Designing with Children

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Elyssa's ideas for library design, Chania, Crete.

As promised, we offer some thoughts which have bubbled out of our book writing process as we draw our project to a close. The ideas that follow arise from our case studies but they inevitably reach wider - wherever participation is discussed, wherever collaboration in creation arises, notions of whose ideas count (the most) are always present.

Overall, the children felt that they had collectively influenced the architects with their own designs and presentations and yet, recurrently across our case study sites, the children openly voiced their beliefs that the architects had their own ideas already and would be bringing those into the design collaboration.

Martin, one of the architects working with children on a department store café design in Cologne acknowledged that: it is very difficult not to project your own ideas onto children’s worlds and in the school playground design sessions in Tower Hamlets, Barbara’s firm loyalty to her nature trope and subtle management of children’s engagement to keep within the ‘letting nature in’ theme was evident throughout her session. Below is an excerpt from our researcher field diaries, written up in Chania, Crete after observing the bookcase building day in school; it illustrates how we thought about the associations between the children’s imaginations, the architects and the built or created form:

The question of how much the final design is already planned by the architects forms the subject for a long discussion between us researchers after the building day in Chania: we ask, is there a case of two seemingly conflicting positions being present in the architect’s approach today? For instance, the children are given much freedom with the materials with only a few solutions and suggestions given by the architects so that the children do feel that they themselves are coming up with a book case design. However, the building session was a little like a puzzle for the children to solve and the materials were reclaimed materials found and chosen by the architects and not connected in any way to the children’s previous drawings. The architects have said that they are interested to see if the children will come to ‘the solution’. Do they mean a pre-decided designed solution which they arrived at in the lab or a (new) solution that will be used finally in the corridors which is currently undecided?

After some thought, we conclude that the approaches are not really in opposition. Masa, with her experience as a landscape architect comments that the architects have to come into school really well prepared as ‘the experts’, the brains. They must not come in empty handed, they must have ideas themselves and they must at some point produce a product or outcome so the two positions are not mutually exclusive. Someone clutching to their expertise completely would not be able to give the children materials to experiment with and perhaps come up with a ‘better’ solution…an idea to which the architects have talked about with us.

Since that day of observation and discussion we are more inclined to understand the architects in Chania, and in other sites, feeling comfortable balancing their own ideas alongside the incorporation of children’s ideas and a sense of potential outcome. This is aligned to Jeremy Till’s perspective that ‘Interpretation clearly demands differing ways of thinking that do not assume there is a perfect answer’[i]. Juhani Pallasma also has a keen perception of the power of uncertainty for architects. Feeling architecture to be closely aligned with other artistic and creative pursuits, he makes use of the words of poet Joseph Brodsky when he warns that ‘[…] experience and the accompanying expertise are the maker’s worst enemies’[ii].



[i] Jeremy Till Architecture Depends (MIT Press:2009) p. 164.

[ii] Joseph Brodsky, ‘A cat’s meow’, On Grief and Reason, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York), 1997, p.302 cited in Pallasmaa The Thinking hand, 79/80.

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