It's not every day that children's design ideas are recognised by the Royal Institute of British Architects. But June 11 marked such a day for 24 pupils from East Sussex.
The pupils - from all eight primary schools in the Bexhill area - took part in a project to design a new bandstand for the town's Grade 1-listed De La Warr Pavilion. The pavillion at Bexhill-on-Sea (www.dlwp.com) is a flourishing museum and arts centre. In 1935 it was Britain's first major welded steel building. The old bandstand was a single-level, brick-built enclosed stage which restricted the view of the musicians.
Working with the architect Niall McLaughlin they contributed to the project from the earliest meetings, through the planning stage and on to the bandstand's final installation on the seafront terrace last December.
And earlier this month, everyone involved with its design was honoured with a special RIBA award in recognition of its high standards. It will now go through, along with 58 other buildings, as a contender for the prestigious Stirling Prize for the 2002 Building of the Year.
"We took the education aspect of this project very seriously and had done no design work before we involved the schoolchildren," says Niall McLaughlin.
"The teams produced original ideas which we hadn't thought of, and were then involved very much as part of the design team."
The project was initiated in 1999 by the Pavilion Trust, a voluntary organisation devoted to restoring the pavilion. It raised funds to design and build the bandstand and for the education programme.
The education programme was integrated into the Construction Industry Training Board's nationwide programme, which aims to encourage teachers to use architecture for learning.
Sussex Curriculum Centre designed the project to cover design and technology and science Sc3 (materials and their properties) and Sc4 (physical processes) at key stages 2 and 3.
Over two years, the pupils - then aged nine to 11 - took part in a series of design workshops in which Niall McLaughlin and other experts from the project team would discuss the challenges presented. Students from Brighton University and Canterbury School of Architecture also provided support and mentoring.
Their first workshop was a trip to the site. The pupils started working on designs and making models which took account of the pavilion's proximity to the sea. Sean Carter, now a student from St Richard's Catholic College, was a pupil at St Peter's and St Paul's Primary School at the time. "I am pleased with the way Niall took forward the shell shape and the wings which represent the sea. I think the design looks modern and fits well with the pavilion itself," he says.
At the next workshop, structural engineer Tim Lucas of consulting engineers Price and Myers brought along a model of the agreed design, with raised staging and much more open views, inviting pupils to test how different materials would be affected by the winds in an exposed seaside setting. The pupils used an electric fan to simulate this.
Ben Harmer from Bexhill High School began the project as a pupil at Ninfield C of E Primary School. He suggested different positions for the bandstand on the terrace and this played a part in the choice of materials used. With carbon fibre too expensive, and timber too heavy, the designers eventually settled on fibreglass-coated plywood with a resin finish to protect it from the weather, all placed on a lightweight steel frame. This choice flowed directly from the pupils' original ideas.
The project also involved the pupils in the more prosaic routine of planning applications and they attended the planning meetings at the local council.
Bexhill High School teacher Jenny Harmer, who was involved in the project from the start, says: "When I attended the first design workshop, I'm not sure the children realised the significance of their ideas. The bandstand is an outstanding and tangible reward for their efforts."
By linking a key architectural project with schools in this way, the pavilion has been rewarded with a highly-functional and award-winning facility for its arts programme. For teachers, it has proved a valuable exercise in how to motivate pupils to learn new skills, apply knowledge to real-life situations and to take pride in their community. It also provided continuity for pupils as they moved from primary to secondary school, helping bridge the gap with a continuous project and establishing links between the schools for teachers as well. For Joseph Ferragher, a student from St Richard's Catholic College who was originally a pupil from St Mary Magdalene's RC Primary School, it's been a valuable exercise in citizenship: "When we are older we can look back and say that the bandstand was something we did for Bexhill."
For further information about this project contact Gill Hamilton, CITB's Sussex Curriculum Centre, 16 Buckhurst Road, Bexhill, East Sussex TN40 1QF Tel: 01424 217 660 Alastair Fairley is the author of Bucking The Trend: the life and times of the ninth Earl De La Warr published by the Pavillion Trust, pound;5