22nd June 2001 at 01:00
A series of events starting today teach children their place in the built environment. Sean Coughlan reports

Architecture WeekJune 22-July 1

What shape is a building? It can be any shape, but for every funky structure with curves and kinks there are a dozen standard-issue rectangles filling cityscapes across the land that are upright boxes made of glass, steel and concrete. It's said that there are no straight lines in nature, but modern architecture seems to have fallen in love with angularity, block-like shapes and patterns as precise as graph paper. And, with honourable exceptions, they're often about as much fun as a mathematicians' bring-a-calculator party.

So how about making a building that's plant-shaped, with all the sensuousness and asymmetry of living things? That's the proposition which will be explored by classes of key stage 2 pupils taking part in a project at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. The event, aimed at encouraging children to think about buildings that could be made in new and organic shapes, is part of the nationwide Architecture Week organised by the Arts Council for England and the Royal Institute of British Architects, which starts today. In dozens of architecture-related projects, pupils will be encouraged to develop a deeper understanding of the buildings around them and to think about ways in which they can influence the built environment and rethink possibilities.

At the Chelsea Physic Garden, an historic garden specialising in medicinal and other "useful" plants, the theme will be Organic Cities, and children will study the potential of plants to become the templates for a new kind of architecture. Carnivorous plants will be used, on the grounds that these are more likely to excite children's imaginations. The challenge will be to design a building with the same qualities of attractiveness and hidden menace. As an example, says head of education Dawn Sanders, the pupils will use as a starting point the shape of a pitcher plant, a tall, slender plant with an appetite for small insects, which are lured into its mouth and then find there are downward pointing hairs on the inside to stop them escaping. At the bottom of the tube-like stem is a "lake of death", containing juices that break down the insect's body.

In Manchester, at the Centre for Understanding the Built Environment (Cube), a project called The Crowd links learning about the urban landscape with citizenship. Pupils from Benchill primary school in Wythenshawe have looked at what it means to be part of a mass of people in an urban setting. The area is one of the most deprived in the North-west, and education officer John Bishop says that The Crowd has given the pupils a sense of ownership of their environment. "The children hadn't really thought much about where they lived - it had never been presented as a place of importance. But they'v started to talk with confidence about their feelings about the buildings around them - the interiors of their school, the shapes, lighting and acoustics."

Visitors to Cube can see sculptures and paintings by the pupils, who worked with an artist, Jan Newhouse, until July 4.

In Northumberland, a display called "Follyology" will show the progress of a project at Belsay first school, where pupils, with the help of artist Ashley McCormick, transformed a play house into a "sitooterie" (Scots for an outdoor retreat: somewhere where you can "sit oot").

Judith King, an Arts Council visual arts consultant, says the project taught pupils the fundamentals of planning and putting into practice an architectural design, in the process showing how they could influence the shape of what is around them.

"Children don't feel that they have the power to change their environment," she says. "But they discover they can contribute when they take part in transforming something."

The Victorian Gothic mansion of Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute is holding several events, including the official opening of a visitors' centre, and on June 29 the centre's architect, Alfred Munkenbeck, will be offering a guided tour and talk.

The Lighthouse centre for architecture and design in Glasgow has a line-up of activities which includes designing a new tearoom (including spoons, sugar bowls and wallpaper), following in the footsteps of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

In London, Somerset House is hosting a sculpture trail, a guided tour for children picking out the highlights of the statues in the building. For older pupils, the British Museum's major exhibition, Exploring the City: the Foster Studio, on the influence of Sir Norman Foster, opens today. An accompanying programme includes showings of Blade Runner and Metropolis. If you can't get to any of these events, visit the Architecture Week site, which lists others and has a quiz for children at www.architecture

The week is described by its organisers as a "showcase" for the year-round educational work on architecture in schools, with each of these projects building blocks in helping children to understand that anything that can be made can be changed.

Architecture Week 0906 292 2300

Chelsea Physic Gardens, London 020 7352 5646

Centre for Understanding the Built Environment (Cube), 0161 237 5525

Follyology, Northumberland co Belsay Hall, 01661 881 636

Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute 01700 503 877

The Lighthouse, Glasgow 0141 221 6362

British Museum, London 020 7323 8000

Somerset House, London 020 7420 9406

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