Get our free newsletter

While Newt and Eleanor and Marion tussle over how to improve the city, Dionna Lewis is coming up with her own solutions. But at 9 years old, the recent graduate of Children’s Studio School’s (CSS) summer program in architecture might have trouble being heard by the District’s power brokers.

Lewis, along with other 3-to-9-year-olds, spent six weeks in the summer arts program “City as Studio.” At four District schools, young children worked with “artist-teachers” in the fields of architecture, creative writing, and visual and performing arts to come up with their own definitions of what a city is and can be, with special attention paid to the environment and the students’ own neighborhoods.

During the regular academic year, CSS resides at Cleveland Elementary in Shaw. Originally started 18 years ago as a private day school, CSS now works within the public-school system, teaching children through its patented “transcultural Arts as Education” curriculum and training teachers in using the arts to teach traditional academic subjects. An exhibit of work by the children who studied architecture at Cleveland this summer is on display at the school.

Sylvanus Amevor, an architect from Ghana who has worked at CSS since his arrival in the U.S. in 1991, taught the class that produced the exhibit. “I wanted them to see the whole city as a piece of artwork, as a system that could work or…not work, based on how things are put together and organized,” he says.

Surrounded by bulletin boards, posters, and holiday decorations, the exhibit is hard to find at first. Because it’s not isolated in a gallery space with spare white walls and docent-led tours, it takes some effort to distinguish the exhibit from the other classwork lining the walls. Still, credit is due not only to the young students who designed the city plans and building models, but also to the staff who arranged the exhibit to reflect the students’ progression over the six weeks of the course.

Spread over the school’s three floors, the exhibit starts with the children’s first haphazard designs for a city. It becomes progressively more complex, showing revised city plans and actual building models. Excerpts from students’ poems and essays, printed on oversize strips of paper, hang inside the stairwell leading viewers up to the next floor. Seven-year-old Sheria Spicer writes, “People get killed in Shaw a lot and they get sick….Shaw has artists and respect sometimes….Sometimes it is fun in Shaw and sometimes not.”

Contrary to most teaching methods, the children were never presented a model to follow. “The whole program is a means of trying to reach the children, develop their environmental awareness, critical and analytical thinking, and teach them how to solve problems,” says Amevor. “The process was to carefully expose the children to the idea and let them explore it independently.”

The class was taught in three main phases. In the first, the children were asked to come up with their own definitions of the city. Amevor says he threw out a lot of questions to see what the children already knew and to try to get them thinking in new ways. After a series of discussions, he gave them a huge sheet of white paper, pencils, and paint, and let them go wild.

“They drew schools, especially Cleveland, churches, McDonald’s and Popeye’s, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the hospital, Howard University, offices, fire station, zoo, swimming pool,” says Amevor. “Then I talked about the different elements. Popeye’s and McDonald’s, that’s commerce; monuments represent politics; the hospital is health.”

Without knowing it, the children had created a plan for the city—a very flawed plan. There were roads that led nowhere, schools or houses way out on the outskirts, a church next to a nightclub. The children talked about the plan and debated what worked and what didn’t. Someone had put a hospital next to a house. “Some children didn’t like it there because of the noise of the ambulance,” says Amevor. “Other children liked it because if something were to happen, they reasoned, the hospital would be close by.”

In the second stage, children created new designs that attempted to solve the problems of the initial unplanned design. Amevor gave them more materials—clay, posterboard, paper, scissors, glue, paint, and markers—and two caveats. “One, they had to work in a group and coordinate. Two, they had to think through carefully where they wanted to put things to build the infrastructure.”

In addition to exploring the city as a whole, Amevor also had children separate the city into its smaller components. “We’re talking about housing, transportation, education, politics, commerce, and culture. These are all various elements of the city that are complete in and of themselves,” says Amevor.

In the last phase, the children each chose an element and designed a functional building to go with it. “If someone sees it, they should be able to guess what kind of function goes there, the character of it,” Amevor remembers telling the children. “Think about windows, distribution of openings, geometry, volume. The colors and patterns should all communicate something about the character, and give a sense of permanence or stability. Each space outside should complement the inside.”

Nine-year-old Leon Adamson’s city has small signs indicating dead ends and busy intersections. He has a pool in his backyard. He decided to include 16th Street, but otherwise most of the roads are a product of his imagination.

Larry Williams’ building is tiered, like a flight of stairs. He and his friend Deonte Spicer created a church with a simple square design highlighted by a great arch at the entrance stretching into the heavens.

Dionna Lewis’ two-story house is brightly painted and has windows shaped like smiling faces and a huge, external staircase leading to the second floor. “I was thinking about different kinds of houses. I got the idea for the stairs from the balcony where I live,” she says.

“All the houses are different,” remarks Janet Ososky, a guest at the exhibit opening. “I can tell [CSS is] doing something right. When I was in school, everything looked the same—cutout, mimeographed, cookie-cutter houses.”

There are no slums in this exhibit. The few apartment buildings that do appear are brightly colored, with striking design elements. W. Norman Wood Jr., who attended kindergarten at Cleveland School in 1929, has lived in Shaw all his life and probably knows as much about the area as anyone alive. He says the exhibit speaks to a trend—a movement away from large apartment buildings and back to single-family houses. “When they build these buildings,” he says, referring to the great high-rises that were once proposed by government officials as a solution to poverty, “they build ghettos, because once [working] people move out, it’s hard to get others to rent them.” Poverty becomes part of the structure, and “the problems are difficult to surmount,” he says.

David Vollin, an architect who taught at the Studio School for two years before becoming a teacher at Baltimore City College High School, examines Zekita Shaw’s two-story house made of plain white copy paper. “I’m doing an experiment on the rigidity of paper with my high-school students. She faced the same problem,” he says. “I think she came up with a sophisticated solution. She used bracing on the floor of her model to keep it from buckling vertically and tape as a tensile brace to keep the walls from falling. She solved that physics problem and did it three-dimensionally.”

Start talking to 9-year-old Shaw about tensile braces, laws of physics, and flying buttresses and she may shrug and walk away, but the fact is, without knowing all the terminology, she accomplished a difficult task. In studying architecture, the children employed a range of arithmetic and geometric concepts—addition, subtraction, division, volume, area, proportion. While they may not know the formulas behind the ideas or the scholars who created them, Amevor believes this kind of learning gives children a strong foundation. “Once you give them an “in,’ a vision to work for, it becomes a drawing force,” he says. “Present-day technology has been brought about by deep thinkers, conceptual thinkers. Children should be taught right from the beginning to think conceptually.”

“I think the direction of education now is very positive,” says CSS director Marcia McDonell, who has seen these ideas become more accepted over the years. “The issue that needs to be solved still, and will be solved, is…helping teachers see that work in the arts isn’t just the technical act of making and doing…to help teachers see comprehensively, holistically, and conceptually and in so doing, help children develop intuitive and analytical capabilities. What Children’s Studio School offers is artists as provocateurs,” she adds. “We want to provoke and support children in their voyage. We try to draw the poet and the artist out of every child.”

The children in Amevor’s class not only opened up creatively, they learned one of the great lessons of life. “Working without coordination created a problem,” he says. “We recognized the need to work as a team. A city can only work harmoniously if people work together at the beginning.”

The exhibit runs to Nov. 9 at Cleveland School, 8th & T Sts. NW.

(202) 986-1504.