Teens Envision New Spaces For Seattle

An important factor when considering public space design is the diversity of the people who will populate those places, the kind of energy they'll bring, and the kinds of activities and environment that will attract them and hold their interest. One group that is often overlooked by the voting-age public and the adults who plan and construct these spaces: teenagers. If Seattle youth had a say in what our public spaces would look like, what would they design? The Seattle Art Museum decided to find out.

Teaming up with some local architects and designers, a group of staff at the SAM presented Seattle teens with a creative summer program called "Re+Vision: Design Your (Neighbor)hood." The free, six-week program offered middle- and high-school students the chance to immerse themselves into the world of urban arts and architecture, city planning and design, giving the select group access to local professionals, introducing them to design techniques and software, and offering them the chance to collaboratively work on new ideas for youth-oriented spaces for Seattle. You can read about their experiences, and see lots of pictures, on the group's blog.

Although many of the students grew up in the Seattle area, they still learned a lot about the city that they were never aware of. Aaron Jamroski, 16, was interested to find that “we have a very unique architecture scene, and many of our buildings were made by world-famous architects.” And Blake Matthews, 15, was encouraged that "people like us, civilians, have a say or opinion on what types of buildings we have."

The students devoted three weeks to a capstone project, where they did site studies, conducted peer interviews, and finally created their own original concepts for an addition to Seattle's landscape. The challenge, according to program instructor Chelsea Green: "Design another Seattle Art Museum space that specifically inspires and engages Seattle teens." The project's constraints were that the space needed to be located within the triangular urban area between the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Asian Art Museum and Olympic Sculpture Park, and all participants were to consider the environmental impact of their concepts as well as accessibility for all.

Last night, the group presented their original designs in front of an audience at the Sculpture Park. What follows is a small sample of the ideas they created:

Design by Hanh Nguyen, 16

“My design has eight transportation pods to connect all three SAM sites. The pods are rounded-squares that run on elevated tracks powered by electricity. The first time I rode the Seattle monorail I noticed its interiors were plain. I designed my pods to be colorful, with different moods and shifts in view. Artists might make books that they have enjoyed come to life inside the pods. My 3-D model shows the book The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. As the pods move the riders will hear brief announcements saying details about the three SAM sites, like how the Olympic Sculpture Park was once toxic and is now clean and beautiful. My project is for elders, teens and adults. I see these free transportation pods helping people be more involved with SAM.”

Design by Lily Anderson, 16

“Three ideas came when I began the design problem of connecting the three SAM sites —a teen art studio, a stage and a bike cooperative. I developed the bike idea because it was the most exciting. Pollution-free transportation could literally and symbolically connect the three Museums. What better way to connect art to life than to transform the task of getting to your destination? My project allows people to see art in their lives while being part of the art making process. Local teens and artists will redesign old bikes. The cyclists will be able to bike for a few hours to an entire day. They will also be free to see art is not just inside the Museum but everywhere in between.”

Design by Blake Matthews, 15

“It’s cool to update something familiar and make it new. This is part of why my concept uses the tree house. I’ve always liked tree houses. But I’ve never had one. That’s why I built a Teen Tree House. The tree house has a gentle and nature-filled environment, created by sounds and lights. The top of the tree house is where teens can relax or learn about the three art museums that inspired this building. I selected Volunteer Park as the tree house’s location because it’s on one of Seattle’s highest hills. Teens and other parts of the public can have a view of downtown Seattle while being suspended in the air. Visitors can also come and draw whatever they want on the back graffiti wall.”

In the process of designing, the students got a taste of what professional planners and designers are up against. In the words of Miyuki Wong, 13, “I found out that space (where your design) is located has a lot to do with the final idea.” And Nate Anderson, also 13, had a similar observation: "You could have a lot of ideas, but there would be a lot of requirements to fulfill."

And in the end, they showed that they were starting to grasp a larger picture. As Wong put it, “Having people-friendly spaces would really help [make a city great]. And Seattle could learn that really contemporary buildings, for example, the Seattle Public Library, attract a lot of people." And in Jamroski's words, “I think other cities can learn to be more green and learn to use the surrounding natural environment.” Several of the students, like 16-year-old Billy Chandler and 17-year-old Chloe Morris, expressed an interest in going on to pursue careers in design, architecture and engineering.

All of the visions the teens came up with were thoughtful and wildly creative, incorporating practical considerations like handicap-accessibility and energy-saving designs into exciting concepts like community arts centers, a hybrid fountain/performance stage that would serve as a park gathering spot, and a ski lift to carry Seattleites on an arts tour through the sky.

Want to see more? Their work will remain on display in the Alvord Art Lab at the Olympic Sculpture Park through August 22, 2008.