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Susan Smith
Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »

How Does Architecture Fit into the Future?

May 1st, 2015 by Susan Smith

Who are the next generation of architects? Or rather, how does architecture fit into the future?


The Architectural Foundation of San Francisco, has its finger on the pulse of what might be the future of architecture. A non-profit, educational organization, the Foundation concentrates on the next generation of consumers of architecture.


“It’s not about making a generation of architects,” said Alan Sandler, executive director of the Architecture Foundation. “There are already too many of them. We work with kids in the community, with the public middle and high schools in San Francisco, talking to them about their role in creating the city as it will be when they’re in charge. “

“For over 20 years, we’ve been doing a variety of programs in partnership with the school district.”

The Foundation was started by three architects who were frustrated that the AIA was talking to architects about how good it was to be an architect rather than talking to the public about what architects really do, according to Sandler.


The three architects talked to the public about the role architecture plays in everyone’s life, and the type of architecture everyone deals with. They decided there would be no more than three architects on the board at any one time.

The board is comprised of architects, engineers, contractors, financiers, designers – everyone in the architecture and construction business that makes the physical environment what it turns out to be.

A superintendent of schools asked an architect to do a summer program with kids who want to be architects.

Since he couldn’t have students at drawing boards for liability reasons, the students were there for six weeks doing various tasks. One student said after this amount of time, “I don’t know what you guys do.”

From a high school student’s perspective, they have an assignment that they turn in on Friday morning. The student saw that in an architectural office, there were emails, phone calls, but nothing seemed to get accomplished.

The next time this program came around, the architect began talking about architecture as a cooperative, collaborative process.


The architect was part of a team working on the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, so he connected students with the design and construction team working on that project, including the structural engineer, mechanical engineer, the curator, the parking expert, etc. He told the kids that the only project they were to pay attention to was this project when they were in any office. Every Friday they got together and had pizza and talked about it.

The breakthrough came toward the end of the second week – the doors were going to be late which affected the entire schedule. Seven designers were talking about the doors and one kid leaned over to another kid and said, “you’re not returning your phone calls, we’re trying to order fabric and be on schedule and you’re not telling us what you have speced out. We’re not calling you back, you haven’t paid our bill in six weeks, we’re behind and we’re thinking of dumping you guys because you’re not keeping up with our needs.”

They learned that architecture is the process of making buildings and not one person’s responsibility; everybody has an expertise. At the end of six weeks, the kids went back to school, and the project was ongoing. Six or eight weeks into school, the architect ran into the superintendent again.

The superintendent said that the kids’ summer architectural experience has turned them on. They talk about solar angles, why this conceptual atrium is designed the way it is, how parabolas play out in the structural design of the building, and they keep asking questions.

“We did that for about seven summers and are now on the eighth superintendent,” said Sandler. “The kids meet on Monday after school from 4-7 pm to talk about construction now. During the school year, the kids have to be in an office 4 hours a week after school – they could spend it in anybody’s office, they just can’t cut class. Kids were on construction sites before school or when they weren’t in class. The conversation on Mondays became more structured for us, more connected with academics. The kids were working on a real project when they were in a real office. They were forced to collaborate; this was what everybody was working on.”

Fifteen years ago, a superintendent got a grant from the Gates Foundation to create small learning communities. These communities were to be part of the school day. Sandler was hired to be the executive director to organize it.

“We had kids from 16 high schools – including the best and brightest, kids from the juvenile justice system, special needs,” said Sandler. “All kids had to play together. Kids who were academic had a lot of trouble with unstructured, ill-defined problems. Kids who had other issues were more comfortable with 2 and 3D design work.”

Kids worked with real software from the very beginning. “We wanted their experience to be really authentic,” said Sandler. “We got the latest version of Autodesk products. We had a full time teacher paid for by the school district assigned to us, had a design studio in the downtown financial district which could be reached easily by students since no high school is more than 30 minutes away from that location.”

The students were in the communities five days a week earning 2 ½ hours academic credit each day. For three days a week they were in the studio working on real problems that are a part of the city. For two days per week they were in firms being mentored. They had a project to work on: the port of San Francisco had piers that needed redoing. They needed an art installation of 16 tile sculptures in that location.

“Kids came up with a presentation to the Port Commission of 16 tile installations and 20 of our kids had great ideas,” said Sandler. “They told the kids to go away and try again, so they did another presentation. 16 tile installation of boats on the bay. They presented the concept – and the commission gave it the go-ahead.”

The kids didn’t know about boats on the bay so they went to the Maritime Museum. They didn’t know anything about ceramic tile so learned about that from a ceramicist.

“Twelve weeks later, the kids are down at the waterfront with installers installing their 16 tile installations, which are still there 8 years later,” said Sandler. “We have done several of those projects, taking a real world design problem to contribute to and see that their contribution makes sense. That’s what the Foundation does: works with high school kids using design thinking and design process, to get kids engaged with their community and connect what they learn in school to the real world and apply it in a relatively safe, successful environment.”

A real goal is to have every kid be successful,” said Sandler. “We don’t teach kids any Autodesk software – they use tools as they try to solve problems. Computers and software are a way to teach. They start with a problem and transfer it to another media to help them refine a design. They know what they’re trying to do. So teaching Revit is easy- this is how you make a representation – it can take only 20 minutes. We don’t teach buttons, we tell them the same software you see in offices is the same software you’re going to work on now.”

The kids have contributed to many big projects in the city. They are better prepared than most college kids to enter the workforce; there are real boundaries to their projects, and they have a better sense of how things go together.

The Build San Francisco Summer Design Institute is open to high school students with an interest in architecture, design and urban development. In a fun and fast-paced three-week summer program, the Summer Design Institute offers students an opportunity to develop their own design skills and to create a portfolio of work that they can use for college entrance requirements and career opportunities.

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