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Producing New Worlds

Students from Buffalo’s Discovery School worked with UB architecture students and local architects to design houses and infrastructure for the Architecture + Education program. Photo: DOUGLAS LEVERE

By PATRICIA DONOVAN

Published January 12, 2012

“I picked a ‘W’ because you can land on it and fight on it. It has a large surface area. Also my name begins with ‘W.’”
Kindergartener, Frederick Law Olmsted School 64

With the assistance of UB architecture and planning students, Buffalo-area professional architects and their classroom teachers, scores of elementary school children in several Buffalo schools worked all semester to come up with unusual architectural projects.

They were working in the 10-week-long, Fall 2011 Architecture + Education program, to which the children responded enthusiastically and from which they learned much about a field foreign to most of them.

The 20-year-old A+E program, which was conceived by Kelly Hayes Mcalonie, associate director of UB's Capital Planning Group, was coordinated this year by Beth Tauke, associate professor, Department of Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning. Several UB architecture students took part, as well as a number of working professional architects, many of them graduates of the UB school.

This year's child-architects, who attend Discovery School 67, Frederick Law Olmsted School 64, Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, the Architecture and Design Academy, and Community School 53, are displaying their colorful and functional environments and infrastructures in the CEPA Gallery in the Market Arcade building, 617 Main St., Buffalo. The exhibition will run through Jan. 18.

The hands-on classroom projects employed architectural principles and required the students to apply lessons in math, earth sciences, geography, physics and animal behavior. 

Some projects required students to research climatic contexts to insure the proper function of their structures and then design and construct buildings, pathways and entrance areas, circulation patterns, green spaces and outdoor rooms appropriate to that function.

First-graders at Discovery designed and tested methods of shading classroom windows using three-dimensional shapes in various configurations. They said they first just cut out shapes and pasted them flat on the window panes, but “then no light came in at all” so they conceived of folding them and positioning them on the panes in such a way as to permit light to enter but provide shade as well. Ta-DA!!

Teams of fourth-graders at Community designed and built bridges out of thin sticks and tested them to see how many bricks they would support before they collapsed (seven in one case, one in another—“Just say we had a bad captain.”). They then analyzed the results to understand outcomes: “Well, we made a suspension bridge and reinforced the deck a LOT. I would say that it was the glue that did the trick. We used more glue than any other team.” They did.

Some children at Discovery studied the geography, life cycle and behaviors of several polar animals—including that elusive arctic fox—then constructed built environments to represent their world and that of the humans who live among them.

Another class designed and built a miniature nature park with homes-away-from-home for snakes and bears, jaguars, penguins, frogs and other wildlife.

Both groups first researched the nature of the animals (“The arctic fox, you see, lives in polar regions and eats a lot of arctic hares and lemons (that is, lemmings)” and then devised spaces to conform with those requirements. You could call them wild animal condos.

In each case, students began with a concept, went on to verbal descriptions, then to blueprints, then produced illustrated elevations before beginning construction: "We had to design the animal park so the cougar has lots of natural space and feels like he’s in the jungle but can’t just walk out of his island and go eat a monkey. Each animal area is enclosed, but the animals can see and hear each other, which I think is good, and visitors can flow easily from one area to another on this path. There’s a lot of grass, a lot of trees. Those blue stones? They’re pretty and they give the frog something to sit on in the water.”

The youngest participants—kindergarteners at Olmsted—selected letters of the alphabet to serve as the basis for multi-purpose functional spaces they then designed and constructed: “I picked a ‘W’ because you can land on it and fight on it. It has a large surface area. Also my name begins with ‘W.’”

All the work is on display during the exhibition, along with diagrams, maps and photos that illustrate projects from inception to completion.

Architecture + Education is a program of the Buffalo Architecture Foundation. 2011 partners included the American Institute of Architects Western New York Chapter and the Buffalo Public Schools. This year's sponsors were Cannon Design, Ronald McDonald House Charities and Watts Architecture & Engineering PC.