Back on Track

Sophomores in the architectural track of Chicago’s public schools are moving beyond the summer home. Since 1951 teachers have used a drafting manual that obliges students to copy—by hand—a plan for an uninsulated ranch house. Now with help from 25 architects, a local nonprofit is showing how schools can train students to become more viable candidates for careers in architecture by engaging the contemporary realities of the city and the profession.

Of the 46 disciplines in Chicago’s “education to careers” program, architecture especially demands creativity. Yet you’d never have known it until now. “What they thought of as a window was just what they were copying from the teacher,” says Kerl LaJeune of Booth Hansen, who has taught studios at University of Illinois at Chicago. Since each career-track program aims to prepare students for college and employment, the drafting curriculum seemed too rickety. So in 2003 Melissa Barbier, the public schools’ architecture program manager, sought help with an overhaul.

She called the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which organizes popular tours and classes to connect the public with the city’s trove of buildings, and invited the nonprofit to collaborate on a revised curriculum that would train students to assess their streets and society. Project director Krisann Rehbein and curriculum writer Jennifer Masengarb replaced the 54-year-old drafting manual with a year’s worth of themes. Beginning this past fall teachers began exploring topics such as land use and site orientation, and then asked students to apply each theme to a new house in the city as well as to ten famous buildings—half of them in Chicago—and to their own homes.

Twenty-five volunteers are helping 13 pilot teachers implement the new lessons. None will defend the small summer home. “It doesn’t look like anything that anybody lives in,” says volunteer Sam Marts, who runs his own firm. “And it doesn’t acknowledge the appetite for marble countertops.”

So far the architect-volunteers seem jazzed about connecting students with the broad spectrum of design and its tools. At an early review four students and 13 architects troubleshot a lesson in which students plan a range of land uses for themselves, for a four-year-old, and for an octogenarian. Claudia Telles, a senior at Schurz High School, sketched a nightclub next to an Office Depot. “To laminate your ID,” she explained. The architects laughed approvingly.

Dave Walker, an urban designer and former associate architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill who helped design the development of an island in Shanghai, sees the curriculum as promoting critical thinking rather than harvesting “little architects and planners.” Like all volunteers, he aims to show students that anyone of any background can reshape cities in fairer, smarter ways. “That helps people be better students and clients,” Marts says. “And maybe some will be inspired to become architects.”

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