The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1907] Advocates For A New Client

United States

A child can be architecture’s harshest critic. We as designers are trained to create the monumental form, systems of efficiency, and schemes of subtle beauty. These efforts, however, are lost on anyone that doesn’t understand the intention of the program or the significance of scale. Rarely do we design to please the smaller vision of our youngest clients. While we may create the wondrous form of the TWA terminal, concrete wings lifting passengers into flight, we forget what spaces are of actual importance to children. While Saarinen surely created an inspiring internal volume, he didn’t leave any space for children to play or enjoy themselves. Coincidentally, this lack of area also led to the terminal’s demise as a functional airport. As our tone may already communicate, we think it is well worth facing these difficult judges and including children in the cast of clients we try to please as architects.

There is something remarkable in a child’s imagination. While walking to school she sees a plinth as a balancing beam, a culvert as a hill to roll down, a sidewalk as a snowball battlefield. A child sees every scrap of open space with a vision difficult for any adult architect, designer, or planner to possess. The child reaches a new level of intimacy with space, understanding better than any designer the tactility of stone, of wood, or cloth. She understands the haptic implications of an incline or a stair. Unlike designers today, children understand a building inside-out rather than outside-in.

Despite these specialist skills, children are rarely included in the design process. Though they have occasionally been brought in as consultants for playgrounds or play equipment, children's ideas are taken more as a novelty than an appreciated opportunity. Cities rarely see the benefit of hearing input from a client that doesn’t pay fees, doesn’t provide taxes, and is unable to vote. Yet by designing for children we are designing for everyone. The benefits of a child-friendly library, streetscape, or airport may not be immediately identifiable, but as with the TWA terminal, we would certainly learn an important lesson from investigating architecture with their perspective.

If we were to listen to children’s ideas with no moderation, designers are bound to get frustrated. Not every playground can have a Ferris wheel, nor can every library have a sandbox and carpeted walls. However, there are multiple places where input could be incorporated. Public sculpture should be made with the child in mind so she can safely interact with it. Airport designers should include play areas that reflect the same creative attention they pay to the architecture of the terminals. The architect who is responsible to children will educate the client as to what is and what isn’t possible, and will think of even the most outlandish ideas as generative to the design process. A public climbing wall, for example, may not be feasible for safety reasons, but a hill of concrete filled tires creates an interesting and dynamic space for children to enjoy.

The example of public school 328 in Brooklyn, New York, clearly illustrates the need to not only include children in the design process but to value them as providing important perspectives. PS 328, long-suffering with an inhospitable stretch of blacktop and a few dilapidated play structures, recently received a belated grant from the state to construct a new playground. The architects discussed the design with the administration, teachers, and a group of second graders. Despite these good intentions, teacher Rebecca Ives reported that the language the architects used in the presentation—“environmental sustainability,” “hardscape,” and “programmatic adjacencies”-- showed little effort to truly include the seven-year-olds in their design solutions. Ideas for animals were dismissed rather than considered. While including a real petting zoo would have been impossible, creating fiberglass animals as play structures could have proved an interesting adaptation. As a result of the miscommunications, the playground suffered. It incorporated too many structures and didn’t allow enough open space. Despite its being a tantalizing improvement over the old playspace, administrators have fenced off the area as teachers decide how to stagger recesses to limit student use. For children to wait so long for a project so poorly conceived is truly a shame.

In contrast, Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio completed a playground in Alabama where the clients were treated with respect and admiration. In this project, the neighborhood children were brought in for routine design collaborations, and the architecture students saw themselves as instruments bringing the children’s ideas to life. Out of this relationship emerged lions constructed out of plaster, safely climbable telephone pole trees, and a ship-like jungle gym, all inhabiting an area previously without organized playspace. The children’s creativity was thus captured and cherished in an important and empowering way. The Rural Studio architects took children around the community, inspiring them with recycled materials like bottles, tires, and pipe. If a child responded that they wanted an airplane to climb on, the architects would ask in reply, “Well, how would you build that?” Children became integral members of the design team both as creative consultants and technical problem solvers. This all rested on the fact they were encouraged and taught to do so.

The Detroit Airport’s new terminal, a project by the Smith Group, provides an opportunity to show how good playground design could be applied to other project types. The new terminal, arranged as if it were an indoor mall is a marvel of efficiency and creature comforts. The single corridor connecting all seventy-seven gates operates as a street with an elevated indoor shuttle, motorized walkways, and wide floors providing transportation. To either side march an array of stores, gate lounges, business centers, and restaurants. Illuminated signs, designed like streetlights direct the pedestrian traffic. Yet in this isolated boulevard where is the space for children? After a thorough investigation one unfortunately snowy evening, Nick finally spotted the children’s play area, unmarked on the map. It consisted of a small plastic house, not yet completely constructed, with a few rubber pads nearby. Judging by the coffee cups and uniforms hanging on hooks nearby, Nick gathered that this spot was more likely an employee lounge than a child oasis. How had this happened? There was certainly no lack of children in the airport as evidenced by the strollers and occasional screaming fits. Yet other than in the sad play area children were rarely considered. If the airport was to truly become a “miniature city,” an ideal modern airports are trying to imitate, how could the Smith Group deny some of their predominant clients?

Although these three examples stress the need for inclusive playspace design, this is only the most obvious realm where children’s input is valuable. Some corporate spaces have succeeded in integrating children’s eager hands and active bodies into their designed marketplaces. The Swedish furniture chain Ikea is a perfect example of such integrated design. The store sits in the landscape of highways and malls like a large building block. The exterior is bright blue with yellow trim, the brand’s font a simple rounded one, which suggests at first glance a playful aim. Once inside, customers are guided neatly through designed rooms, following small blue footprints on the ground and sometimes even finding secret ‘shortcuts’ between areas of the store. The sofas and beds of the children’s section are well-worn, small brightly colored chairs and toys inviting participation. At our last visit, there was even a small fort constructed in one of the bedrooms, where children gleefully hid from their parents and made new friends. Perhaps an even more telling example of the way Ikea has designed for its youngest clients is the trademarked playspace, oftentimes a large room with plastic spheres covering the floor at a depth of several feet. The space, restricted to those between 3 and 5 feet tall, jump and glide in this, their very own part of the store.

The success of Ikea’s design is manifold. The child is welcomed in a way not typical for furniture stores, wherein glass and leather can seem to confine her motions and stifle her enjoyment. The linear narrative of the store’s showrooms also ensures a certain amount of freedom on the part of the child to explore the space for herself. As adults, we often forget how precious our right to freedom of mobility. A child usually experiences a building by the side of an adult with a practical agenda. In Ikea, however, the spaces allow more flexible uses. While adults shopping in the showrooms are going over furniture dimensions with salespeople and discussing fabric swatches, the child can touch, observe, sit on, and engage with the environment she finds herself in. She can run ahead without making her parents too nervous; they know where the path is leading, and that they will eventually find her again. They might even leave her with the babysitters in the playroom, where she can independently spend the shopping hours.

Other corporate enterprises have also found rewards in letting children dictate certain parts of their spaces. MacDonald’s had, for a long time, playspaces not unlike Ikea’s, although they were unsupervised. Many bookstores, including the larger chains such as Barnes and Noble, have children’s areas decorated on a smaller scale and that include participatory activities like puzzles and games. These enterprises have found it beneficial to take notice of their youngest clients; not just because the children are happy to go shopping with their parents there, but because parents are happy to go shopping with their children there. The enormous burden of entertaining one’s child in public has been assumed by the company. The store becomes an extension of family care networks and, undoubtedly, earns the financial gratitude of parents.

Architects don’t always recognize the city as something that stands to serve customers, but like any structure in our capitalist society, it does. Retailers know that perceived barriers to shopping make a difference in people’s retailing habits. If one doesn’t know they can park on the street in front of an urban store, they may choose to go outside the city to a mall with adjacent parking lot. If a parent is choosing whether to shop at Ikea or the more stuffy Ethan Allen, they might choose the former to avoid the necessity of a babysitter. In the same spirit, a parent might decide against a stroll in the city park because it has broken glass, or because the surface of the sidewalk is uneven for the child learning to walk, or because the stones in the public fountain are slippery when wet. The child should be able to run ahead of her parent and still be in sight.

Including children in design must stem from their integration into society as important beings. During his term as mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa captured the attention of the global planning community with his innovative approaches to solving urban problems. What we see as Peñalosa’s strength is his attitude that children are the future of the city. In an interview with the Project for Public Spaces, he remarked that "In Bogotá, our goal was to make a city for all the children. The measure of a good city is one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere. If a city is good for children, it will be good for everybody else.”

His programs to help the youngest residents of the city were not just lip service, or political maneuvering. They privileged the safety and educational quality of the public realm in tangible and productive ways, and changed the landscape of Bogotá forever. In one of his most significant programs, Peñalosa built many miles of new bicycle and pedestrian walkways, reclaiming dumping grounds and polluted swamp lands. Under the strained Colombian economy, he accomplished this by slashing the budget on road building and maintenance. The walkways were designed with children in mind, and so are furnished with berms for kids to roll down, open space for soccer and basketball and rest stops and security posts for bicycles. The mayor and his architects watched kids play and thought about what they would profit from. Peñalosa outfitted these waterways cum walkways with a better infrastructure that prevents water-borne diseases (which affect children disproportionately) that are usually caused by poor sewage practices. The mayor’s efforts did not stop with the pedestrian walkways, however. In just three years, he built over 100 nurseries, 50 new schools, and planted 100,000 trees, among other things. The new schools have specially designed resources for kids, such as separate child libraries with reading pits, and play areas. Clearly this is a city that, with the leadership of one man, designs with children in mind, to great international acclaim.

Enrique Peñalosa has just the kind of vision toward children we espouse in this essay. Yet planners like Peñalosa should not have to act alone. His opinion that children need to be planned with and for should be a shared vision for the future of cities. In Bogotá families have responded and welcome the improvement in community, education, and their children’s futures. Even enduring unpaved roads in many parts of town for another decade seems worthwhile to residents that can now bicycle to work, parents that have a place to take their child while they work, kids that can play and learn at the library rather than watch TV at home. In America, where an improved economy would make change easier in some respects than in Bogotá we would not have to sacrifice roadways in our efforts to design for children. This shift in mentality should be made a reality.

To ensure children's involvement with design we propose the appointment of a child civic liaison. Charged with bringing design projects to children and relaying their advice to architects, this new appointment would benefit everyone involved in the design process. Our proposed liaison would be involved on all projects that children potentially use or inhabit. Be it apartment complex, library, or doctor’s office, the child could and should be thought of as a valuable client and participant. By placing the child civic liaison into the structure of city government, the person will be sure to benefit from connections to political officials, administrators, and financial backers, making sure that their special interests in children integrated into regular processes. This is an outcome that would not be procured by the formation of an outside organization or liaison.

At the minimal expense of an extra administrator, the city would get more creative, exciting architectural innovations. Children also would feel invested in their city in a new way, knowing they had a hand in their neighborhood and a voice in its future. By being involved in planning early in their lives, they would grow up being interested in the world around them, and contribute to a valuable civic expansion of the design process. As advocates for a new client, we believe that children are the next frontier of participatory planning.

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