Children and architecture II

Parent and child on street in Amsterdam. (Photomontage by David Brussat)

Parent and child on street in Amsterdam. (Photomontage by David Brussat)

A commenter, reading in a recent post (“Children and architecture,” Aug. 8) on this blog an excerpt from a column I wrote for the Providence Journal in early 2001, asked to see the rest of the column, so here it is.

Children as experts on architecture
March 8, 2001

IMAGINE A MAN and his son, or, if you prefer, his daughter, walking along a street. It’s a street in the center of a city in Europe. As American tourists, they have been admiring a streetscape that has evolved over centuries into a set of buildings as remarkable for its variety as for its unity of ornate, lively, urbane architecture. Then they come upon an abstract thud of glass and steel built, obviously, in the last few decades. The boy (or girl), who is nine, stops short and says:

“That building sticks out like a sore thumb.”

“It’s modern architecture, son.”

“I don’t like it.”

“I think the architect was making a statement.”

“I thought architects were supposed to make buildings. Can’t they pass a law against architects who make statements?”

The father takes his pipe from his mouth, smiles, and they continue walking. He explains that “each building has to reflect its era.”

“Its error?”

“No, son, its era, its period in history.”

“Oh. Well, I guess you must be right, dad.”

They round the corner and disappear from view.

Let’s analyze their conversation. The father has just revealed to his son the conventional wisdom of architecture. The boy’s simple attitudes about buildings have just become a bit more complex, mature, nuanced, subtle – in short, a bit more confused.

Like his father, the son has more experience of architecture than of almost anything else. The boy has seen buildings from his earliest days, as soon as he was able to perceive, even before he knew what a building was, or how to spell it. Every time he steps outside, everywhere he goes, he sees buildings, and his attitude toward them has developed along with his attitudes toward everything else in his life: adults, siblings, food, animals, friends, cars, teachers, strangers, television, etc.

The earliest architectural distinctions in the life of a child probably arise from the houses of relatives and friends – a rich uncle lives in a large Georgian Revival; a school chum lives in a modest ranch.

But the clearest distinctions probably come from family trips. Many tourist sites feature a sense of place created by architecture. San Francisco’s Nob Hill, Boston’s Beacon Hill, Newport’s Bellevue Avenue, Providence’s Benefit Street, San Antonio’s Paseo del Rio, Florida’s Key West, Hollywood’s celebrity homes, Canada’s Québec City, Disney’s Main Street, many old, intact American town squares, almost anyplace in Europe: Most buildings, historic houses, museums, etc., that parents take the kids to see are of traditional design.

The message is not lost on children. As they grow older, a subconscious, inchoate, simplistic belief forms in their minds, without exactly being installed by adults, that the old buildings with gables, balusters, cornices, pediments and other quaint details are prettier than most new buildings, which are glitzy and yet sterile.

This is the intelligent attitude toward architecture that almost all children, I suspect, carry into adolescence, only to be baffled and contradicted by most of what adults seem to believe, what they build, and what the experts proclaim to be worthy of respect.

A week ago, at the Rhode Island Foundation, I attended a fascinating seminar sponsored by the Dunn Foundation, which promotes awareness of community character and appearance, especially among children. Spurred on by this week’s Brown/Journal conference on “The Dignity of Children,” my own largely undeveloped ideas on children’s attitudes toward architecture unfolded as you have seen above.

You may carp that those ideas fit in too snugly with my belief that the vast majority of adults, unless taught otherwise, prefer traditional to modern architecture. Frankly, I can’t see how childhood attitudes toward architecture might otherwise evolve to become adult attitudes. Adult attitudes toward architecture are increasingly important as the public takes, as it should, a greater role in the design of buildings and public spaces. Unlike arts that we may choose to view or not, like poetry, painting or drama, architecture is in our face all the time, from childhood to old age. The public – with more of its childlike good sense intact – is a better judge of architecture than most experts.

But all children, as they grow up, find it difficult to resist the conventional wisdom that surrounds them. Many go to college and become adults steeped in confusion, afraid of the feelings that call to them from childhood. Many become experts, trained in schools of architecture or urban design to confidently assert the obviously not true. Among these are the architects, planners, developers, design-review panelists and critics who brought us to where we are today.

Even the imaginary kid described up above knew enough to roll his eyes at his father’s foolishness.


Copyright © 2001. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_99333

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
This entry was posted in Architects, Architecture, Architecture Education, Art and design, Blast from past, Books and Culture, Providence Journal, Urbanism and planning. Bookmark the permalink.

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