I wish there had been a summer camp like this when I was young. There I was, going up the CN Tower for the umpteenth time, drawing pictures of the newly completed Royal Bank Plaza (and getting one published in the kid's section of a major newspaper!) and learning how to pronounce names like Mies, Pei and Corbusier, but unsure of what it was, exactly, that made my 11-year-old heart to go pitter-patter.
Sonja Millermaier, who runs the "Future Builders" summer camp at Greenwood College School on Mount Pleasant Rd., wishes she'd had that knowledge when she was younger, too, since it took until her early 20s to find it on her own. "It amazes me how many e-mails I get from parents saying 'I have a 13-year-old who wants to be an architect,'" she says, "but they don't have access to that at their schools."
So, when she joined the design consultancy and architecture think tank archiTEXT a few years ago, she came up with the idea of a camp and created a curriculum that would introduce the world of architecture to kids between the ages of 11 and 14. That age range, she says, is "right before those inhibitions start that, as adults in any sort of creative discipline, you then work so hard to get rid of to let yourself think freely."
Serendipity, it turned out, provided the venue.
After seeing archiTEXT founder Zahra Ebrahim speak at a conference about a youth engagement project in Scarborough (the East Scarborough Storefront), Greenwood instructor Leslie McBeth contacted the think tank. Ms. McBeth had worked on similar projects at the Center for Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn, New York, and had been toying with the idea of starting something at her then-new employer Greenwood, a progressive, experiential school that promotes "a different type of learning."
"I think that design is something that's so overlooked in general in our society – I find even more so in Canada than the United States – yet it's everywhere and it has the power to change the way that we interact with the city, to change the quality of people's lives, to influence how we think and how we act," Ms. McBeth says. "And students, it's not even on their radar."
Combining their talents, ideas and resources, archiTEXT and Greenwood hosted the Future Builders summer camp for two weeks last July.
While Ms. Millermaier stresses that fun was always top of mind during every activity – there were plenty of jellybeans passed around – the overall lesson plan closely resembled an introductory first-year university course, covering topics as diverse as architectural history, theory, sustainable technologies, basic structural principles, and "knowing the who's who" of the architecture world.
To that end, on the first day the 10 campers were asked to cut out a drawing of a pair of round spectacles (à la Le Corbusier, Philip Johnson and I.M. Pei) and put them on: "And we say 'Now you're an architect!'" laughs Ms. Millermaier.
Then, photos of architects and their most famous quotes were passed around. "And the kids, surprisingly, they loved that component, which I was a little nervous about," she continues. "Are they going to want to debate 'Less is More' versus 'Less is a Bore' but, oh yes, heated debates were had – I had prepared a backup activity but they wanted to keep going."
From there, days were spent doing rapid-fire sketches of buildings or birds to get students accustomed to the idea of "making without thinking," as well as the complete opposite: having them think through how to create strong structures using weak material, such as cotton balls, to "shake them out of their comfort zone."
There were field trips, too. Green expert (and friend of this column) Paul Dowsett of sustainable.TO led a tour of the Evergreen Brickworks, and Ms. Millermaier organized a "history hunt" around the University of Toronto campus, where campers had to pick out architectural styles such as Gothic and Modern.
No matter the activity, students took away something to apply to their "thesis project," which was the design of a building for Toronto's waterfront. Despite the city's current condo craze, most projects were not residential: only one drew a bed and breakfast; the others had more "fantastical ideas" such as a monorail system or a giant penguin-shaped skyscraper with an internal golf course, which, by the end of camp had morphed into something a little more realistic and buildable.
"I love working with youth because it never fails to amaze me how intelligent they are," enthuses Ms. Millermaier. "It's remarkable and wonderful every time to see how able they are to absorb very complex material." The goal, however, was not to create a group of kids who will all go on to study architecture – "If none of these kids become architects, I will be fine with that," she laughs – but rather to hand over the tools and terminology to understand that world a little better and, more importantly, to get their young minds solving unfamiliar problems.
And, perhaps, to get a few young hearts to go pitter-patter.
The Future Builders summer camp runs July 9 – 20, 2012 at Greenwood College School and welcomes children, Grades 6 to 9 , from all schools. While not inexpensive, students are provided with art supplies and take home a completed portfolio. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.