Education and Architecture

Essay Talk/Lecture  

Ideas Lab: Architecture and Design 

A paper commissioned by Brightspace and presented to artists, teachers and creative agents

25th November, 2009

I’ve taken the notion of the ideas lab fairly literally. I am just going to hurl ideas at you as, in the context of Creative Partnership creativity, ideas are the most valuable asset. Rather than give you seeds of ideas I am going to give you the fruits of previous projects, which themselves will contain ideas for future projects, it’s more of an agricultural than laboratory metaphor.

Whilst I’m talking don’t worry if you find yourself thinking about other things, these may well be important things. Don’t worry if you are mulling over the potential of one idea whilst I’ve moved on to others, the talk and links to all these projects will be on the Stan’s Cafe website (here you are), hopefully by the time you get home.

I have 45 minutes, it seemed like a good idea to try and talk about 9 projects, five minutes each (the later projects are more tangential to the main topic, do it doesn’t mater if we don’t get round to them. I wanted 45 slides in order to average one a minute, but found I was adding them gratuitously just to get us up to 45, so I called a halt early at, I think 38 (none of the images are embedded here, but can be found if you follow links to the projects).

The Black Maze.
We made this piece out of our own fascination with being in the dark and exploring mazes. It was conceived as an adult piece, which I means that we made it without thinking about children not that we were putting in ‘adult content’ (which would be a whole other market). As soon as we opened it became obvious that it was going to be a hit with kids and we felt foolish not to have thought of that before. Yet if we had been targeting kids maybe we would have made it differently.

In education settings it is used as a stimulus for teaching. We deliver the maze and the teachers appropriate it to their needs. Most often it is about creative writing, but it has also been about drawing monsters, making their own mazes or built environments.

School Rulers
The Black Maze promoted a commission to work with Castle Vale school. Initially we were asked to make a follow up piece with the pupils, but this felt like imposing ideas upon them. Instead we conducted a survey asking Year 8 the ten things they would like to change about the school and together we used these as the stimulus to make ten distinct pieces in different art forms.

My favourite was the simplest. There were complaints that in the dinning hall they were not allowed to sit in groups of more than six, meaning friendship groups had to be split up (surely a control tactic from the lunch time supervisors). For one day only the pupils were in charge of dinner. They arranged the tables as they wished, added table cloths, flowers in vases, decorations, napkins, their own music andme as maitre d’. Afterwards the sceptical supervisors who had predicted a riot admitted it was the best behaved lunch hour they had ever experienced and the tables remain to this day in their new arrangement.

Fruit and Veg City.
This was our first major cross-curricular project. We worked closely with Year 4 and their NQT teacher. It started from the banal observation that broccoli looks like a miniature tree and my long fascination with diorama.

We researched different kinds of fruit and veg alongside famous or unusually shaped buildings from around the world. We went to the top of a local hill to look towards the city centre at the view. We travelled into the City Centre to explore both the city and notions of both perspective and framing. Whilst there we visited bustle of the wholesale markets, the indoor markets and the outdoor markets.

The final outcome was groups making diorama models of real or fantasy cityscapes out of fruit and vegetables, recording some soundtracks for them and setting up a stall in the outdoor market to show off their creations to the shoppers.

Except it wasn’t the final outcome, they also produces a ‘Big Book’ to help other pupils follow their lead.

A Delicate Balance.
Looking at the world from a fresh perspective also featured in a project with St. Alban’s School, who were in the process of planning to have their school rebuilt. It was another multi-strand project, this time with Year 7. The piece that appears most relevant in today’s context was the challenge to use figures from architectural models to re-imagine the old school as the new school by changing the scale on which you look at it. An exhibition of the resulting photographs was subsequently hung at the MADE gallery on Fazeley Street.

Space Steps
This piece is currently installed at Beaumont Leys School in Leicester, as school that has already been rebuilt. It is a spin off from another of our mainstream projects, the Steps Series, in which vinyl footand hand prints are among the symbols applied to surfaces of a building. These symbols act as instructions for a performance, visitors are encouraged to follow the footprints step by step to puzzle a piece of action. Here pupils chose to re-imagine the school as a space ship and the vinyl tells stories from within the ship as it blasts off.

The Nuclear Debate.
As a theatre company it strikes me as a bit odd that we never really do any performance work, so it was almost a relief when this project came along. It was a teacher initiated project and very much focused on solving classroom problems for teachers. In particular the science department was dealing with the introduction of a new specification that required them to examine the social context of science, managing classroom debate was a new skill for them.

Reflecting on the problem I came to believe that voicing your opinions in a charged classroom environment is inhibiting but if the pupils all took on fictional personas for the debate, in this case the pros and cons of a new nuclear power station being built on the edge of their town, then they could argue their positions strongly without ever coming under personal attack or ridicule.

Plague Nation
This is a spin off from our professional production Of All The People In All The World it uses the simple device of representing population statistics in rice, one grain per person. The rice sits in piles on labelled sheets of paper. The combination of these statistics is what generates narrative and debate, jokes and controversy.

We clearly recognised the potential of this show in Educational settings early on and the third, fourth, fifth and sixth presentations all took place in schools with pupils under the name Plague Nation, with a bias towards topics of vaccination, epidemiology and PSHE topics.

Smartie Mission.
This is a recent, pupil led spin off from Plague Nation. The rules were relaxed, not just rice and not just people, but food and statistics. It was an exercise in kinaesthetic learning.

Perry Common Super Heros.
The most tenuous to our topic, but pupils collectively built structures out of lego and animated them. My main reason for including this project is to emphasise how even very young children get very excited by stopframe animation.

James 25/11/9