Finding teaching wisdom in architecture

February 4th, 2016

Teaching is an art and this month guest blogger Sarah Cooper looks to architecture for lessons that can be brought into her classroom. Sarah is the author of Making History Mine

Architecture as Experience

Walt_Disney_Concert_Hall,_LA,_CA,_jjron_22.03.2012A few weeks ago I visited a massive exhibit on architect Frank Gehry’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I’ve always found Gehry’s buildings startling in their originality but not necessarily appealing.

Yet, in the weeks since, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the exhibit – for what it says about the power of ideas and what it implies about how we could be teaching.

Here are eight takeaways I aspire to implement in my classroom:

  1. Trust in students’ ideas, even the rough and inchoate ones.
    The exhibit frequently places drawings, scale models and photographs of the same building next to each other. The drawings are mere sketches, with simple lines, and yet they seem to move on the page. If we saw only the drawings, we might wonder how they could possibly turn into steel and glass – and yet they did, through revision and consultation with clients and colleagues.
  1. At the same time, realize that not every creative idea will come to fruition. Many of Gehry’s most innovative designs were never built. For our students, the process of writing a research paper or a short story may not always lead to a polished product for a portfolio or year-end show.
  1. Take into account the long view.
    Gehry’s style evolved over time. At first his philosophy involved “placing objects together so that you make the space work. As he explains, “you design the objects and then you design the spaces between them.” Later Gehry began envisioning buildings in which swooping steel exteriors integrated the spaces. What students write or say now in our classes may simply be building blocks for their eventual careers and philosophies.
  1. Help students find different ways in.
    The exhibit was a prime example of differentiation. I found myself drawn to the drawings, which felt like music in their fluidity. But I took photos of the models for my younger son, who likes building structures from cardboard. Other elements of the exhibit included quotations from Gehry and photos of completed projects. Everyone could find something to pull them in. Similarly, in history class, we could show students primary sources, works of art, photos, biographies and artifacts from the same era or event and ask them to describe which speaks to them most.
  1. Work with the power of the familiar to introduce the unfamiliar.
    My two sons already know Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall, in downtown Los Angeles, from parking in its garage for events. Before I take them to the exhibit, I’m planning to show them photos of the concert hall, to remind them of what they know, and then drawings and photos of the somewhat similar but unfamiliar Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
  1. Find technology that transforms student work.
    Gehry is famous for pioneering the aerospace software CATIA (Computer-Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application) for use in architecture, making formerly impossible designs possible. As he says, “The technology provides a way for me to get closer to the craft…. It feels like I’ve been speaking a foreign language, and now, all of a sudden, the craftsman understands me. The computer is not dehumanizing; it’s an interpreter.” I would like to find more programs to use in the history classroom, beyond Animoto and Prezi, that make history pop.
  1. Turn your world upside down.
    Gehry’s design for the new Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California, features a garden on the roof that has evoked comparison to New York City’s High Line. The model was mesmerizing because the hangar-like building was hardly visible through the carpet of trees surrounding it. Especially compared with Gehry’s former work, in which the building materials took center stage, this represented something new and inspiring.
  1. Make a hands-on space for learning.
    At the end of the exhibit, a huge photo of Gehry’s studio anchors a cluster of models of current and future projects. The exhibit itself seems to feel a little like his studio does, with objects everywhere to give inspiration. To see Gehry on the page would be insufficient, but to walk through his work feels real and appropriate. I would like to be more tactile with history so that students feel they are walking through the past, whether they are making objects, videos or computer simulations.

Ultimately, the biggest spur the exhibit gave me as a teacher was to get out of my books and into the world, not just on vacation but all year round.

Entry Filed under: Classroom practice

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