It's high time we all knew a bit more about building design says the Royal Institute of British Architects. Nicki Household reports
That august academy, the Royal Institute of British Architects, is based in an imposing, Thirties classical building in Portland Place, central London. Sandwiched between more conventional mansions, it could easily be overlooked unless your eye was caught by the very pale stone and heavy front door with allegorical carvings.
Inside, there are black marble pillars, glass carvings and relief images in gold of the craftsmen and tools used in its construction (it was designed by the Swe-dish architect Grey Wornum).
For decades this edifice was simply the grand headquarters of a professional association, housing the British Architecture Library (which anyone can use, for a fee) on two upper floors.
Then in 1995 it opened to the public as the RIBA Architecture Centre, with three exhibition galleries, an architecture resource room, bookshop and cafe. Its image, however, remained somewhat austere and unwelcoming, so at the end of last year it was re-launched as the RIBA Architecture Gallery, with a programme of exhibitions designed to attract families and school parties as well as architecture students and design professionals.
In short, RIBA is trying to become more user-friendly, re-flecting, no doubt, our growing interest in design and the environment in which we live and work.
"When big school groups come here it completely transforms the building. We hear their voices echoing around the place and we love it - it's what we're here for," says Rebecca Prince, RIBA's special projects and education co-ordinator.
"It has taken 20 years to instil the idea that good design enriches life," she adds. "Prince Charles has certainly boosted awareness, though his anti-modernist stance has not always been helpful and in some cases - notably the British Library and the National Portrait Gallery extension - seriously affected the livelihood of talented and innovative architects."
Ms Prince and her colleagues have developed an imaginative teacher's pack, Exploring Architecture, designed to complement the gallery's exhibitions and to interest children in buildings. It is divided into three sections with architectural precision. It includes general architectural topics, a glossary of terms and an activity and worksheet section. The pack is updated for each exhibition.
It will be further developed for use in a new network of regional architecture centres and by the summer there will also be a version, entitled Your School, which will focus on school buildings and the local environment. A children's activity guide to the RIBA building is also in the pipeline.
The first pack was funded by the celebrated Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa and piloted at his retrospective RIBA exhibition last year. One of the first teachers to use it was Karen Helm of the Sacred Heart high school in Hammersmith, west London, whose Year 9 group was studying architecture and interior design as part of a construction project.
"I took the architects in the team to the exhibition so they could experience challenging, innovative design, and the packs provided a focus as we walked around," she says. "They were particularly fascinated by the way drawings like ones they had done in school had been translated into perfect little scale models.
"There was so much to look at that it was hard to get them to concentrate on the worksheets. But the RIBA staff were very relaxed about them spreading themselves out on the floor. The building itself is a fantastic resource."Besides raising pupils' awareness of the buildings they see and use every day, learning about architecture develops cross-curricular skills such as observation and recording, problem-solving, communication through design and drawing, discussing ideas, measuring and estimation, and map and plan reading.
Sophie Blume, a teacher at St Matthias CE primary school in east London, took her Year 6 class to last autumn's Architecture of Oman exhibition. "We had spent the morning looking at religious art in the British Museum, so Oman was quite a tenuous link, but it was very successful. They were fascinated by the RIBA building and enjoyed drawing artefacts and comparing Middle Eastern homes with their own."
"Concept House", which runs until 13 April, features the results of a competition to rethink the humble terraced house. A concurrent exhibition of children's photographs, entitled "Child's Eye, Home Alone", reveals how children see their homes.
The two main summer exhibitions, on "Zaha Hadid" and "Decadence in Architecture", will focus on the work of Britain's foremost architect and designer of the Cardiff Bay Opera House and will contain examples of some of the most flamboyant late 20th-century architecture.
Later in the year, "Sydney 2000" will explore the relationship between sport and architecture based on the city hosting next summer's Olympic Games. "Future City" will examine how cities are likely to develop in the next century and "12 for 2000" features the most exciting architectural projects that have been funded by the Millennium Commission. All will have accompanying children's events and teacher's packs.
* Rebecca Prince, Education Co-ordinator, RIBA, Portland Place, London W1. Tel 0171 307 3682. There is no charge for school visits. The teacher's pack is pound;3 (plus pound;1 postage).
* If you have a special interest in visual education and the built environment, the Royal Fine Arts Commission runs an award scheme for student teachers. The aim is to encourage teachers to think about the built environment in their classrooms.
Last year's pound;1,000 prize-winning entry is being developed into a teaching resource. For details contact Peter Stewart, The Royal Fine Art Commission, 7 St James's Square, London SW1Y 4JU. Tel:0171 839 6537