Scale Rule introduces minority group pupils to architecture with hands on experience and a built project at the end of it

As-built in summer 2017, the ribbon-bedecked pavilion/bridge became a social rendezvous.
As-built in summer 2017, the ribbon-bedecked pavilion/bridge became a social rendezvous. Credit: Richard Winter

Next Generation Design Pavilion Clerkenwell, London

Scale Rule for Media 10 and St James’s Church, Clerkenwell, London

A project called ‘Next Generation Design’ sounded intriguing, so when Steven Kennedy of Grimshaw – by coincidence one of the first year’s intake of the RIBAJ’s ‘Rising Stars’ – contacted me last year to ask if I’d like to join the Scale Rule judging panel one Sunday for this intensive design charette for 13-16 year old secondary school pupils, I was keen. And what a rewarding day it turned out to be for me, and a whole weekend and more for those taking part. Here were groups of pupils from schools where at least 30% of the students qualify for free school meals, given a brief to design a pavilion, helped through mentored workshops – and the winner would actually get built. They all loved this, the competing groups cheered each other on at the presentations of their models and drawings. The embarrassed and tongue-tied as well as the confident ones were all given support and a fair hearing from their peers in what turned out to be something of a party atmosphere.

The Scale Rule idea is irreproachable: at a time when social mobility is on the wane and careers in architecture and engineering are increasingly out of reach for many because of the length and expense of the training, here is a bit of genuine outreach. Professionals pitch in to demystify their work, encourage design ideas and teach practicalities, so helping to make architecture and engineering seem possible university and career options for young people who might not normally even consider them. 

‘Cultivating an inclusive array of architects and designers for the future is a responsibility all those working in the profession must share if we are to achieve the balance and diversity the industry desperately needs,’ says Scale Rule’s Philip Isaac. ‘Too few students from low income families and ethnic minorities take up careers in architecture – so can it really be considered an open and inclusive profession?’ The idea is that if architecture is meant to represent the communities it serves, those doing the designing should come from right across society as well. It’s hard to argue with that.

  • Translating a rough concept into reality – Scale Rule’s isometric of 2017’s winner.
    Translating a rough concept into reality – Scale Rule’s isometric of 2017’s winner.
  • One of the Scale Rule Design workshops with school students.
    One of the Scale Rule Design workshops with school students. Credit: Erica Choi
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Scale Rule is sponsored by Grimshaw, engineer AKT II, the Institution of Structural Engineers, Media 10 (organiser of Clerkenwell Design Week), building materials supplier Jewson and others including around 15 architects and engineers acting as mentors and casual building labourers. After all, someone’s got to build the design. Also key to this – for enabling and encouraging the location of the project in its grounds for a few months in the summer – is St James’ Church Clerkenwell, where the vicar Andrew Baughen took an active role. 

The 2017 round – the second, and there’ll be a third this summer – teamed around 30 students with 15 architects and engineers, so the pupil:teacher ratio was amazingly good. A weekend of workshops followed, the brief being to make a pavilion that was a social gathering place. Judging this marked the end of the first phase, and learning to present such a project was all part of the process for the pupils – though I hasten to add that we kept this well away from the humiliation-and-tears crit approach still favoured by some academics at architecture schools. We too wanted to cheer on the work being presented after such an intensive process. And we were struck by how good so much of it was. The winner was a group of three young women from the Lister Community School in Newham, East London – one wanted to be an architect, one an engineer and one a designer (they prefer not to be named). Theirs was also the most ambitious entry, involving an S-shaped bridge structure, its curving ends enclosing sheltered places to sit while passers-by were encouraged to ‘sign’ the building with colourful ribbons.

NGDP Pavillion
NGDP Pavillion Credit: Richard Winter

Then the judges departed and so came the equally valuable second phase where the mentors worked with the students to make their concept buildable – and, via construction drawings, built it. It is not just the school students who benefit from this: for some of the young architect and engineer mentors, this was the first time they had seen a project right through to hands-on completion. Scale Rule is proving popular with professional volunteers for just this reason. 

So this is an unusual project, more about the process than the ‘pop-up’ product, which lasted for some three months and provided a summer-long built legacy for Clerkenwell Design Week. I hoped they would enter it for MacEwen and, at the very last moment, they did. It’s a great initiative and I hope to see some of those who take part enter the profession before too long.


 

Credits

St James’s Church

Scale Rule

Grimshaw

Institution of Structural Engineers

AKT II

Richard Winter

Erica Choi

Jewson

Philip Buckingham

The Access project

Clerkenwell Design Week