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MATTER OF COURSE: Summer Academy

The Boston Architectural College

Students finish up studio projects during the last week of BAC’s Summer Academy. Photo: Sam Rosenholtz

One probably shouldn’t call the Boston Architectural College’s four-week-long Summer Academy “summer camp for architecturally inclined high schoolers,” but that is what I took it to be. I mean that as a compliment. The Summer Academy looked like a whole lot of fun, with the added benefit of introducing teenagers to some of the fundamentals of a little-understood profession.

The Academy convened for four weeks in July, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the BAC’s vast, airy third-floor open studio. The building, an elegantly rehabbed Boston police station, is an inspiring place to hang out, design-wise, but never mind that. This year the Academy had 65 students, divided into six classes. A pair of teachers, most of them recruited from either BAC’s own grad students or from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, oversaw each group.

Each of the four weeks had a separate theme, such as mapping the city, defining a neighborhood, or designing a living space using only containers. “We realize that not all of these boys and girls are going to end up being architects,” says course director Henry Miller. “We want to teach problem solving. We’re cross-disciplinary, with some industrial design, some computer boot camp, and some architecture. It’s not Drafting 101.”

I visited the Academy three times during the summer, and on each occasion I saw plenty of energy, creativity, and, yes, fun. Although it’s true that the BAC studio commands a jaw-dropping, 270-degree view over Boylston Street and the Back Bay, the kids spent plenty of time tramping around various neighborhoods fulfilling specific assignments.

Learning in Action

Students get practical experience in architecture at the Boston Architectural College four-week Summer Academy.

 
 
 
 

One of my favorites was Addition/Subtraction: The students examined a familiar Boston site, say Kenmore Square, and were asked to remove one item and substitute a better one. Mike Bibbey of Burlington, who attends Buckingham Browne & Nichols, installed a reflecting pool in the place of Kenmore’s unsightly “transit hub” and threw some sky bridges across the square for good measure, to help pedestrians navigate the treacherous five-way intersection. “It’s kind of boring right now,” Bibbey observed.

Another team removed a six-story building at the corner of Hereford Street and Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay and substituted a recreational facility with a climbing wall and obstacle course in its place. Whatever happened to zoning, I asked John Simonetti, a Providence-based architect overseeing this team. “I understand that the Back Bay Neighborhood Association would throw us in jail for this,” he answered. “It’s what we call architectural license.”

The Academy also offered some neat field trips, including a visit to NADAAA, the award-winning design firm in the nearby South End. “We expected them to be in a skyscraper, but they were in this really sketchy little brown building where you had to buzz in,” Shereen Lahlali, a rising senior at Winthrop High School, told me. “We had trouble finding it. I thought it would be 10 times bigger. It’s smaller than the Apple Store.”

The NADAAA visit revealed some inconvenient truths about the architecture profession. “I didn’t realize it might take three months to build a model,” said Bruna Bonnet, a rising junior from Medford High School. “I thought they could do it in three days.” Another unpleasant fact: architects’ salaries. “We thought it was a top paying job, paying about $90,000,” Bonnet said. “Turns out it’s more like $50,000.”

Speaking of money, the 2015 Summer Academy cost $1,500, with scholarship money available from the Robert Houseman Fund, intended to promote diversity in architecture (16 students received some aid this year). I know off-in-the-woods-with-mosquitoes summer camps that cost more, and they don’t have 3-D printers, laser cutters, and CNC (Computer Numerical Control) routers for the kids to play with.

The summer ended with a Friday evening party, the BAC studio jam-packed with students, mentors, and self-conscious parents all trying to navigate around the dozens of models and drawings laid out on tables and tacked up to the walls. I saw about 50 ways of mangling variously sized shipping containers into dwelling spaces and also a dramatic rethinking of the corner of Chestnut and Charles streets on Beacon Hill. Forget that dowdy frame store! Dorchester’s Sasha Paul (Newton Country Day School), Priya Skell (Needham High), and Omar Selim (Cambridge School of Qatar) erected a spherical boutique concert hall in its place. The Beacon Hill Civic Association has yet to comment on their plans.

At the party, BAC vice president James Ryan delivered a short pep talk, praising the students’ designs: “This work is as good as what we see in our first-year or second-year design studios,” he said. That’s probably right, and I suspect the summer fun quotient beats the regular school year by a long shot.

Alex Beam writes a column for The Boston Globe and is working on a book about Vladimir Nabokov. “Matter of course” visits exceptional architecture classes at New England schools.

Students finish up studio projects during the last week of BAC’s Summer Academy. Photo: Sam Rosenholtz