Architecture: Mummy, today I built a tetrahedron: Jonathan Glancey sits in on a workshop where discovering the importance of the built environment is child's play

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHY ARE the British so downright philistine in their attitudes towards contemporary architecture, so uninterested in the design of cities, so unsophisticated in their understanding of the built environment? The answer may well be that architecture remains a specialist subject in British education, studied for the first time when school days are over.

This is not true in Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway, for example, where it is a part of the national primary and secondary school curriculums. Children are taught the subject in its widest sense - a bridge between art and science - and learn to understand that architecture is not simply the study of great buildings, historic styles and famous men, but a complex and compromised art that maps and mirrors our needs and aspirations.

They learn, too, that it is a team effort involving not just the Norman Fosters and Christopher Wrens, but also engineers and builders, surveyors and accountants, craftsmen and clients. And they discover that it is an aesthetic and political act with the power to change the face of our built environment and the way we use it for better or worse.

In countries such as Italy, Spain and the United States, where architecture is studied as part of a liberal education and not solely as a vocational course, it is common to find politicians and business executives, civil servants and academics, who have a sophisticated knowledge of historic and contemporary architecture.

Such people make good clients when commissioning buildings. They are more likely than their British counterparts to understand that architecture and the design of our cities and landscape is a continuum, and that every age - not just the 18th century - produces good (and bad) buildings.

As needs and technology change, so do architecture and the buildings, streets and cities they give shape to. If people want more control over the appearance of their buildings and cities, they should learn to understand architecture, and the best way to learn is to study.

Over the past five months, the Building Experiences Trust, a charity chaired by Sir Richard Rogers and directed by Derek Frost, has been proving that there is an enormous latent demand - from teachers and pupils - for architectural education. Since March, Frost and the team of young architects he has trained to work with schoolchildren, have been running extraordinarily successful workshops in which eight- to 13-year-olds learn to design and make buildings.

The aim of the workshops is to demonstrate to teachers how enjoyable, instructive and valuable an architectural education is from earliest schooldays. By the end of last week, 8,000 schoolchildren and 450 teachers had joined in one of Frost's workshops in London. Already local authorities outside London - at Tunbridge Wells, Winchester, Birmingham and Chelmsford - have been asking him to set up similar workshops next academic year.

'We hope to involve between 60,000 and 80,000 children next year,' Frost says. 'The long-term aim - within three years, I hope - is that these workshops become part of the national curriculum, then we can do something else with our time. We're proving from the outside that there is a demand for an education in architecture and the built environment in schools.'

The proof lies in the workshops. They are inspirational events. Imagine the chatter of up to 100 primary schoolchildren settling down on the floor of an empty central London office block, and within 25 minutes of being handed a bunch of green sticks and elastic bands, creating a complex tetrahedron (eight-year-olds use the word happily once they can see what one is) reaching the ceiling.

An hour later the children have made a gigantic circular truss that they mount on cardboard boxes to simulate a modern Stonehenge. Minutes later they are re-creating the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, and within two hours they are working in teams of five designing and making 'millennial' towers to line the banks of a blue nylon Thames, and learning to make valid architectural criticisms.

The children are all fully engaged, and their teachers surprised and delighted. Not bad value at a charge of pounds 1 for each child.

This should not be so surprising. When children begin to draw and paint, one of their first subjects is their house, and they capture its essential structure vividly and economically. They like buildings - from dolls' houses and tree houses to forts and garages, and they can make them readily with the materials to hand. Sales of building toys - Meccano, Bayko and Lego, for example - have all been top sellers. The act of building appears to be innate; architecture needs only a little encouragement.

'It is a great school subject,' says Frost, 'because it involves individual creativity and team work; it spans science, maths, geography and history. It teaches history and looks into the future. Architecture spans the unwritten curriculum of our culture.'

The Building Experiences Trust is working on a shoestring. It has been supported to date by the Arts Council, Interbuild, the Arup Foundation and John Laing plc and Broadgate Properties plc has provided free space in one of its unlet office buildings at Ludgate Circus. If the programme is to expand to meet demand in the next school year, further funding will be needed.

Derek Frost and his team have proved that the study of structure, architecture and the built environment is at least as natural, as valuable and as engaging as the three Rs. If he succeeds, there will be fewer people in Britain who think that Le Corbusier is a runner in the Grand National, and a gradual coming to terms with the importance of architecture in the way we shape, frame and live our lives.

Building Experiences Trust, PO Box 217, Cambridge CB4 1EA (0223 65378).

(Photographs omitted)