Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
High School Students Explore Architecture and Design Through Innovative Website
DiscoverDesign.org offers students an educational, Web-savvy virtual architecture experience
By Leigh Franke
While a childhood fascination with blocks is often the prophetic start to many how-I-became-an-architect anecdotes, many students don’t come to a love or even an understanding of architecture until college. A profession with one of the hardest-earned degrees and licensure processes, architecture requires that its suitors show early, intense commitment. Yet few educational resources exist for curious potential designers in their high school years that can introduce them to the practice of designing buildings.
Recognizing the need to close the gap between baby block-stackers and college architecture students, the Chicago Architecture Foundation early this year launched DiscoverDesign.org, a website that guides students through the design process with a step-by-step formula and provides them the opportunity to exchange ideas with a range of other students, educators, and professionals.
Jean Linsner, director of youth initiatives for the foundation, first saw a need for the site after partnering with Chicago-area public schools to redesign a textbook and curriculum for architectural drafting. She noticed that while teaching methods for younger students fit the traditional model, older, more advanced students tended to work independently on more long-term projects. Linsner and her team wanted to create an open forum--a 24-hour tool accessible to students and educators both in and out of the classroom that would guide them through the design process.
The seven S’s and social media
DiscoverDesign.org offers small, medium, and large project ideas. One small project, “Design a new school locker,” asks for improvements to this fixture and backdrop of high school life. By applying design challenges to a building type they know all too well, students begin to view their environment through the lenses of signature black Corbu glasses. And while architectural jargon can elude those new to the discipline, DiscoverDesign.org breaks down the big ideas into the seven S’s: Society, Site, Spaces, Systems, Structure, Skin, and Stuff. Each element is illustrated by an example of a well-designed green high school with the inside scoop from the designers, building facts, and drawings. A gallery of student submissions allows users to view and comment on the work of their peers.
“The idea of social media was baked-in very early on in the process because we wanted to push the design process, rather than the final product on the site,” Linsner says. “The ability to share your work and get feedback while in development is critical. The kids are expected to upload their work at various stages of the design process so that their classmates, teachers, or any interested party can comment on their work. That way the end product has at least some semblance of how a real architect might be working in their firm—as a team, and then folding feedback into the final design.”
Architecture graduates often cite the differences between work in the classroom and work for a firm as the most difficult part of entering the profession. The feedback forum of DiscoverDesign.org opens students to criticism and exposure to which they would otherwise not have access.
In June, the site hosted the National High School Design Competition, asking students to redesign their school cafeteria. Winner Stephen Hsueh, a recent graduate of Lane Tech High School in Chicago, noted that while the nature of the competition allowed him to bypass certain real-life challenges, criticism of his submission from professional architects illuminated some potential financial and engineering pitfalls. “Their comments showed me that there are a lot of little details that I needed to reconsider, and wouldn’t have thought of without the help of the architect,” says Hsueh. In this way, the website becomes a natural conduit to professional mentorship long before a potential architect might ever step into a college of architecture, which Hsueh is doing this fall, when he begins studying architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Hsueh’s design, a colorful, light-filled rooftop addition to his school cafeteria, is a pleasant foil to John C. Christensen’s 1934 Gothic high school building. Hsueh says he wanted to “design a structure that was aesthetically pleasing and excited the students, instead of just brick and gravel. It provides a place where students can congregate in a less formal fashion, relax, get together, and have fun.” After interviewing students and observing the overcrowding at tables, he also incorporated more private spaces to accommodate students that want to eat alone or study.
Hsueh’s teacher and sponsor for the competition, Jesse Berlanga, helped him throughout the design process by commenting on the changes and updates to his project via DiscoverDesign.org. “Once we started the competition, I would drop him notes through the site, but in class we'd work together to throw ideas at me and react to what he was doing,” Berlanga says. “A lot of the kids like to work on their own and do the creative thing, so now they can from home. It’s another way to add [to] what’s going on in the classroom.”
Berlanga was actively involved with the Chicago Architecture Foundation through Lane Tech, and with other teachers helped to inform the structure of DiscoverDesig.org. “The kids going through the methodical procedure to solve a design problem is very useful,” Berlanga says, “because, not only does it work in architecture, but in other areas [too].”
The site’s eventual goal is to encourage familiarity with design project-based learning in a variety of fields. From engineering students designing a mechanical arm to theater students designing a set for an upcoming play, Linsner hopes the site will “bring in a whole set of designers that don’t think of themselves as architects in that traditional area.”
A website that encourages students to rethink design solutions for their immediate surroundings is good news for architecture. And so is the response of educators and aspiring architects. To those unfamiliar with it, “Architecture” and the buildings people actually use every day are often unrelated subjects. Yet a resource like DiscoverDesign.org promises that students with daydreams of design need look no further than their school locker.