BY BRIAN LIBBY
Every architect has a story about when he or she first learned about the profession, or became inspired to design buildings for a living. Maybe it was a family friend or relative who was an architect. Maybe it was watching Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch. Or maybe it was learning to build a treehouse as a kid.
Today, we need architectural education more than ever. And for decades now, the Architecture Foundation of Oregon's Architects in Schools program has been providing just that. But they need help.
Inspired by the first Earth Day in 1970, the Architects in Schools program began that same year, the brainchild of Portland architect Marjorie Wintermute, who created the program with the goal of developing awareness and understanding of the designed and built environment. Administered by the AFO since 2003 (taking over from the Regional Arts & Culture Council), the program has grown from annually serving 800 to more than 3,800 students in the Portland metropolitan area, Central Oregon, Salem, Eugene, Medford and Ashland.
Architects in Schools relies on an army of architect volunteers, who pair up with teachers of third, fourth and fifth graders to put on a six-week course.
For the past few years, Architects In Schools has been growing steadily, with about 100 more students added each year, and volunteer numbers stretching to meet the demand. This year, however, demand has soured. The AFO has received requests to serve over 1,400 more students than last year.
In hopes of helping to inspire more architects to volunteer with the AFO, recently I talked with Sina Meier, an architect with Opsis Architecture who recently completed her third year as a volunteer.
Meier first got inspired a few years ago after seeing an exhibit of student-designed projects for Architects in Schools in Opsis's lobby; four other architects from the firm had volunteered their time, prompting the firm to host exhibits. After signing up, she was paired with a third grade at the Metropolitan Learning Center in Northwest Portland, where Meier has continued to volunteer each year. "I've had a really good experience," she said.
The volunteer process begins with a training workshop and getting a copy of the manual Architecture As A Basic Curriculum Builder, which includes a simple drawing technique that quickly improves students’ abilities and their confidence; a pictorial survey of architectural periods and styles that coincide with studies of Native Americans, Pioneers, Victorians, and several distinct periods in the 20th century; lessons for measuring and designing floor plans; structured activities around questions, like: “What makes structures stand up?”, “What will cities look like 25 years from now?” and “What is Green Building?” Another lesson is called “A Special Structure for a Special Client” and asks students to program and design homes for clients.
"There is a guidebook with lessons and ideas for projects, but you can do your own thing. That’s what we did," Meier explains. "You usually go in once a week for an hour or two. It’s really up to you and the teacher how to structure the lesson. I started out usually with a slideshow. For about 20 minutes: that’s how long they can focus. We usually then had something more active. We went outside for a neighborhood walk and sketched things, or we measured parts of the school, or we had show and tell. We talk about making connections in our work: with light, with nature. And the kids come into the office too. For the last three lessons, that was all production: working towards that final project that’s then part of the exhibit in May."
Meier and Sapienza always begin with a discussion called "What is architecture?" "I talk about what I do. We have a show and tell where I’ll bring in drawings or materials from the materials library. I also like to have kids talk about what their ideas of architecture are. It helps you as a design professional talk to kids in a way they understand. That’s a big part of the program: making architecture accessible to kids. Things like scale and proportion they often already know about. It’s about getting rid of that esoteric language we have, and showing that architecture is all around us."
Her first year, Meier and MLC teacher Anna Sapienza created a unique curriculum. "That year Minecraft was very popular, so we used that to teach them about scale and proportion and modularity," Meier recalls. "It was also the 100th birthday of their school. It’s a brick building. We decided to make a model of the school. Every kid worked on his or her own section. We used building blocks we’d colored in different colors. We just built one elevation at scale and added trees and playgrounds and what the school could be. That was exhibited along with photographs and drawings we’d produced along the way."
In other cases, Meier says, students' final projects "are not necessarily polished models but show what their process was like. Last year there was a series of models that had been crushed under weight. They’d tested different methods of structure and studied what happens when you apply pressure. They had photographs and writing that explained what they had studied."
"It’s that back and forth between learning something and hands-on making something," Meier adds. "That’s what attracts me to the program as a design professional. I’m inside all day. AIS is a way to get outside the office, to get out and make another kind of connection. And I think for kids it’s popular because it’s so hands-on."
Being an architect can often require some long hours, especially when you're young. It would be hypocritical of me to suggest all architects have a responsibility to volunteer for programs like Architects in Schools, because if you set aside my Memorial Coliseum advocacy I hardly volunteer for charitable causes at all. But particularly as someone who grew up in a small town, I know it's possible to get all the way to college without ever truly getting a chance to study and learn about architecture. That means a lot of potentially very talented architects never enter the profession. If we can reach kids at a younger age, and show them that careers like this are possible, where you can combine a steadier paycheck than mosts artistically-inclined people get with the chance to truly impact where we live, work and play and what comprises those spaces, then the entire built environment will be better off, and thus so will we.