Setting Up Camp: Architecture Explorations
Architect Joseph Victor Vanderbilt’s 1926 drawing of the Marquette National Bank in Minneapolis, currently on view in the Heinz Architectural Center (HAC) at Carnegie Museum of Art, is loaded with gorgeous period detail. From the Art Deco eagle motif crowning the building, to the ornate clock hanging over its entrance and the Gatsby-ish fur coats and Model T Fords of the men and women strolling past, Vanderbilt’s drawing conjures the image of a lush between-the-wars America.
But for Kelly Lyons, director of outreach at Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture, the key element in Vanderbilt’s piece comes down to the compactness of a city block: Vanderbilt’s Marquette building is tightly sandwiched between two other skyscrapers.
“It’s not a natural thing for kids to make buildings that touch each other,” says Lyons. “They need to see examples of that or it just won’t occur to them.”
Each year for seven summers, Tracy Myers, curator of architecture at HAC, has organized Architecture Explorations, a show of models, sketches, plans, and drawings that illustrate various aspects of architecture for the kids attending summer camps at the museum. The architecture-based art camps are taught by museum educators in conjunction with Lyons and the CMU School of Architecture. The camps include kids from age six, who learn about ramparts and towers in Castle, Knights, Dragons: A Medieval Adventure, to high school students taking Architecture 101—an introduction to real first-year college architecture work. So Architecture Explorations has to cover a lot of bases.
“Tracy determines which pieces work, based on a list of architectural topics that we’re covering in camps” says Lyons. “So, we’ll need floor plans, but they’ve got to be specific: kids have a hard time drawing a door—it usually just comes out as a rectangle—so we need to have floor plans that specifically show door swings, which modern architectural drawings for display don’t necessarily show.”
Walking through the exhibition with Lyons, I was reminded of a scene in The Commitments in which the manager puts his band on a “strict diet of soul: James Brown for the growls, Otis Redding for the moans, Smokey Robinson for the whines, and Aretha for the whole lot put together.” In the case of Myers’s exhibition for Lyons’s architecture camps, however, it’s models of buildings by Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson for massing—the relationship of a building’s various parts to each other—and rough architectural sketches to show that things aren’t always perfect the first time around. Aerial views show kids that siting a building in a particular place makes a difference, and elevation drawings teach that those sites aren’t just flat chunks of land.
The vast majority of the time, we want the HAC galleries to be filled with exhibitions that can fascinate the expert as well as the architecture layperson—shows that expand our vision of what architecture, that most ubiquitous, impactful, and oft-ignored art form, means within our lives. But as a brief summer hiatus, Architecture Explorations gives us the opportunity to see some of the wonderful work in the museum’s permanent collection.
For those of us without architecture degrees, it’s like taking that 101 course we skipped in college. And believe me, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: I can’t wait to use “triangulation” and “massing” in common conversation. I’ll just need a camp fourth-grader to understand me.