitched roofs, then towards forms that are different but easy to build and next… who knows?

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We can’t wait to find out.

 

3-D Sketches: An ‘ah-ha’ moment!

Good news!  We have been fortunate to be selected to undertake an experiential learning project funded by the Student Success Policy Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Education.  The project we’ve proposed is focused on building and design, prompted by our students’ insatiable desire to build in more and and more interesting, complex, and creative ways.

tower built with wooden blocks

Here in Northern Town, we are very lucky to have a brand new School of Architecture, one that is open to working with the community on projects like ours.  With our professorial partner at the School of Architecture, we are working on new ways to challenge the children and provoke them to design and build in new and ambitious ways.

Part of this project has been to examine our assumptions about the design process.  I’ve always assumed, supported by quite a lot of reading, that we should be encouraging children to first sketch what they want to build before sitting down to work with materials.  It’s never worked but I’ve kept trying.  I keep asking children: “Would you like to make a plan?  How about we make a plan first?”  Never… not once… but I keep hoping.

boy drawing his Lego building
F.I. drawing his Lego house… after building it.

At least, I kept hoping… until last week.  When we met with our partner architect – she has a PhD in Architecture – to plan our project, she casually mentioned that they never ask their students to draw before they build.  NEVER.  They always get their students to create what she called a “3-D sketch”… a rough construction using cardboard and masking tape.  Then they refine their ideas by creating a more detailed and precise 3-D sketch using museum board or balsa wood.  THEN THEY DRAW IT!

Cue the open-mouthed gape.  How did I think that 4, 5, and 6 year-olds were going to draw plans of their 3-D designs when undergraduates can’t do it?  Apparently, it’s not just hard for kids… it’ s just plain hard.

So… new plan.  Today we started working on our first 3-D sketches, using cardboard and masking tape.  We were delighted by the results.  The children dove in with enthusiasm.  Look!

flat-roofed building with overhand made with cardboard and masking tape cardboard building, no roof, with door cut into the wall, masking tape doorknob

cardboard building with double doorstall cardboard building with sloped roof and triangular dormer window