Growth by Design: Building Skills and Character through Architecture

Blog Type:  Upper School Date Posted:  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.”

Tags:  architecture science

Defending Ideas, Learning from Criticism

Blog Type:  Upper School Date Posted:  Sunday, April 9, 2017
Eighth grader Herby references his diagram in response to the critique.

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?”

Student designs included a bookstore, a yoga studio,
restaurants, a laser tag facility, and a black box theater.

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.”

Jay Bargmann, Vice President of Rafael Viñoly Architects and Harlem Academy trustee, leads the critique of student projects.

“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.”

Tags:  middle school architecture

Students Present Projects at Rafael Viñoly Architects

Date Posted:  Tuesday, April 7, 2015

3D model build by a Harlem Academy student

Yesterday, the grade-eight class visited the Rafael Viñoly Architects studio to present projects to a panel of architects.

During the past five weeks of science class, students have been working on creating architecture projects with professional architects. Each student was tasked with designing a 400 square foot building for an existing open lot at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue that could serve the community. First, students developed a concept design, then they created perspective drawings, and finally built a 3-D model. Students had to consider function, materials, and aesthetics.

The culmination of the assignment was the visit to Rafael Viñoly Architects, where each student presented his or her design and model to a panel of architects, answering questions and receiving feedback.

This project is part of a two-term focus on the design process with units on building architecture and the construction of simple machines.

Congratulations, eighth graders, on all of your hard work. Special thanks to Elizabeth Geldres and the team at RVA who helped make this exciting unit possible.

Additional thanks to Con Edison for their support of Harlem Academy's science program.

Tags:  middle school architecture science STEM
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