Growth by Design: Building Skills and Character through Architecture

Growth by Design: Building Skills and Character through Architecture

Monday, March 19, 2018

An all-natural hair salon. A combination farmer’s market/restaurant. A pottery studio. None of these businesses exists in a certain section of Harlem – not yet anyway. They were just a few of the creative projects designed by our eighth-grade class and presented to a panel of professional architects at the renowned firm Rafael Viñoly Architects (RVA).

Delali Lyons' pottery studio model.

As part of their applied science class, Harlem Academy eighth graders spent the past six weeks working with RVA architects. Their goal was to develop a model of a business that would fill a need in the community. Over the course of the sessions, students explored architectural history, learned to make blueprints, and then set to work developing design concepts. After receiving feedback from the architects and making revisions, the students built 3-D models of their designs.

“This is when things got exciting,” said Jacob Douenias, team leader at RVA who led the workshops. “The students really started to think about the details of space, light, and circulation.”

The students worked within standard constraints faced by architects: the building must be no more than 1,000 square feet of floor space, a maximum height of 30 feet, and set back a minimum of 30 feet from the property line. “During my time working with the class, I saw tremendous skills development, especially in constructive geometry, spatial thinking, and conceiving and refining an idea,” noted Mr. Douenias. “Architecture is a great way to teach many skills.”

The time the eighth graders spent mulling over feedback and reassessing their designs illustrates the tenacity, active listening, and creativity expressed in our school creed. “The students really took advantage of the process,” said Meredith Philbin, lead middle school science teacher at Harlem Academy. “They sketched out and revised ideas that varied in function and aesthetics – just how professional architects complete the design process.”

Essence Johnson presents to the jury.

The unit culminated with a visit to RVA, where students took turns presenting their designs and 3-D models to a “jury” of architects. One by one they fielded questions, listened to critiques, and defended their ideas.

“The jury process in architecture is a very important learning experience,” said Jay Bargmann, Harlem Academy trustee and Senior Vice President at RVA. “These students were very receptive to criticism and suggestions. I was impressed by their confidence and poise, and their verbal and visual communication skills.”

One of the most important things eighth grader Ti-Shauna Penny learned from her turn before the jury was the benefit of feedback. Although a bit nervous as she stood to make her presentation, Ti-Shauna embraced the experience. “You have to learn to accept feedback in order to make any project you’re working on better. I really listened to the constructive criticism because I knew it would help me grow.”

Her fellow classmate, Yealie Ulaba-Samura, felt the same way. “You can’t get defensive when someone gives you constructive criticism because in the long run it helps you. There’s always room for improvement in everything you do.”