Architecture has quietly been introduced to some secondary schools in Ireland as architects leave their design studios and building sites to work on short-term projects with students .
The impetus for such excursions comes from the Irish Architecture Foundation (IAF) which launched an education programme four years ago with A Space for Learning, a design competition to challenge current thinking on school design. More than 1,500 students worked with 120 architects in 90 schools on that project which resulted in a touring exhibition in 2010/2011.
The latest IAF initiative, the National Architects in Schools programme, sees architects working with Transition-Year students in 25 schools in Cork, Donegal, North Dublin, Galway and Wexford. The programme is funded by the Arts Council, the Department of Education and Skills, and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
“We realised there was a need to provide students with real access to architects to interpret their environment,” explains Rachel McAree, IAF education curator. Design journals were published as an optional resource for architects, teachers and students.
Many of the architects in the initiative discovered TY students often don’t know much about the role and impact of architecture in their lives but once they engage with the subject, they have plenty of ideas, especially about how their school environment could be improved.
The students in the all-girls secondary school, St Joseph’s in Stoneybatter, Dublin developed clever new ideas on how to bring more light and space into their dark, crowded stairways and corridors. “I really enjoyed working with other students and learning about people’s different perspectives, as well as being able to see how we can make a practical change in our school,” says Monika Janas, one of the TY students in St Joseph’s.
The Architects in Schools module was a compulsory rather than an elective module for many of the participants. Some study art, others do construction studies. As part of their introduction to light, shape and symmetry, the groups looked at unusual and inspiring buildings, including Dublin’s Custom House, the Sydney Opera House, an underwater hotel in Dubai, spherical tree houses in Canada and an innovative interior of a Copenhagen school. Their tasks include drawing their favourite room, looking at how their classrooms work, mapping out their school and looking at ways it could be improved. Each group made 3D models of their re-imagined spaces.
"We divided students into three groups to see ways the corridor, classroom and canteen could be improved with different wall colours, adding plants, changing furniture or floor covering and adding things like a roof garden," explains architect Evelyn Darcy, who worked with the TY students at St Joseph's.
Eamonn Greville, senior architect at the Department of Education and Skills says these students are tapping into more contemporary school design ideas that are already on the agenda for architects of school buildings. "We now see corridors as a transitional space which can function as a vibrant social space to sit down, chat, look at something and as spaces where you can bring students together," he says.
Building on a positive response
Architect Eric Osborne is working with boys in St Mary's Knockbeg College in Co Carlow. He has introduced students to model making, photography and sketching as ways of working on a design brief. "Many of the boys come from a farming background which gives them a great ability to modify things. The school is currently being refurbished with additional new buildings so we have been working on models and digital photomontages for a chill-out zone in the central courtyard which we will present to the principal soon," says Osborne.
Architect Michael Flynn is working with TY students in the Good Counsel College, New Ross, Wexford town. "I found that although none of the boys knew architects or had a particular interest in architecture or engineering, they had opinions about how houses could be designed differently. When talking about unfinished housing estates, we considered how different sized families could employ architects to finish off homes for their different needs rather than all the houses having the same layout," says Flynn. This group also looked at how unused courtyard spaces in their school could be designed for student use. Initial ideas ranged from the adventurous such as ferris wheels, aquariums, diving boards and zip lines to more practical suggestions for increased dining areas, study space, chill-out areas or an outdoor cinema.
McAree says the response from schools to the two-year project has been very positive. “This is the first programme we’ve had in Transition Year. We haven’t experienced barriers from teachers or the curriculum. It’s just a matter of time and resources, and a lot more schools wanted to partake than we could fund. We know we can never provide an architect for every school but the My Architecture Design Journals are available for teachers who could deliver the course with back-up and updates from the blog, mydesignjournal.ie.”
McAree also hopes the Architects in School programme might help schools build contacts with architects for TY work-experience placements. However, the next phase for the IAF is developing a short course for the new Junior Cycle Schools Award. “Teachers and the Department of Education have shown a lot of interest in our Junior Cycle module which will be ready soon. Project-based learning like this is naturally cross-curriculum. It engages students with different skills in art, design, geography, language and communication and taps into different intelligences and talents,” says McAree.
The IAF plans to offer architectural courses to students whose schools are undergoing refurbishment or extensions, so the end users can feed practically into the design process.
Osborne feels strongly about this. “Any school considering an extension or new build should talk to students as you will get a lot of useful ideas from them about how to animate corridors, libraries and other school spaces.”
It’s also a recession buster solution for architects (85 applied for the 25 places) while being a youth-engagement programme that enriches the understanding of the role of architecture in our lives.
“These students are our clients of the future and this initiative promotes a wider awareness of architecture in society,” says Darcy.