By: Kurt Lavenson, AIA
I was reminded recently that the transformative power of design reaches beyond buildings and spaces. When we’re lucky, we reach hearts. This year I was introduced by AIA East Bay chapter past-president Jeremiah Tolbert, AIA to the annual Architecture Youth Camp that he helps run for the Fam 1st Foundation in Oakland. The transformation project here is building self-esteem and design interest in a group of middle school kids who are under-served in their communities. It was a week filled with inspiration, generosity and learning in both directions. I learned as much as I taught and I was reminded that being both available and in the background are some of the most valuable things we can give.
The week-long camp was based in Wurster Hall, the architecture school at UC Berkeley. Jeremiah and the mentors who lead the program span the gamut from recent Cal grads to experienced professionals. We introduced the kids to site analysis, sketch-up 3d computer modeling, physical modeling, surveying, real estate development and city planning. We even touched on local politics when an Oakland councilwoman spoke to the group during our field trip to Mosswood Park, where the students designed a replacement for the recently burned down community center. Each day was packed with information and guest speakers. Eighteen kids went from rolling their eyes to asking serious questions, building models and giving public presentations of their ideas and solutions. The mentors knew how to manage the chaos and the boundaries while encouraging the campers to be politely assertive, ask questions and explore. They also emphasized that our presence there was a vote of confidence in the kids. The youngest mentor, a 14 year old boy who had been in the program before, commuted each day by public transit from South San Francisco. His commitment was a model for us all.
The group toured the Campanile and the new sports stadium at Cal. We had a guided bus and walking tour of the Temescal and the MacArthur BART line, where the mentors wrangled an impromptu presentation from the project manager for a multi building project going up nearby. We also had low-key visits from the professional football players who sponsor the foundation. On the final day our young architects in training presented their models or their computerized 3d slideshows. The parents cheered and the mentors were proud. The kids glowed. They had tasted the power of design and the power of ideas well expressed.