As they exited San Francisco's landmark Ferry Building one afternoon in December 2005, the 20 students from the Build San Francisco Institute were, to be honest, bent out of shape. These high school juniors and seniors, halfway through the yearlong design program cosponsored by the Architectural Foundation of San Francisco (AFSF) and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), had just presented their proposal to create a series of historically themed tiles for the city's newly redesigned Pier 14, a project they had been brainstorming for more than a month.
Going in, the group had been confident that their slick Microsoft PowerPoint presentation was an A+. Not quite attuned to the ways of city bureaucracy, however, they were dismayed at just how flat their plan had fallen in front of San Francisco Port Commission urban designer Dan Hodapp.
Casey Brennan, the chief Build SF instructor, recalls that high initial expectations mixed with the apparently negative response "had made the kids angry." There were even mutterings that they had been "dissed." There was a method to Hodapp's demanding critique, however. "I wasn't there to accept anything less than the kind of excellent product those kids were capable of," Hodapp says.
A key booster of the program, Hodapp emphasizes that a central precept of Build SF is that participants be exposed to the unvarnished realities of life in the highly competitive and often-contentious world of design and architecture.
Offering accredited courses with titles such as Architectural Design and Urban Sociology, today's Build SF is the offshoot of an after-school and summer program launched 13 years ago. In 2004, as a part of the SFUSD's Secondary School Redesign Initiative, the program was expanded to an all-afternoon, five-day-a-week schedule; two of those days are devoted to working with mentors from some of San Francisco's leading architecture, interior design, engineering, and contracting firms, along with certain city agencies involved in urban planning. The curriculum was designed to develop student interest in architecture-related fields and, more fundamentally, to immerse them in the process of meshing civic and business interests.
"It's not about building little architects," says Richard Hannum, a Bay Area design-firm principal and one of the AFSF's founders. "Rather, we use architecture as a vehicle to give kids with no community context an insight into, and a voice in, the public process." Boosting civic involvement was the central idea of the Pier 14 Tiles Project, as it was in the "big project" the year before, a student-produced documentary detailing the difficult housing choices offered by a controversial redevelopment project in San Francisco.
Chief instructor Casey Brennan guides students from many schools through the intricacies of urban planning.
Credit: Elena Dorfman
Back to the Drawing Board
Returning, chagrined and somewhat disheartened, to the former dot-com workplace that is Build SF's home, the kids had begun talking about ways to regroup and meet the challenge of their failed presentation.
They began to discuss what was wrong with it and recognized, first, that they were facing something very different from a class project turned in for a grade. The group members finally admitted that Hodapp might just have a point. "We were all over the board," says senior Justin Marks about their initial approach to the tile project. As professionals might do when a proposal hits a snag, they then began blocking out a better approach.
Hodapp had criticized their maritime-history theme as too unfocused, so they decided to narrow things down to a history called "Boats on the Bay." With this revision in mind, the team began preparing a new series of designs illustrating the various vessels that had helped shape the area's aquatic life, in much the same way a design firm might hone visual ideas before trying to sell them to a client.
After a week of what Brennan characterizes as "thrashing it out," the team marched back to the Port Commission with a new proposal. Public presentation is a basic skill Build SF promotes, and each of the kids, from the most outgoing to the shyest, took turns explaining a facet of the new approach. Their revised efforts received a positive response, although still not a green light; Hodapp urged them to go back and polish it one last time.
By then, the kids were getting the point. "I thought we did a really good job going back and improving our ideas even more," Marks says about the "A-ha!" moment when the kind of professional mind-set Build SF strives to impart clicked. Finally, on the third go-round, Hodapp and his team did indeed like what they saw. They also liked what was a perceptible shift in attitude. "Instead of 'what we want,'" Brennan says about the team's growing ability to listen to criticism, "they focused on what the client wanted."
Port Commission approval signaled the beginning of a new set of challenges. The Build SF team had to master the complex process of tile production, from drawing, tracing, and painting to glazing and firing, as well as overseeing installation. The class also had to realistically assess the talents of each member and assign tasks accordingly. Some of the students less accomplished as artists or designers came into their own as key team leaders whose organizational skills could help the project advance -- "our version of middle management," Will Fowler, the AFSF's programs director, says with a smile.
As the June 2005 deadline approached, the members of Build SF's team found themselves working into the night and even missing a few morning classes, but the hard work paid off. The tiles were installed on time, and Marks and his classmates were invited to an unveiling of their handiwork at a ribbon cutting attended by former San Francisco mayors Willie Brown and Art Agnos (the pier is named for the latter) and city dignitaries. "I've been back to Pier 14 to look at the tiles many times," Marks says about a successful project that allowed his team to, as he puts it, "make their civic mark." Equally important, he and his classmates are applying the real-world lesson about "taking advice and using it to go the next step" to such tasks as their college applications.
The Pier 14 Tiles Project provided exactly that kind of shock of recognition Build SF is designed to elicit. "Build SF is a bridge to the real world," says Brenda Ramirez, whose son began the program last September. "He sees where he wants to go, and now he understands what he needs to do to get there."
The ability to provide a bridge between education and business is exactly why Janet Schulze, principal at San Francisco's John O'Connell High School of Technology, is a Build SF booster. The program, she says, "is the fastest way to integrate academic skills into a real-world setting."
Schulze praises the effort San Francisco's design community dedicates to the program, particularly in terms of offering mentorships. "I'd love to see the medical and finance communities do something like it," she adds.
When Schulze talks about Build SF's ability to promote basic educational skills, she describes one of the program's core principles -- that subjects such as math, history, and writing have a larger context and are essential tools for conceptualizing, understanding, sketching, and building relevant and compelling real-world projects. "In a military academy, they don't teach trigonometry; they teach navigation," Hannum suggests by way of analogy. "And because you need trig for navigation, you learn it."
"We want the kids to understand that Build SF is more a design studio than it is a school." -- Will Fowler, AFSF programs director.
Credit: Elena Dorfman
Where Studio Means "Study"
On an early-October afternoon, the sound of jackhammers reverberates through the walls of Build SF's downtown studio. The nearby construction is an apt soundtrack for the dozen kids seated around tables, some hunched over PCs, working on assignments while others eat lunch.
The use of the term studio rather than the word classroom is not accidental. According to Fowler, "We want the kids to understand that Build SF is more a design studio than it is a school." Even the construction noise can't mask an indoor decibel level higher than what would be acceptable in most high school classrooms.
"This place does develop a certain hum," admits Alan Sandler, the foundation's executive director.
"It's supposed to be like a busy office," Fowler says about what he characterizes as "the real sound of learning. It shocks and delights them that they are encouraged to talk to each other."
None of this is to say that this early part of the school year isn't anarchic for both pupils and teachers. "It's always frustrating at the beginning," Hannum says. "It takes kids time to get over the idea that they have to raise their hands to speak. I tell them, 'We're not in class. We're adults, and if you have something to say, say it.'"
Fowler believes it takes about six weeks for the lessons to begin to sink in. "By January," he says, "they will be a well-oiled machine" -- ready, he adds confidently, to take on Build SF's next "big project." Sponsored by Adobe Youth Voices and the What Kids Can Do Foundation, the 2007 project will likely involve the design and publication of a book of photo essays in Internet collaboration with students in London and New Delhi.
On the instructional side, Build SF's insistence on treating kids like adults also takes getting used to. Accustomed to dealing with hundreds of kids in a traditional high school setting, Boston-area refugee Brennan admits she was nervous in 2005 when she began instructing at Build SF. "We were trained never to leave kids alone," she adds. "When Will Fowler first told me to 'walk away,' it was difficult."
"There is only one rule," Fowler explains. "When Casey says, 'Listen up,' they have to listen up." Which is exactly what they do as she reads off the names of leading San Francisco architecture, design, and engineering firms where the teens will be going this afternoon to start their mentorship programs.
"This is a big day, a day that changes kids' lives," Fowler says as he moves from student to student, checking progress on assignments. His critiques are brief and to the point. "Do a little math, Michael," he urges one student struggling with a three-dimensional room plan created with a computer-aided-design (CAD) program. "It's a conference center on the bay, and you don't have windows?" he asks another student in a surprised voice.
While structures take shape in miniature, students focus on stresses both physical and bureaucratic.
Credit: Elena Dorfman
Some projects, such as the design and building of a bridge with sets of Lego blocks, are meant to get kids from different schools comfortable with one another. "Students tend to spend their entire school careers with the same kids from the same neighborhoods," the AFSF's Alan Sandler says about the goal of opening up new vistas. "When they come here and leave their baggage behind, they're able to develop a different, adult, persona."
This year's Lego bridges, displayed along the studio's makeshift dividers, have remarkably distinct personalities. As Brennan shows them off, she offers an insight into their builders. Some of the designs are fantastical, others prosaic. "The kids who did this one are going to end up working for CalTrans," the state Department of Transportation, Brennan says about a no-nonsense bridge looking very much like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
The comings and goings at the Build SF studio continue throughout the afternoon as students arrive from their morning high school classes, go to work on their various projects, or move on to their assigned mentorships. Some stay throughout the afternoon, and others depart for after-school activities at their respective high schools. This open-endedness might strike some critics as an easy way to ditch school. For the Build SF team, however, it is a critical part of the program. "Maybe for the first time in their school careers, kids have to be responsible for their own time," Sandler says. "Our key motto is 'Trust the kids' -- treat them as professionals, and they will rise to the challenge each and every time."
Richard Rapaport is a journalist and consultant in San Francisco.