At the forefront of this educational ‘crusade’ was architect Richard Rogers. As architectural advisor to both New Labour and (later) Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, Rogers is now as famous for being the public voice – and face – of British architecture as he is for his practice’s iconic, high-tech buildings. Passionately committed to the civic experience and urban life, Rogers also played a pivotal role in establishing two organizations which would change the relationship between British architecture and its public forever.
Indeed, arguing that ‘the most useful act that any socially-minded architect could do would be to spend a few hours each year at his/her school trying to explain the effects of the environment on people, the development of the senses, art and technology and the responsibility of the individual to the global village’, Rogers found a natural ally in Nigel Frost.22
By 1989, Frost had contacted Rogers to discuss the establishment of an educational charity which would be dedicated to continuing and extending the successful built environment education work he had pioneered with the RIBA and other architecture workshops across the UK. Frost proposed a programme of educational workshops for primary and secondary schools to be delivered by a team of specially-trained animateurs under the auspices of ‘The Building Experiences Trust’ (BET).
Seeking to further built environment education in the UK, and by then already involved with the establishment of London’s first ‘architecture centre’ – The Architecture Foundation, Rogers agreed to support Frost by acting as Chairman for the Building Experiences Trust. Both organizations focused their energy on creating dialogue between architects and the public; and between them, both ventures would create an accessible context for learning about the built environment for adults and children respectively.
Of the two organizations, Rogers and Frost’s Building Experiences Trust (1989-2003) focused specifically on designing and delivering an education programme for the (then) 32 700 primary and secondary schools across the country.23 With its mission to ‘advance the education of young people about architecture and its related disciplines’, the BET introduced young people to a creative design process through the construction of large 3-d (frame) models of famous buildings and architectural structures. At its heart – as the name suggests – the Building Experiences Trust aimed to raise young people’s awareness of their own experiential responses to architectural spaces and the buildings around them.
Frost’s workshop format was highly successful in its ability to equip participants with a very personal – albeit universal – range of experiences of constructed forms and enclosures to the extent that some participants would be inspired to discover and use a new language with which to articulate their (emotional) experience of being enclosed, or feeling safe, or excited and energized by the spaces they had created.24 The architecture workshop ‘movement’: defining a new architectural and educational language.
In educational terms, with its emphasis on empowering children with a kineasthetic ‘language’ derived from the manipulation of simple, tactile materials, Nigel Frost’s system can take a legitimate place in a pedagogical lineage of hands-on experiential learning stretching as far back as Froebbel and Montessori. Indeed, it could also be argued that the system developed by Frost had its roots in an even older tradition of educational construction ‘toys’.
In discussing education as a training for later life, Plato in the fourth century BC, for example, instructs that ‘the future builder must play at building… and those who have the care of their education should provide them when young with mimic tools.’25 During the modern era, in nineteenth-century Germany, the work of former architecture student and educational philosopher
Friedrich Froebel, translated Plato’s concept quite literally. Froebel’s ‘Gifts’ and ‘Occupations’ for young children included sets of mathematically derived wooden blocks specifically designed for building (Gifts 3-6 were, for example, a set of blocks cut from an eight-inch wooden cube).26 Nearly a century later, in Italy, doctor of medicine and educator Maria Montessori, also included building blocks with which children could construct a tower and a stair in her ‘prepared environment’ for children’s learning (1912). Now commonplace in children’s spaces at home and school, largely thanks to the pioneering work of Froebel and Montessori, wooden blocks continue to provide the most accessible introduction to architecture to countless children around the world. For those growing up in the pre-Lego era, like writer and structuralist philosopher Roland Barthes, ‘a few sets of blocks, which appeal to the spirit of do-it – yourself are the only ones which offer dynamic forms.’27 In keeping with Barthes’ spirit of ‘do-it’- yourself’, the sense of creative freedom could also be expressed whilst using Frost’s construction system.
Inspired too by the geometrical and structural insights of twentieth-century designer-engineers Richard Buckminster Fuller and Santiago Calatrava (with whom – in 1991 – he collaborated on children’s workshops within an exhibition on bridge design), Frost’s elegant modelling system placed the humble tetrahedron (and other Platonic solids) centre stage. With tetrahedra and the equilateral triangle as universal building blocks, Frost devised an engaging, effective and highly theatrical way to explore 3-d structure through hands-on participatory learning.
During the 1990s, and alongside his work in museums, learning centres and galleries in the UK, Europe and the USA, Frost was careful to tailor the content and structure of the workshops to respond to, and enhance, the newly-imposed National Curriculum for schools in England and Wales.
Typically, during one of Frost’s workshops, participants are introduced simultaneously to a kit of simple materials (lengths of dowel and rubber bands), a logical construction system and, where
relevant, to certain key moments in the history of architecture. Leading the workshop (with up to seventy participants at one time), a workshop animateur demonstrates and explains with clarity and precision how to fix the materials together – in stages – to make specific architectural/engineering forms such as triangular trusses or portal frame arches. In the now famous Pyramids workshop, participants start with just six sticks and four rubber bands, to make one small tetrahedron each. These are then assembled – usually in a school hall or gym – sequentially in groups of four until one, very large pyramid remains, towering over its young builders.
Participating children love the immediacy of the workshop process, taking inspiration from, and great delight in, the success of the ‘massive’ structures they have just made by hand. Young children especially thrive on the chance to make a 3-d structure big enough to get inside or underneath. From this new vantage point, they have the opportunity to test out the structural integrity of what they’ve made – to see how it works and to understand why it doesn’t fall down!
For many workshop participants, the experience of building these giant pyramids is simply
unforgettable. In establishing a highly visible, educationally valid and genuinely participatory learning process, Frost has successfully crystallized a vital means of communication for British architecture and its young public. Perhaps unwittingly though, he had also devised a construction kit and system that could rival Lego for its accessibility and Meccanno for the structures’ engineering authenticity.
Free of the demands of covering surfaces of any kind, the tetrahedral and triangulated structures reveal their skeletal structure for all to see. This is – one might say – architecture stripped bare. Free of the need to wall, roof or clad the models, the construction system speaks for itself. Like the ‘exoskeletal’ hi-tech structures being crafted in the built environment around them, the structures made by children as young as six years old clearly express their own engineering.28 The structures ‘speak’ to young people in an architectural language of their own.
To this day, through the continuing work of the Cambridge-based Architecture Workshops Association, children and young people across the UK find themselves central protagonists in live architectural modelling/story-telling dialogues.
Whether building pyramid forms, models of the Globe Theatre or Richard Rogers Partnership’s Millennium Dome, these are important, perhaps seminal experiences for UK schoolchildren (see Figure 7.4). As one Year 5/10-year-old pupil says following her participation in a 1998 Architecture Workshops Association (AWA) Tudor workshop:
Thankyou very much for doing the [Design & Technology] Workshop. I had great fun learning words like octohedron and tetrahedrons. It reminded me of the Tudor houses at St Fagons. I like making the pyramid and the roof for the Globe Theatre. I would like to be a architect when
I grow up. I enjoyed doing it…I wish I could do it
■ 29 again.
In more holistic educational terms, working with geometry and 3-d forms, workshop participants are prompted to problem-solve and to think laterally. In turn, their existing, theoretical classroom understanding of shape and space is developed through practical, investigative work whilst constructing elements of the large models. Through this process, participants are given a ‘real – world’ opportunity to test and expand their own
mathematical vocabulary – ‘vertical’, ‘horizontal’, ‘space’, ‘volume’, ‘surface’, ‘vertices’, ‘angle’, ‘depth’, ‘weight’, etc., with renewed purpose. Children participating in a workshop of this kind also become confident in using another vocabulary made up of architectural and technological terminology, i. e. ‘structure’, ‘truss’, ‘tensile’, ‘compression’ ‘torsion’, ‘oscillation’, etc.
At the same time, working with a combination of rigid and flexible materials, participants can test their own scientific understanding of compression, tension and torsion, whilst bringing to life highly imaginative, often beautiful sculptural forms – as if by magic revealed to the eye via a shift in perception. As if describing an AWA workshop, pioneer of visual education Kurt Rowland observed (in 1976) that: ‘the design of structures which make use of the material in the most efficient manner, without any waste or left-overs, is not only economical and elegant but magical.’30
Within this learning experience (which complements the existing UK National Curriculum pedagogy so well), participants also have to adjust their own thinking to address the threedimensional qualities of the structures, and the fact that there are no flat surfaces to assist one’s preconceived idea of how a building fits together.
The experience of arranging frame elements (each with their own spatial volume) and fixing them together to make a larger structure provides a range of experience which empowers young people to understand some of the core principles of architectural design and construction. This challenging process, dependent on manual dexterity and some first-hand knowledge of materials, also helps formulate a new ‘grammar’ of space and structure; in short a new, child-centred experiential ‘language’.
Learnt ‘by hand’, the language embodied in the Frost/AWA workshop format also has its roots in that known by master builders and craftsmen for centuries. This is the language of building craft tradition; the same kinaesthetic language which comes from ‘that unique repository of intimate knowledge and understanding of natural materials and processes, which provided the technological base on which recent generations of innovation and technical discovery stand’.31
Most importantly for our purposes here, the kind of experiential process embodied in Frost’s workshop format also gives young people a common language with which to communicate with architects.32