Spatial cadets

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am


What do children draw when they think of a house? A typical picture, particularly in the West, might be of a single-storey structure with a steep roof, a chimney and a big front door. Although researchers have tried to understand why such clich?s continue, architect Pihla Meskanen says similar images are rarely produced by her students at Arkki, Finland's only school of architecture for children and youth.

'They draw something absolutely different here,' she says. 'It's only when they go to [regular] school that they start to do this. I think it's because their teachers compliment the children who draw what they're supposed to draw and say: 'Very nice, it looks like a house'.'

Proof of the design creativity of children surrounded Meskanen on a bitingly cold day in February when children as young as five metaphorically donned hard hats to become builders. At Arkki, opened to the public as part of activities to celebrate Helsinki's designation as World Design Capital 2012, they created sprawling structures, some with extensions, many curiously angled, all inherently stable.

The workshop, called 'Sweet Architecture', had the students building with candy and toothpicks. 'The idea is to learn by doing,' says Meskanen, a practicing architect who co-founded Arkki in 1993. 'They're learning about construction, and they're learning about triangular structures.'

They are also learning to share and about restraint: by not eating the colourful pretend trusses they saw how, as Meskanen explains, 'triangular forms are very strong'.

Using architecture as a means to teach children social skills and about the building environment is something educators in many parts of the world are increasingly advocating, according to Dr Kumi Tashiro, a fellow at the University of Hong Kong who has conducted research into design education for children and, for the purposes of creating child-friendly cities, promoted their participation in urban planning through design work. Her interest in teaching design to children was sparked by studying school architecture and collaborating with teachers in her hometown of Sendai, Japan. There she helped devise design-led programmes aimed at raising students' interest in everything from history to science and language.

That experience, about a decade ago, was an enjoyable way into those subjects, according to two former students whom she met years later, when they were in their 20s. Neither had become an architect, but that was never the intention, according to Tashiro. 'Learning about the design process is a good way to learn about everything,' she says. 'It requires many different skills. You also learn how to communicate with other people.'

Tashiro points to publications - including Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids, an art book by Kathleen Thorne-Thomsen that guides readers through various activities using building examples by the master architect, and Schoolyards to Skylines, by the Chicago Architecture Foundation's Jennifer Masengarb and Jean Linsner - that help teachers integrate design and architecture into mainstream subjects.

Last year, Masengarb and Linsner led sessions in Chicago, titled 'Architects! Go Back to School', which aimed at training educators to help 'a third grader [Primary Three] understand how buildings stand up', to know which words and materials to use to explain scale to fifth graders and to excite eighth graders [Form Two] about sketching.

Teacher training is also provided by Arkki, which, besides its after-school and holiday courses for four- to 19-year-olds, creates curriculums and teaching materials for schools. Of the 5,000 students (70 per cent of them boys) who have passed through its classrooms, housed in a cable factory-turned-cultural centre in Helsinki, only 20 have become architects, says Meskanen, who, like Tashiro, stresses the aim is not to push them into the profession but to provide 'general education. We're civilising [them],' she says.

Although Finland is known as an education utopia because of its outstanding performances in Programme for International Student Assessment worldwide evaluations, Meskanen sees flaws in its system.

'Finnish education is supposed to be really good, but it doesn't promote creativity and 3-D understanding,' she says. She adds that, at Arkki, it is children below school age who are the most creative. 'The school system, I'm sorry to say, narrows the creativity of children,' she says. 'The more time they spend at school, the more they think in the same way.'

As Meskanen -whose husband, three siblings and mother are all architects - shows me around Arkki, she points to works by students, some of whom might become the country's future Alvar Aaltos. A wombat-shaped pebble-built structure, inspired by Finland's medieval churches, stands next to small mushroom-like towers, which, designed for the 21st century, can accommodate candles. Then there are sophisticated models of dream houses built by 15- and 16-year-olds: one peels open like a fruit, another resembles the Givenchy logo, but arranged differently. And clustered together are unfinished hamburger-like versions of Finnish architect Matti Suuronen's famous Futuro House, the flying saucer-inspired prefabricated designs built in the 1960s and '70s. Arkki students worked past the pods to fashion interiors with kitchens and furniture.

While weekly classes for older children are up to four hours long (term prices for 15- to 19-year-olds are Euro230, or HK$2,340, for 60 hours), those for the youngest can be 120 minutes. To help the teachers, all of whom are architects, parents accompany their charges until the age of seven. 'Parents have said the classes are interesting for them, too, because they are learning about architecture and about the city and their environment,' says Meskanen.

Often it's also fun. Last month after a snowfall, Arkki students, with adults' help, built an igloo outside the Finnish Museum of Architecture and neighbouring Design Museum using little more than mini-shovels and megawatts of energy.

Who knows whether the children even noticed the neo-classical and neo-Gothic edifices casting shadows on their temporary structure, or what they thought of them? But having training in design, Tashiro reckons, will one day enable them to know which buildings they like and why. 'If ordinary people have some knowledge of architecture or design, they will be able to distinguish between good and bad,' she says. 'They will know what is good for the environment, and that is good for society as a whole.'

Meskanen concurs. 'The idea is to help them understand architecture because then they will want better buildings and make better decisions about their environment,' she says. 'Most of the decisions about the environment are not made by architects but by politicians and others. So we succeed if all these people understand architecture. We are creating citizens here.'