In 2010, art educator Phillip Alexander-Cox approached Melody Harclerode, AIA, with a question: Would you be interested in starting an architecture program at my elementary school? Alexander-Cox always had an appreciation for architecture, and Harclerode—the mother of two students at the school at the time—was already active in the K–12 program run by AIA Atlanta. For her, the answer was an emphatic “Yes.”
Thus began Discover ARCHITECTURE, which has expanded throughout Atlanta. “We now work with six elementary schools in the Atlanta system,” says Harclerode, now president of AIA Atlanta, all of which “are geographically and economically diverse. We’ve received local awards, a national grant, and a proclamation from the city council of Atlanta commending our work.”
The nine- to 10-week program is an extracurricular activity aimed at fourth and fifth graders with an interest in art and design. The Atlanta offices of firms such as Perkins+Will, Gensler, and HOK—along with the firms Cooper Carry, TVSDesign, Stevens & Wilkinson, and Collins Cooper Carusi Architects—partner with art educators at each school to come in and share their knowledge of architecture with the youngsters. To ensure the successful implementation of the curriculum, a lead architect or volunteer from each firm coordinates the volunteers’ schedule and collaborates with the educator to build stronger relationships with the students.
Architects and designers can easily fit the time to volunteer in their work schedule, Harclerode notes. Perkins+Will architect Allen Post, AIA, and Gensler senior associate Gail Malone have held the role of lead architect for the Discover ARCHITECTURE program with their firms since 2012. “Even the principals donate their time, which means a lot both to the students and to any younger employees who might have initially been a little apprehensive about leaving work a little early to participate,” Harclerode said.
One of the goals of Discover ARCHITECTURE is to provide a hands-on creative outlet—or, as Harclerode puts it, “a friendly, affordable alternative to [the video game] Minecraft.” Students are encouraged to create building models with common household goods, and to understand the design process from the ground up. “Creativity is accessible and sustainable,” Harclerode says. “Instead of throwing something away, let’s find a second life, a way to reinvent and adapt the paper-towel roll or the shoebox.”
With the AIA National Convention in Atlanta (May 14-16), that sense of unfettered inspiration is being focused locally. The students of Discover ARCHITECTURE have been tasked with redesigning six of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, including the Georgia Dome, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, and John C. Portman Jr.’s revolutionary Hyatt Regency Atlanta. “We want to see how they’d design these buildings,” Harclerode says, “with all the color and imagination that comes with it.”
To help promote her mission, Harclerode has published Discover ARCHITECTURE (Primedia, 2014), which aims to engage students “about architecture, engineering, and green building … [and bring] the joy and the great benefits of the program to students and educators outside of Atlanta,” she says.
For more on Discover ARCHITECTURE, visit www.aiaatl.org/discover.