August 10, 2011
Cardboard metropolis: Middle-schoolers collaborate to create model city
A small city is growing on the floor of a classroom in the School of Art Building, created by middle school students with an eye toward cooperation and green development. They havent named it yet, but you can call it Cardboardville if you like.
A growing municipality, the city has restaurants, shops, play areas — even a nightclub, with a big police station next door to keep things under control. The students — tall as giants to this town — decide what goes in and where, gently guided by instructor Joanne Lee. The key is to get along and work together, she tells them.
These young city planners are part of a two-week class called Community Architecture: Solving Social and Environmental Issues Through Design, which is one of many offered by UW Summer Youth Programs, part of UW Educational Outreach. Other classes for middle-schoolers this year have been in robotics, writing, computer games and even dance, and classes abound for elementary and high school students as well.
“What theyre doing is building a collaborative waterfront park right now,” Lee said Tuesday morning as the students, divided into working groups of two and three, tried out various designs. “This is the beginning of the part where they all have to work together, because their paths have to connect, the programs have to work. You cant have walls next to nothing.”
The first week focused on skills such as drawing and using a Google program called SketchUp to make three-dimensional models of their ideas. “Its what I have used in two offices in Seattle and they all use it — just a different level,” said Lee, who is trained as an architect.
But the class was not shy about tackling massive projects, if only on paper. “They redesigned Seattles downtown, asking, what if the Viaduct went underground? What would they do? So they got to redesign that area.” They also designed a green-friendly school and got to tour the new PACCAR Hall, learning along the way the meaning of LEED certification.
One duo of student designers, Henry Watts and Jordan Broihie, both 13, shared their thoughts as they worked in cardboard to create a strikingly unusual waterfront structure with green paper on top. Henry explained, “Were going to have a building on the inside, under this hill, and were going to have a playground on the outside.”
They both are new to this sort of class, though theyve had art classes before. “Ive wanted to do something like this for a while — I have a lot of architecture books at home,” said Jordan. “I have SketchUp on my computer and I experiment with it a lot.”
If theres a future architect in the group, it could well be one of these two. Henry says he wants to attend the UW, maybe in engineering — partly because he really likes the Lamborghini Advanced Composite Structures Lab. He said he could see going into architecture or design or maybe working as a materials scientist. Why? “It just what Im interested in, I guess.”
Fellow student designer Pallas Burhen, 12, said the projects are fun and she likes how the class is taught. Capably assisting Lee in teaching the class were Hanna Basra, Aja Utsugi and Daniel Wong.
Lee said the students started out talking about all the different types of building a city needs. “Then we started adding hospitals, schools, restaurants and other things they didnt think about, so its kind of part architecture, part urban design.”
She said, “Its interesting to see how the different personalities go. Like, some kids just build and dont need to know whats inside and some kids need to know whats inside — which is a lot like grown-up architects.”
Everything they make goes into the city. “The way I kind of think about it is, your first model making something three-D is really hard, actually.” If a students unhappy with a result, Lee said, “I just say, ‘You know what? Do another one. So we kind of leave the first one in there.”
After the first wave of development, Lee added a couple of items and asked the students to re-evaluate. “I put in mountains and the city dump and they moved everything around based on that. Because who wants to be next to the city dump?”
Theres lots of cool stuff in this cardboard community if you look closely. There are lifelike trees made of paper, a fountain, a pool, power lines of string and a fortresslike prison from which escape seems unlikely. One of the schools is equipped with a line of cannons worthy of the British Navy and seems poised to make war on the BMW dealership next door.
Leslie Rome-Nagata, program manager for UW Summer Youth Programs, said they’ve run a couple such architecture classes in recent years, but it can be hard to find an instructor. She hopes the new partnership with the Seattle Architecture Foundation continues to flourish. “These days the parents of middle schoolers (and the students as well) are very interested in classes that have a career/skills slant. This year our robotics and computer game design classes were also very popular — and completely full.”
Lee asked the students to gather around the city, and talked about the development she saw as if the buildings were real. She suggested places where facilities could be shared, where more or different services seemed needed, and where things are starting to look interesting.
Then she sent them back to their work stations for more design and construction, praising their work all the way.
“I love all these ideas,” she said. “This park is gonna be so fun!”