by Dustin Atlas
Each year, professor and author Tamar Zinguer leads a seminar at The Cooper Union Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture that investigates the relationship between architecture and play through an analysis of existing construction toys and pedagogical approaches. To grapple with these ideas, students in previous years have been asked to design a toy for a blind person or to design a toy inspired by the logic of a city. When Zinguer reached out to our K-12 team in November about the prospect of collaboration, we were very excited! We worked together to develop a new design objective for the class: to develop a toy that would help elementary school students learn something new about architectural thinking.
Through this unique partnership, each participating Cooper Union student was invited to observe a K-12 Student Day workshop at the Center for Architecture. Dustin Atlas, a Cooper Union graduate and our School Programs Coordinator, visited their class to offer advice about their toy design progress. Rather than a formal, final critique, the seminar culminated in a two-part workshop that paired Cooper Union students with elementary school participants. Tasked with the responsibility of being experts in the field of play, each child was asked to experiment with the toy, to consider how it could be manipulated, and to offer feedback to the designer. The first session took place at the Center for Architecture. The students had two weeks to make revisions and create new iterations of the toy, after which a second session took place at the Cooper Union.
The Cooper Union students prepared six toy designs that investigated a range of architectural topics including topography, lines of tension, vertical circulation, cantilevers and columns, structural frames, scale, and modular jointing techniques. After testing these toys and concepts, students had the opportunity to share what they were able to build with the group. During these discussions, however, the young participants adapted the academic vocabulary to speak about their playful and imaginative narratives. The elementary school students described their work as cardboard mountains, line bridges, futuristic towers, train tracks, castles, windy pathways, elegant entrances, and treehouse cities.
Jasper, a 5th grade student, explained that he enjoyed working with the prototypes and knowing that the architecture students “would build on our comments to make the toys better. Then we could play with the toys a second time to see if there were any changes.” One parent shared that it was an inspiring experience for her daughter to interact with the Cooper Union students and participate in their design process. It was very meaningful to see aspiring architects connect with young people who are just beginning to test these waters; we look forward to deepening this collaboration next year! To learn more about the K-12 programs we offer, please visit us at centerforarchitecture.org/k12.