Vicky Chan, founder of the design firm Avoid Obvious Architects, has a sideline in teaching architecture and design skills to schoolchildren. He’s instructed thousands of kids over the past 15 years, starting when he was a freshman at the Pratt Institute in New York City and taught low-income students at a local elementary school. After he moved back to his native Hong Kong, he continued teaching architecture weekly through his voluntary organization, Architecture for Children.
This semester, Chan is teaching an 18-week course to fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders at the Kwun Tong Government Primary School, a public elementary school in the Kwun Tong district of Hong Kong. This district is part of the wider Kowloon East area, a former industrial hub that the local government wants to transform into a second central business district.
The school’s principal, Edith Tse, invited Chan to teach the course as part of her effort to build a five-year interdisciplinary curriculum to tailor STEM education for young students.
“What’s the essence of STEM education? We think it’s designing and making,” said Tse. “Design is decision-making and problem-solving, and both these things are very relevant to daily life.”
Chan had his students pore over colorful zoning maps of the neighborhood, then divided them into four groups and had each team pick a site to redevelop. After lots of discussions, planning, and drawing sessions, the students went on to build cardboard models of their proposals, which included refurbishing an old factory building into a space science lab and building an eco-hotel atop a former quarry.
CityLab spoke with Chan about design and planning education for children. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why should schools start teaching design to young kids?
What does urban planning have to do with education? Whether you’re a kid or an adult, I think the biggest challenge is often figuring out how to sift through information, deciding what information to use, and learning to make compromises. You have to understand that the best argument isn’t the loudest one. It has to be rational.
For example, we had a group of students decide to build a hotel at the top of the hill near the school, connected by a tram, because the location afforded excellent views. That’s good reasoning. But the next week, they realized that construction would be difficult, and decided to raze the hill! And I told them: “Wait, you had agreed last week that the hill was good for the hotel.” So it’s about teaching the students how to rationalize the process and to keep progressing from your original thinking to taking the next step.
Even if these students don’t end up going into the design field, these thinking skills are very important.
On the sustainability front, we also have to start teaching this from a young age. A lot of students think putting their plastic bottles in the recycling bin is what sustainability means. But there’s a broader way to think about it, [such as], how do you think about transportation to reduce car use? These are very broad and complex topics, and we have to simplify them for the students to get across the message that to make the future of cities more sustainable, you really have to think about a lot of different factors.
The students also learn how to draw as a form of expression. Nowadays, we’re surrounded by iPhones and iPads, but some students lack even simple mechanical skills. I think it’s very important to teach handicraft as a way to solve a technological problem.
With design, no solution is 100-percent right or wrong. It’s not like solving a mathematical problem. In sport, you can teach team spirit, but at the end of the day, it’s a competition and it boils down to winning and losing. But in design, there is no absolute answer, and it’s very much like in real life.
How might your students apply what they learn in their own communities?
I recently showed the students a photo of walled buildings [large buildings arranged in such a way that they form a wall, blocking an area’s air flow]. I asked the students whether they saw a problem with the wall effect. They didn’t see a problem; they haven’t yet been told what is good and what is bad. In fact, they might even live in walled buildings. But if we can teach them from an early age that there are better ways to build and construct, then perhaps flawed proposals will less easily find widespread support.
Here’s another example. In Kwun Tong, there’s Kwun Tong Road, which has multiple lanes and is very wide. When I used to live nearby, I thought, there’s the metro running overhead, so does the road really need to be this wide? But this question has to come from a certain doubt, a doubting of whether there’s a problem with the status quo. Sometimes after seeing the same thing day in, day out, you come to accept that it is right and just the way things are done.
But if you think more carefully, maybe you realize that Kwun Tong Road doesn’t have to be this wide, and that having more trees would be better. It’s about having a critical mindset. This is what we want to teach the students.
What do we lose by not teaching (and learning) design from an early age?
From a design perspective, I think you miss out on learning how to analyze a question. In math or science class, you learn to solve a problem formulaically. But you may not learn how to analyze the problem. Analysis is very important for students. In the working world, I sometimes come across very stubborn adults. It’s not that they’re not skillful enough, but that they can’t get to the core of a question and deconstruct it to find the different levels of reasoning. So I think design teaches kids how to creatively think out the reasoning.
The other thing is learning how to see opportunities. Once you discover a problem, you learn to see opportunities. Problems present opportunities. But if you can’t see the problem, then you can’t see the opportunity.
Recently, people have been debating different urban planning proposals [in Hong Kong], such as the East Lantau Metropolis [a $60 billion development plan to build a series of artificial islands in the sea]. The debates were very heated. But even after hearing the debates, I don’t fully buy into any of the proposals because at no point did anyone fully present all the pros and cons. I think if we can teach kids this from an early age, and they can as adults present ideas simply, we won’t have as many misunderstandings or misguided suggestions.
You also teach patience through architecture and design. In the first five classes, we were all planning and drawing. The students were getting bored and impatient. They were asking me, “When can we start building?” But then we started building, and no one knew how to begin. And I told them: “Didn’t we just spend five classes planning?” So we’re teaching them how important each step of the planning stage is.
What have you learned from teaching?
Once, I had some students build models of bridges. I went around and asked them what the Tsing Ma Bridge looked like to them. One student told me that it looked like a smile. I thought this was brilliant. It helped me see the bridge as a very simple message about a city’s smile. It showed me the importance of using imagination and creativity to simplify a concept so that even kids can understand it.
We architects spend a lot of time thinking about complex ideas, but sometimes you just need something simple and pure.