From tiny town to city of the future;People and places

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Inside The Lighthouse, a new centre for architecture and design, Julie Morrice finds a child-sized Glasgow full of proud citizens.

The Wee People's City is part of the education floor of The Lighthouse, Glasgow's brand new Centre for Architecture, Design and the City. Created for three to eight-year-olds, it is a city within the city, a playroom that aims to give a child's-size view of the metropolis.

Marked out on the gently rolling floor are roads and an underground railway: there is a tiny model airport, a station, a hospital, a multi-storey carpark, a church and a full-scale viewing tower which children can scramble up for an overview of the mini urban sprawl. Along the wall is an A-Z of building materials, a marble M, a Y made out of Yale locks, a fun fur fabric F, a lovely V of interlocking veneers.

Putting the Wee People's City through its paces on their first visit are 25 Primary 4 children from St Gilbert's in Royston, an area just a few miles north of central Glasgow. "These are fantastic facilities," says Angella O'Donnell, head of the infant department at the school, but although Royston is only 10 minutes drive from the city centre, the school isn't near rail sevices, and getting the class here has cost pound;60 in coach hire. "We can afford it once a term," says Ms O'Donnell, "but we'd like to be here much more."

So it is important that the visit is not only a success in itself, but that it has a knock-on effect: "I need to get the parents along too. Next time I'd like to bring four or five parents with the class, to show them what's on offer in their city, and encourage them to bring their children again themselves."

Structured play is an important part of the curriculum in the early years at St Gilbert's, and the Wee People's City is an ideal setting for learning through enjoyment. Angella O'Donnell has prepared a card for each child telling them to find a certain area of the miniature city.

Although a few children trail back after five minutes, unable to see the trees for the wood, soon they are all having a ball, dismantling model buildings, running cars up and down ramps, playing at being architects with clipboards, building themselves furniture out of cushioned blocks.

To a casual adult observer, the Wee People's City might seem unremarkable, but the best part of an hour passes and it is still absorbing the energy and interest of these eight-year-olds.

"For them this is quite a big area," says class teacher Elaine Muir. "It's great to have the space and the structure, so that they're not just running wild. It's very good for their social skills. It's not like a visit to a museum where you can just walk round and look at things. The teacher has to use her imagination and get the children to use theirs. To use it to best advantage you need to plan ahead."

This visit is part of their study of Glasgow. They have been looking at the city's facilities and contrasting this with the countryside. They have looked into some history and studied plans and maps.

The presence of The Lighthouse has influenced teachers' planning: "Having this here has made us think more about the architecture and structure of the city," says Elaine Muir, "and coming into their own city gives them a boost. These children are from a disadvantaged area, they don't have many experiences, but they've all been down Sauchiehall Street, they can all relate to that. Often we don't focus on our own city or country, and when we do it makes a real difference."

In a room adjoining the Wee People's City, the St Gilbert's children run through their repertoire of Glasgow songs. This, says Elaine Muir, has been the part of their Glasgow project that has really caught their attention:

"They get so much enjoyment from speaking and hearing the language. The culture comes alive for them." Every one of them knows the words to the Jeely Piece Song, which records, with typical dry understatement, the decimation of city-centre communities with the arrival of high-rise flats; and they sing with gusto about the Red Yoyo and A Weary Life, songs which hark back to the early years of the century just ending.

As well as enhancing local children's sense of belonging, The Lighthouse should become a wonderful resource for Scottish schools. From its sixth-floor viewing platform with panoramas over Glasgow's rooftops, down to its feet grounded in today's urban reality, it is full of possibilities for pupils of all ages. Its stretches of white wall and sleek glass are an invitation to the imagination, a blank canvas for anyone's creativity .

It houses various exhibitions of the work of designers and architects, from past and present and looks to the future, speaking in a hundred different ways of the thrill of making, choosing, understanding and simply looking.

But for St Gilbert's, the clock ticks on and, after a snack, the class only has time to nip up several escalators to the viewing platform, where they can look out at the Glasgow skyline. This will be the basis of the afternoon art class back at school.

As the escalator rises past The Lighthouse's Mackintosh Interpretation Centre, on the third floor, one girl gazes through its glass front at a chair on display. "That's a Rennie Mackintosh chair," she confides in a whisper. I hope someone brings her back soon for a better look.

The Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow G1 3NU. Tel: 0141 221 6362. Under-fives pound;12.50 for the group, recommended number up to 15, primary groups pound;20, recommended number up to 20, for exclusive use of Wee People's City. Book in advance. Education workshops and the in-service programme at the Lighthouse available

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