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Watch ’70s Frank Gehry teach kids to build a city

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A very young version of the future Pritzker winner turns the classroom into Kid City

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Before Frank Gehry won a Pritzker Prize, before he created defining projects such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao or the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and even before his home in Santa Monica, California and early projects in neighboring Venice began establishing his signature vision, he was just a mustachioed architect teaching kids about design.

In 1971, filmmaker Jon Boorstin shot a short documentary about then-42-year-old Gehry’s efforts to help his younger sister, schoolteacher Doreen Nelson, test out an architecture-based curriculum on Los Angeles school children. The program took students out of Westminster Elementary School in Venice every Wednesday to build their own city. Gehry felt that unless kids learned something beyond rote skills, by sixth grade “the faucet was off and they were no longer open to ideas.”

During the course of the short film, children build a city, called Purium, out of blocks and cardboard, then debate planning issues and even elect a mayor. As he prompts and directs the students, Gehry touches on issues of planning and land ownership, the same issues central to any large-scale architecture practice.

The teaching method, called City Building Education, was short-lived at Westminster. The class proved too chaotic for the children’s regular teacher, who fired Gehry and Nelson. “The point she missed,” Gehry says in the film, “is that the conflict, when they start arguing with each other, is the real involvement in the city planning process that they were robbed of.”

But that was far from the end. Nelson, now a professor and AIA member, went on to pioneer a version of the curriculum that could be used in schools across the country.

“When I began my career in education in 1960, I found that traditional ways of teaching were not leading to student success,” Nelson recalls. “Using our methodology, students learn how to problem-solve by applying essential 21st century workforce skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.”

In addition to earning endorsements from artists and luminaries including Ray Eames, sculptor Claes Oldenburg, and Apple computer legend Alan Kay, it’s still being used. Now renamed Designed Based Learning, Southern California Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Education and Integrative Studies has offered certification in Nelson’s method for 30 years.

“I’m not teaching kids to be designers; I’m teaching them to think,” she says in the film. “But architecture needs creative thinking, and if people learn how to think creatively, they might be interested in studying architecture.”