A is for Architecture

Venturing into an elementary school for the first time to conduct an architectural activity with my son’s class was an illuminating experience. Like many children of architect parents, my own were quite adept at turning Pringles chip containers into grain silos and rocket ships with the help of craft paper, cellotape and a bit of imagination. Not so the vast majority of their classmates.

A generation ago, hands-on activities requiring agility of mind and the manipulation of materials were commonplace in our elementary schools. Today, with the exception of making bridges out of marshmallows and toothpicks, working and thinking in three dimensions is something students are rarely called upon to do. Many students cannot make the necessary leap of faith to turn a milk carton into a house or barn. More importantly, they are being denied the opportunity to explore a wide range of important concepts–most notably, the design of their own built environment.

Architects, artists and a handful of enlightened educators have been trying to reverse this trend for almost 30 years, but with limited success. In Britain and the U.S., built environment education initiatives began in the early 1970s. Of those early programs only a handful survive, perhaps the most successful being Architecture + Children, which is an integral part of the curriculum in the Faculty of Education at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. At about the same time, UBC professor Graeme Chalmers, teacher Stan Thompson, and architect Peter Smith started a program in British Columbia that, disappointingly, proved too revolutionary for its time.

Since then, interested groups have sporadically initiated localized built environment education programs in various parts of the country, sometimes with the backing of their provincial architectural association. These initiatives have been most successful where a system was put in place to support effective communication between architects and teachers, and to generate the necessary learning resources. Without this infrastructure, there can be little expectation of any lasting impact on the school system.

What is needed for long term success is a mechanism for capturing the energy of these disparate groups and communicating their enthusiasm to others. As more schools go online, the Internet appears to provide an opportunity to create just such a national network. Accordingly, in 1999, the idea of a national built environment education program for schools was presented at the RAIC Festival of Architecture in Vancouver. Later that year, a formal proposal was submitted to the RAIC Board and after some deliberation a budget was allocated for concept development and fundraising. The concept was developed in conjunction with Braincoast.com Web design consultants of Vancouver and approved in January 2002. Fundraising is now under way.

A broadly based education program will be centred on an interactive Web site, architecturecanada.ca. It will emphasize the importance of architecture and the design of the built environment in maintaining and enhancing the quality of life in our towns and cities. Learning the language of architecture will ultimately enable students to become more meaningfully involved in the decision-making processes that affect the future of their communities.

architecturecanada.ca will be the central component of a resource network, the aim of which will be to facilitate the widespread introduction of architectural education into the Canadian school system. The Web site will include learning resources in the form of lesson plans as well as tools and information to enhance the experience of architecture locally, regionally and nationally. The Web site will also feature an interactive partnering program that will enable teachers to find architects willing to assist them in implementing lessons and activities in the classroom.

One important aspect of the RAIC’s mandate is to increase the understanding and appreciation of architecture in Canada. While Phase 1 of the Web site is specifically directed at teachers and architects, the material will include general information about architecture in Canada that will be of interest to a wider audience. The underlying structure of the Web site will enable the future addition of general interest and reference material.

The Web site will provide a national and regional context for the study of architecture in schools, along with information on the role of the RAIC in promoting an understanding and appreciation of architecture in Canada. It will provide architectural lesson plans that can be downloaded by teachers for immediate use in the classroom. It will facilitate a partnering program where teachers will post their requests for volunteer architects, interns or students in their area to assist in the interpretation and implementation of architectural material from the Web site and elsewhere. Similarly, it will enable architects, interns and students with an interest in public education to connect with teachers in their area who would like to draw on their expertise for classroom projects or individual mentoring. Finally, it will provide an opportunity to showcase the best of Canadian architecture, both contemporary and historic, from all regions of the country.

The lesson plans in Phase 1 will be selected from architectural material previously developed by architects, teachers and others for use in schools in various parts of Canada. The initial focus will be on lesson plans that are usable across the country. The standard lesson plan structure will also allow for the development of more regional or local material in the future.

Initially, the primary audiences for this Web site will be teachers and architects. Secondary audiences that will increase in importance in subsequent phases will be elementary school students and members of the general public.

To encourage architects to participate in the partnering program, the Web site will be designed to ensure ease of use, clarity and integrity of the architectural material included on the site, and allow visitors to quickly review teachers’ requests for assistance and to find suitable local opportunities for classroom or mentoring involvement.

The long term aim is to develop the general resource sections of the site with information on award-winning architects and architecture in each region of the country and a bulletin board with links to local resources and events. An interactive component will solicit user comments that may in turn direct future expansion of the site.

Fundraising for the electronic infrastructure will continue throughout 2002, with implementation of the Phase 1 Web site slated for spring 2003. The RAIC will appoint a part-time program coordinator to manage the site once construction is complete. There is still time for architects and teachers to contribute material for the Web site, or to be involved in beta testing. For more information please contact the author.

Jim Taggart MRAIC is the former coordinator of the AIBC’s Architects in Schools Program. He may be contacted by e-mail at bluesteps@telus.net