Thursday 6 March 2014

Learning from children

I was lucky enough to accompany a class from Furzedown Primary School to the Royal Academy's Sensing Spaces exhibition and architectural workshop last week.  We all learnt a lot - The children had a great day experimenting with materials, light and space, and I learnt a lot from their enthusiasm and freshness of mind.

Set in to groups for an architectural workshop, and instructed to work like an architectural practice, the children identified that that meant collaborating as a team to achieve a common goal - and they did just that!

With naive clear-sightedness and enquiring minds, their observations walking round the exhibition hit on a lot of points which I had missed.  In the Kengo Kuma rooms, they saw that in one room they surrounded the installation and in the other they were surrounded by it, highlighting the difference between a sculptural installation and a spatial one, or positive and negative space.

Kengo Kuma's installation

They understood the significance of the doorway as a transition between one space and another, and the value of materials in terms of how they make us feel and the influence construction methods can have on our appraisal of an object.

The Eduardo Souto de Moura doorways

The Pezo von Ellrichshausen pavilion was a favourite with lots of the children, partly because it drew on their energy and sense of adventure.  Ascending the tight spiral stairs and returning back down the ramp was fun (no matter how many times they did it), and being elevated in to the ceiling space registered with their sense of adventure.  They felt the difference in the quality of light at this height and acknowledged that the materials, perimeter balustrade and (ordinary square) geometries of the platform was guiding their views upwards to see the detail in the gallery's ceiling space.

Excitement of discovering a different environment 

At this level everyone notices the detail in the gallery decoration.  Before this installation, neither staff, guides or volunteers had fully realised the intricacy of the work above their heads or that each of the angels is different and tells a different part of a story.

Understanding the relationship between object and the gallery space.  It was difficult to believe that the pavilion sits in exactly half of the gallery

The Diebedo Francis Kere installation was another favourite because it immediately engaged with the childrens' sense of playfulness.  The space narrows in the centre of the installation making a more intimate space, compared to the more open and public ends.  Filled with plastic straws, it presented itself as a cave where they could plug in their own piece of creativity.

Creative adventure ground

Intricate work to make a contribution to the exhibit

The Li Xiaodong installation was another very active space.  The children loved chasing through the maze and then feel the crunch of footsteps on the stones at the other end.  The hard light from below combined with the soft light from the side through the vertical timbers, conspired to keep everyone's focus down (the opposite of the Pezo von Ellrichshausen pavilion).  Nobody realised that the installation crosses two gallery rooms, which could only be seen by looking up and reading the ceiling space.  

Lots of activity, crunching and excited chat

The ceiling space gives the scale of the Li Xiaodong installation, but nobody noticed because their focus was kept low by the lighting, space and tactile materials.  Instead, the children (like everyone else) became lost in the maze and its environment.
Also, another interpretation of a doorway through a gap in the maze to the Grafton Architects rooms.  

Although the Grafton Architects installation was possibly my favourite, this was not shared by many others.  Although the spaces are heroic, they do not require heroics in them.  Immediately entering the rooms from the tumbling Li Xiaodong maze, everyone's voice levels dropped to almost a whisper as if we were in a cathedral or a library.  They were definitely spaces to sit in and discuss - more contemplative than the others.

Sensing the space in the Grafton Architects rooms

Backstage, after seeing the exhibition, the children discussed their experiences with Harry, the group leader before beginning work in teams to crate installations of their own.  They were asked to think about light, materials, texture, scale, positive and negative space, structure and shape.  Many different types of materials were available to work and play with. The children were encouraged to discuss a design, make some simple sketches then follow up with their physical creations.  They were also encouraged to let go of preconceptions of how the standard built world works (ie doors, windows, walls, ceilings, floors etc).   At the end of the process there was a crit to review the work. (Strangely I was the only one who felt nervous at this).

Discussion of the exhibition and workshop briefing

Getting down to work.  Five teams each producing very different installations with different selections of materials

Many of the influences within the exhibition had stuck a chord with the children

Playing with space, structure and texture

Cool structures and spaces 

Playing with structures, lights and colour effects 

Playing with transparency, translucency, structure and screens

Crits with Harry - an excellent tutor

Time-lapse video of the experience

It was a very enlightening day.  The more we learn and practice our trade as architects the more we are in danger of establishing working conventions and loosing touch with the naive clear-sightedness and enquiring minds which we had as children.  It is something which is very special and which we should work to hold on to.

The Royal Academy - where Art Rules!

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