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'90s FAMILY : Playing House : Think architecture is too tough for children? Not at Kids' Studio, where they explore design and mood.

November 15, 1995|LEON WHITESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You're never too young to imagine fantastic buildings, to learn how to create spaces that excite you or make you feel good, to explore the endless range of shapes and volumes that make up the rich vocabulary of design.

That belief is shared by Russian-born architect Alla Kazovsky, artist Susan Thacker, and the group of children ages 4 to 15 they instruct in a new series of children's architecture workshops at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

The workshop was Kazovsky's inspiration. A graduate of USC and Columbia, she heads Kids' Studio in West Los Angeles, which specializes in creating environments for children. She is also sponsor of an exhibition of children's drawings, "Create a Fantasy World of Your Own," on view at the Venice Public Library through November.

On Saturday mornings a dozen children ages 4 to 8 gather in one of SCI-Arc's vast studios. (The older children meet in the afternoon.) There, Kazovsky and Thacker have laid out long sheets of white paper on the floor and scattered crayons, piles of blocks, lumps of clay, and bowls filled with colored plastic bits and pieces for the children to work with.

As soon as they arrive the youngsters run to the materials and get to work sketching, arranging the blocks into structures and shaping the clay.

At the start of the two-hour session, the kids are urged to explore and experiment without instruction. "To begin with, we want them to be surprised, and to surprise us," Thacker says. "That way they get over any original shyness. Then we gently lead them to begin to learn some basic architectural ideas."

In the first session of the five-week class, the children choose a fictional "client" from the array of figures supplied by their teachers. The clients include G.I. Joe, Minnie Mouse and the villainess Cruella De Vil from "101 Dalmatians." The kids create what they think is the right kind of environment for each figure.

Nathan Fields, 8, puts his G.I. Joe in a clay Army tank with his head sticking out of the turret. "G.I. Joe's a strong guy," he explains. "He watches out for people." Cruella, on the other hand, is buried in the heart of a deep block pyramid by Thacker's daughter, Jade, "because she's so evil."

These exercises of the imagination lead children back to the historical basics of building, Kazovsky explains. "They have an instinctive understanding of the primal shapes, such as pyramids, caves and chambers, that make up the elements of architecture. We help them to think about those elements consciously."

The children seem entranced. Watching her 5-year-old daughter, Brianna, Ronnie Kassorla says the little girl enjoys the architecture workshop best of all the classes she attends each week. "Brianna can't wait to get here on Saturday morning, and I think it's a wonderful exposure for her to the way the world is organized."

"My son has always been a builder," says actress Rutanya Alda of 8-year-old Jeremy. "As soon as he could walk he was making cities out of Lego, exploring how structures stand up. This workshop is a wonderful experience."

*

Midway through the session, the class moves outdoors to a round brick dome built by adult students in the SCI-Arc parking lot. The dome is a primal shape, a full-size version of the kinds of structures the children have just devised. In the dome, Kazovsky and Thacker show their young pupils cardboard models of various kinds of rooms and ask them how each space affects them.

Which room feels safer? Which space seems bigger? What makes the difference?

The first room has no windows and a tiny door. Peering in, the children say the room is dark, scary and "yucky." As the model rooms add larger and larger doors, windows and skylights, the comments become more excited and cheerful. "I feel safe in this space," says Adam Weinberg. "It's real cool. I'd like to live here."

Kazovsky and Thacker ask the kids to think about how the same space can be made to look and feel different to express various moods. "New paint," one child suggests. "Lots of light," adds another. "Air conditioning," says a third, evoking laughter.

"Each workshop is a two-way street," Thacker says. "The kids lead us as much as we lead them. We don't lecture them. Rather, we help each one find his or her own way toward expressing their particular emotions about spaces. After all, architecture is fundamentally about feeling."

Back in the studio, the children set about designing their own private rooms. In this exercise the class learns how a two-dimensional drawing of a room plan can represent a three-dimensional reality. Jade's room has a trampoline bed and walls that are "super cushiony so I can bounce around." Nathan's room is furnished with a big TV set and an indoor pool, while Brianna's has a birthday cake in the middle of the floor.

As they draw, each child makes up a story about the room. Adam's space is a secret room that only he can enter--no parents allowed. Jeremy's is a "perfect" room where everything's arranged for his pleasure.

"Our aim in these sessions is to get the kids to enjoy exploring spatial concepts," Kazovsky says. "We help them look at the buildings they see all around them with new eyes, and begin to understand how they're put together. And we want them to experiment with all the possible shapes architecture can include.

"Maybe none of the kids will grow up to be architects, but we feel the experience will excite their imaginations and give them a coherent notion of the world they live in."

* The Children's Architecture Workshops run Saturday mornings and afternoons at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, 5454 Beethoven St., Los Angeles. A new series will begin in December. Cost is $200. Phone: (213) 655-4028.

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