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It’s National Architecture Week!

Of course I should have known, but my ignorance might be a symptom of the very problem I am about to discuss. This morning I was informed by my friend on the West Coast, Julie Taylor, that it was “National Architecture Week.”  She directed us via Facebook to the American Institute of Architects site and a link to the organization’s “Look Up” campaign, an effort aimed at teaching Mr. & Mrs. John Q. Public exactly what architects do and why they matter.

The broadcast campaign, which clearly cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to create and even more to air, is slick, well-produced and well-intentioned. But it’s not likely to move the needle all that much in terms of public awareness. The time to mount a TV campaign was probably 20 years ago, before the Internet fractured audiences and diluted the power of the 30- and 60-second spot.

Nevertheless, the AIA’s impulse—its desire to reach out beyond its cozy bubble—is laudable. But I have a different idea for the embattled profession. It’s not a new idea, but it does fundamentally address the disconnect between architecture and the public. It’s been done for years at the firm, local-chapter, and national level, formally and informally; but a sustained, coordinated, nationally-funded, grassroots effort would be transformational.

Instead of spending money on what is essentially a branding effort, what if the AIA organized a national education program aimed at the primary schools?

Instead of spending money on what is essentially a branding effort, what if the AIA organized a national education program aimed at the primary schools? Working in collaboration with local schools and local AIA chapters, architects would teach classes in architecture and design. A whole slew of subjects—math, science and art, to name just three—could be seamlessly melded with this curriculum.

The program would build goodwill, create dynamic learning opportunities, and expose children to the practice of architecture. For the most part, they probably don’t even know it exists.

I talked recently with Deborah Berke, Yale’s incoming dean of architecture, about the field’s lack of diversity.  She believes the root of it is educational: the absence of African Americans or Native Americans in architecture is not for lack of interest or inclination, but for lack of exposure. They may see buildings getting built, but most poor kids have no idea that first someone designs them. (I’m willing to bet a hefty percentage of working-class, middle-class and even upper middle-class kids don’t either.) Why should we be shocked so few of them end up becoming architects?

Sure, it would be wildly ambitious campaign with a lofty, moon-shot goal: nothing less than the permanent incorporation of architecture and design into the curriculum of American schools.

To be effective, the program needs to be a multi-city, multi-school, multi-year effort. Sure, it would be a wildly ambitious campaign with a lofty, moon-shot goal: nothing less than the permanent incorporation of architecture and design into the curriculum of American schools. And it would be a good deal more expensive than “Look Up.” But just as surely, an educational initiative that first targets underserved communities would generate positive publicity and attract considerable foundation support.

Working in the schools over a long and sustained period of time would be the ultimate win-win-win for architects and the AIA: it would raise public awareness, spread design literacy and seed diversity within the profession. Who knows—let’s keep dreaming—it might even upgrade the nation’s built environment!

 

Featured image via Timeout.com

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