Eighth grader Herby pinned his blueprints to the wall of the conference room at Rafael Viñoly Architects and picked up his model. His classmates sat watching him as he presented the details of his design.
A jury of professional architects from the firm listened, and then peppered him with questions. “What community need is it filling? How will the design complement the existing buildings in the neighborhood? What flexibility does it have to adapt in the future?”
Herby responded to each question, unflustered by the rigorous critique. His answers demonstrated the depth of thinking that had gone into the project.
One by one, each student in the class traded places with him and took their turn with the jury. Designs were presented, models were passed around, ideas were challenged and defended.
Each student had designed a building for a vacant lot near the Harlem Academy campus to benefit the community. As part of the school’s applied sciences program, eighth-grade students participate in a four-week unit led by the world-renowned firm. “It’s very intense,” says science teacher Meredith Philbin. “It’s a college-level course.”
The students developed ideas, drew blueprints, and built scale models. This year’s designs included a bookstore, a yoga studio, restaurants, a laser tag facility, and a black box theater.
The unit culminates with the visit to RVA, where students present their designs to a panel of professionals. “They get critiqued like they’re real architects, presenting real design proposals,” says Ms. Philbin. “Some of the feedback was negative, but the students weren’t intimidated. It was constructive criticism, and they could see how it improved their ideas.”
“The student work was truly amazing,” says Jay Bargmann, managing partner of the firm. “I have seen first-year architecture students whose work was not as good as this. They should be congratulated for their ability to conceptualize and to communicate.”
“The students have a great work ethic,” says Elizabeth Geldres, project manager at RVA who led the workshops at the school. “They work on their individual designs, but they also work as a team. Students who were particularly good at the model-making also made time to help their peers. They all provided constructive feedback to each other to help make their projects better.”
Bargmann added, “I hope this experience has sparked an interest for some of them. The world could use a few more good architects.”