Project Pipeline

By Lorin Jackson

Having been in this conversation myself, I understand the thought process (or lack thereof) that goes into the architect’s rhetoric.  It is true that just about any time you ask an architect about his or her job, chances are s/he is going to be stressed out about something—there is a lot to think about (and quite frankly, that constant thought is what is necessary to get a building made) but to the point of my colleague, dissuading a young adult who is thinking about getting into the business is just the opposite—thoughtless.

Here is probably not a place to espouse my political beliefs, but I think that most would agree the world is getting scarier by the day.  The reasons are confounding and often disparate to the point that any solution could very well create more problems.  It would seem as if we, as a society, have found ourselves enraptured in a Gordian knot.  To me, there is only one way to move forward: take a deep breath and get to work.  The field of architecture is an excellent arena to do that.  There is a monumental amount of work to be done. The work is honest, and the work is rewarding.

Very few professions have the intrinsic system of checks and balances that the profession of architecture does.  One cannot talk their way around building a building.  If it's not on the page, it doesn't get built.  Only the truly creative can imagine a better world, but only architects can make it.  

At present, as a new father, I can remember the very moment the world changed--4:55 am, October 25, 2015.  The nightly news got scarier, the traffic got worse, the bad drivers became more dangerous, Chicago politics got more base, taxes got more expensive, winter got colder, summer got hotter, but everything always evens out.  The winter cold feels new, the sun, the sky, the trees are more beautiful.  Drivers are trying to get home to their own families.  Chicago politics are still the same.  Along with this flush of emotions has come a flush of old memories, remembering the way my dad showed me the world.  

I remember rounding the corner of a nondescript check-in counter at Disney World back in the 80's (Ray Parker Jr.'s Ghostbusters playing in the background), going through an arched doorway, passing an astro-turfed room, passing through a stony cavern and finding a waterfall enmeshed in soft, orange, glowing light.  Man, that was awesome as a six-year-old.  What type of mad person could create such a diabolically textured procession from boring to the ridiculous, the sublime?  An architect!  Who is responsible for the magic that comes from being a cubs fan?  It surely isn't the players.  It is the work of the architect, Zachary Taylor Davis, which delineated the way the sun comes through the stands, late in an afternoon game, that raises the spirits of families in an otherwise meaningless late-September game.  Even small moments of place and time can be special and world-building for a youngster.  One that comes to mind for me is the way the rain ran down the balustrade of the back of the Illini Union in Urbana.  This is the type of beauty I, and I think we all, walk right by as adults in our push towards the next thing on our itinerary.  Though this is not the way children see the world, and sometimes, even as adults, we are struck by the ordinary if we pay attention to the details.  These details are the realm of the architect...the making of moments for our friends, families, neighbors, people we never have or will get to meet.  Who wouldn't want to do that?  It just takes work--deliberate, painstaking and detailed work: the life of the architect.

This year was my first time ever hearing about Project Pipeline, but the moment I did, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. Each day, volunteers and students gathered at the Ida Noyes Hall on the campus of the University of Chicago early in the morning to start the days’ activities. It was a beautiful space to be in and even provided an educational environment as a classic gothic design. Breakfast was provided as students filtered in to work on their models. Tons of supplies were acquired through the project pipeline team’s relentless fundraising throughout the year. It was astounding to see the resources leveraged for such a powerful initiative.

For the 5th consecutive year, the Illinois Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (I-NOMA) hosted Project Pipeline, a nationwide architecture camp for students in grades 5 through 9. Under the leadership of Oswaldo Ortega and his amazing committee, I-NOMA’s Project Pipeline has become the largest in the country. This year there were over 80 students registered for the four-day camp. The camp consisted of instruction, team efforts, and lots of fun.

For the first day, the lesson focused on the human dimension, scale, and the functions of a home. The children were given time to work individually on the design of their home and then build a quarter inch scale model after a long lunch and recess.

By day 2, the kids were familiar with one another and were ready to work in small teams on civic spaces. They were challenged to think of programs for various sectors including healthcare, education, entertainment, and commerce. The team I helped mentor designed a movie theater, transit station, and daycare. The movie theater received an award for design excellence on the last day of the camp.

Day 3 was dedicated to programming and building a tower as one large team. The spaces could include anything they could dream up from hotels and office space to vertical farms and tourist attractions. The only real requirement was build it BIGGER! The tallest tower was over 20’ tall.

As the tower building grew in intensity (3 towers toppled before making it to the presentation floor) and the camp wound down on the last day, parents were able to come in and see their children’s work, as well as watch them “graduate” and receive awards for their designs. The prizes were great; most winners went home with Lee Waldrep’s Becoming an Architect and the opportunity to shadow a professional. Everyone received completion certificates and a project pipeline tote full of drawing and drafting supplies. 

What I love about this organization and specifically this camp is how much they are equipping the youth for viable futures in a creative, yet lucrative industry. This kind of exposure is priceless and it was amazing to see their interest at such a young age. One of my mentee’s told me she didn’t want to come to the camp at first, but she was really surprised and proud of what she was able to create with her team.

Project Pipeline is a huge undertaking, and lots of hard work, but the impact it has made brings hope for the future of the industry. It was a truly rewarding experience to be able to share some of what I have to offer as a mentor for younger students still deciding what they want to pursue in their education. I will definitely return next year, and encourage everyone in the building industry to find a way to give back to their youth and community!