Firm foundations

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
A scheme that encourages people to visit architectural landmarks has spawned its own junior version, Carolyn O'Grady reports.

One weekend this autumn, thousands of people entered buildings normally closed to them. It was Open House London, an event which has steadily grown in popularity and scale since it started in 1992. Last year, more than 150,000 people visited 565 buildings, some queuing for hours to enter such iconic landmarks as "the gherkin", officially called 30 St Mary Axe.

Two years ago, Open House gave birth to Junior Open House. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, it aimed to use the charity's links with architects and the owners of buildings to put the built environment on the curriculum.

Last year, 2,000 secondaries took part; this year it was the turn of 2,000 primaries.

The schools were given architect-accompanied visits to buildings, a school-based workshop run by architects and teachers, training for teachers and architects, and resources to help all participants. They could also enter the Open House Awards for best designs and models.

It's a model which seems to work. The project "delivers goals which are at the heart of the design and technology programmes of study," said Ian Williams, QCA adviser for design and technology, at the Open House Awards ceremony in July.

Victoria Thornton, founding director of Open House, says: "Junior Open House has paved the way in showing what should be done if you want to embed a knowledge of architecture into the school curriculum. It doesn't require changes in the curriculum. Opportunities are there already, in art and design, history, geography and citizenship, for example, though more would have to be done on the built environment in teacher training."

The charity, which is seeking more money, would like to see the scheme replicated throughout England and Wales.

In June, Year 5 children at Goodrich School in Southwark had their workshop with architects from the Building Design Partnership, a company which has designed many London schools, and Wright and Wright, whose designs include the prize-winning Women's Library in East London. Previously, groups of children from the school had visited BDP's office, a converted brewery, for a session on the building itself and the work of the practice. They were shown sketch models made of cardboard and more sophisticated presentation models.

They had also been to the Women's Library, a refurbished wash-house, and the Old Naval College. Goodrich School's chosen subject for its day-long workshop was a shelter for its playground. Pupils had already sketched designs and small groups set about making models using pipe cleaners, coloured paper, egg boxes and wire, while architects asked them about materials, pointing out where structures might be unstable and offering ideas in the form of pictures on their laptops. There was no insistence on finely finished products, more on discussion, developing confidence and innovation.

The influence of their visit to the Women's Library was plain. "I liked the fact that it used a lot of different materials," says Shahdott, a pupil who used glass and wood in his design. Designs included a shelter with a roof inspired by water and a shelter that collects and re-uses rain and sunlight. The workshop ended with a plenary session in which materials, cost, and health and safety were discussed.

Teacher Richard Ellison says: "The architects give the pupils the vocabulary and a way of looking at and evaluating a building, not only in terms of materials used, use of light, connecting space, but also in terms of emotion and mood. The questions they ask the children are spot on. It's very exciting getting access to brand new buildings, and there are so many spin-offs. Maths comes into it; shapes and the strength of shapes, design and technology, geography and history."

Saint Marylebone CE School entered the secondary school phase of Junior Open House last autumn, and won the overall prize. A specialist college of performing arts, the school chose the Royal Court Theatre and Lamda, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and The Place, a dance venue, for their visits.

Pat Mackinson, head of art, design and technology, says: "The architects explained the thinking behind the design of the building and taught students how to do perspective drawings and bubble diagrams which represent spatial relationships. Students were really interested in the various ways of staging productions that the buildings offered. They produced very imaginative designs which some students worked through half-term to finish."

WEBSITES has information on Junior Open House and the accompanying awards. is a gateway to information and resources on the built environment and programmes for schools on architecture outside London. It includes a list of architecture centres where you can seek advice about choosing buildings to explore in your area. is home to the Royal Institute of British Architects, whose Designs on Britain scheme works with architects and schools. Contact Rob Wilson tel: 020 7307 3692. RIBA also has architecture galleries at the VA Museum and its London headquarters, and produces materials to go with exhibitions there. details the RIBA-organised Architecture Week, which takes place in June. features a large range of free resources which can be downloaded or ordered. They include teaching materials for all key stages. This winter the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is publishing Our Street- Learning to See, which suggests ways of encouraging primary children to look at the built environment. seeks to inspire creativity in young people and improve the quality of life through good design.


Look out for opportunities to learn from the built environment, on visits to museums, your library or on a class visit to the sports ground, for example. Choose buildings that have a wow factor - bright light spaces, contrasting features and inviting environments that young people will find challenging and intriguing. A starting point is to ask pupils to guess how old it is, what materials it's made of, what it's for, how it stands up, how people use it, what the architect is trying to do in terms of light and function. You can also discuss personal reactions to the architecture.

Buildings are ideal for multi-sensory learning. Using touch, smell, and sound to understand more about the design of the building creates a great way for people to experience, rather than just observe architecture. Your local architecture centre may help find contacts (see websites).

Draw and record. Collect soundscapes, perform short dramas, take photos, write poems. Open House has a number of free resources for teachers and pupils (see websites).

Compare and contrast. Look at different types of buildings in your locality, for example your school, a house, and a public building. What makes them different?

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