By Carlos Sadovi
Tribune staff reporter
October 8, 2007
Until this year, students in Jesse Berlanga's 10th-grade architecture class at Lane Tech High School were forced to use a textbook published in 1951, when computers were the size of buildings.
Berlanga first taught from the book when he began at the North Side school in 1979, and every year he has had to supplement, correct and outright dismiss it for his students.
"We still used this even though there were a lot of errors in it. Garages [for example] are not being constructed out of bricks anymore," he said. "We would warn them all the way along that this was not the way to do it anymore."
His students, along with about 1,500 others in similar architecture classes in more than 20 district schools, are now using "The Architecture Handbook: A Student Guide to Understanding Buildings," developed by the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Chicago Public Schools.
The 462-page book is the result of more than three years of work by about 100 people, including 40 Chicago-based architects, CPS teachers and former students. It's the first time CPS has teamed with industry officials to develop a textbook, said Jill Wine-Banks, officer of CPS' Education to Careers program.
"It was not just our teachers and famous architects, all the best architects in Chicago, our students participated in it [too]," Wine-Banks said. "It does reflect our great partnership with architects in Chicago and the architectural richness of Chicago. It really enriches our program and gives the students hands on, real-life work experience."
The idea for the book came in 2004, when Chicago Architecture Foundation officials, with representatives from six of the city's top architectural firms, and school officials met to discuss the architecture curriculum, said the foundation's Krisann Rehbein, who co-wrote the book with Jennifer Masengarb.
Rehbein said the book was overdue because the industry had changed with the advent of technology. In the past, high school students would learn drafting techniques they could use to get entry-level positions in architectural firms.
"Over the last three decades, the architecture industry has changed with the heavy reliance on the computer to do drafting," Rehbein said. "What firms are looking for are students who are well-rounded, who have creative thinking skills and who can solve problems and who have the technological capabilities."
The writers focused on integrating more math, science and history lessons, said Masengarb, the book's lead writer. There are also writing exercises that call on students to prepare letters to prospective clients outlining their plans.
"Architecture naturally makes all these interdisciplinary links," she said. "Architects have to think about the math of a building, they have to think about the science of a building, the history of a building in a neighborhood or how it looks as art."
Although the book contains examples from around the world, it relies heavily on Chicago architecture, Masengarb said. It also focuses on green architecture, which calls on environmentally friendly designs that may include solar power, rooftop gardens and alternative building materials, she said.
"Within the architecture profession, architects see green sustainable issues as something that is really going to dominate from now on," she said.
In addition to the schools, 10 foundations, including the National Endowment for the Arts, helped fund the project. Three thousand books were printed, half of which will be sold to other U.S. districts. CPS paid cost for the books, and a percentage of the money from the others will go toward a scholarship fund for CPS students, Wine-Banks said.
In a recent class, Berlanga's students worked on computers instead of at drafting tables with T-squares, paper and pencils. They used software to follow book plans on designing a city block instead of the old book's focus on a plan for an uninsulated summer home.
"It's a total package," Berlanga said. "This is so comprehensive in terms of what it has in it that I don't think I would ever, ever finish doing all the activities in here."
Arturo Villalpando, 15, said he likes the fact that in addition to architecture, the book also discusses other professions available in the building-trades field. He would like to study architecture in college, he said, but may decide to follow relatives into the construction field.
As he worked with classmate Vince Cerone on their project, he said the focus on green architecture shows how rewarding the profession can be.
"It seems really challenging because you have a lot of dimensions and a lot of work to do. It's the future, you save energy for people who don't have much money," Villalpando said.
Tiffany Tran, 16, said she liked the book's interviews with architects, many from Chicago, and may consider a career in the field.
"It helps on your work in class. We can use some of the architect's perspectives to help us work on what we want," Tran said. "These architects actually have a passion for building and they have a purpose for building it."
Along with lessons, book offers trivia
The Chicago Public Schools' new architecture book includes a Did You Know feature of interesting factoids:
- Rectangular blocks: In 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote guidelines that called for surveyors
to divide territory west of the Appalachian Mountains into rectangles. Rectangular city
blocks evolved from this trend.
- Curved paths: In some parts of Africa, China and Japan, the gardens and paths to the front
door of a home have a curve. These designs arose from a belief that evil spirits could
travel only in straight lines.
- Powder rooms: The term began in the 1700s to describe a small room or closet where a
man or woman would go to comb, adjust and add more white powder to their wig. It now
refers to a small bathroom with a sink and toilet.
- Concrete: The ancient Romans invented and perfected concrete, which could be formed
into any shape to help hold up stone structures. The Romans were the first to combine
arches and vaults in their buildings.
Source: "The Architecture Handbook: A Student Guide to Understanding Buildings," published by the Chicago Architecture Foundation.