Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Exploring Historic Preservation and Community Design with Philly Students

This past March, the Vaux Big Picture High School in Philadelphia participated in a unique educational program. The Center for Architecture and Design (CAD) and the Dox Thrash Project (DTP) partnered to plan the experience as part of CAD’s Architecture and Design Education (ADE) program. A group of 9th grade design students explored themes of history, legacy, and commemoration as it relates to the built environment.

The program consisted of a 3-day workshop that explored preservation, design, and art. Students explored the historic Sharswood neighborhood and considered how it has changed. Throughout the workshops, students became designers tasked to create something that would honor and interpret the history of their neighborhood.

I was lucky enough to contribute to the activity as a historic preservation professional and a volunteer of DTP. The other teachers for the program were:

  • Michael Spain, Director of Design Education, Center for Architecture and Design
  • Jihan Thomas, Visual Artist and Arts Educator, Dox Thrash Project Community Artist
  • Dana Rice, AIA, Associate at CICADA Architecture/Planning, inc., Volunteer with The Dox Thrash Project
  • Fran Arrieta, Architectural Designer at CICADA Architecture/Planning, Student at Drexel
  • Nana Biney, Assoc. AIA, Arch. Designer at CICADA Architecture/Planning, inc., Volunteer with The Dox Thrash Project

In the first session, students learned about Historic Preservation and how communities remember their history in traditional and non-traditional ways, such as historical markers, murals, monuments, parks, and temporary installations. Dana and I led the students on a walking tour and the students discussed how history and they see change in their neighborhood.

Group of people walk along a city sidewalk.

Vaux students walk through Sharswood with Dana, Alli, and Michael to observe how history is reflected in the built environment.

Students photographed anything that caught their attention. Some expressed interest in certain architectural details like doors or embellishments. Others appreciated the rhythms of streetscapes. The students also shared their opinions about vacant lots and new construction.

Students discussed why their neighborhood is important to them, what they like or don’t like about it, and what they think should change or not. Some students even visited parts of their neighborhood they had never seen before!

Group of people walk along a city street.

Students identified the flow of the built environment and purpose of spaces around them.

In the second session, students created their own landscape and architectural illustrations. Jihan introduced artwork of Dox Thrash and other artists to inspire the students.

They connected the way the artists depicted everyday life and interaction with their environment. Using the photos they took from the walking tour, students created two-dimensional collages of how they see and know their neighborhood.

Collage of photos and drawings on poster board.

A student’s collage interpretation from the walking tour and conceptualization of the neighborhood.

In the final session, students learned concepts like scale, spatial planning, and design. They expanded on their design from session 2 to celebrate the neighborhood’s lost history in the form of 3-D models. They rethought what a monument can be and how it can empower the community.

The end results from these sessions were vastly different and illustrated the students’ new skills. Here are a few of the results.

Paper and photo assembly of neighborhood buildings.

A student’s final conceptualization of a 3-D monument celebrating the neighborhood.

It was wonderful to see the students’ creative depths and expression when it came to reflecting on their community and its history. Jihan remarked, “the interdisciplinary atmosphere allowed students to explore their own personal narratives with their local landscape and the architecture that surrounds us everyday.”

Michael reflected, “Being able to see the students fully engaged with understanding and looking at their community through a new lens was extremely rewarding and the projects that they produced exhibited the design potential that each has.”

As the first collaboration between artists, architects, preservationists, and students, everyone involved believed it to be a huge success. We all hope we can repeat the program with other schools in Philadelphia in the near future.

More information about the groups involved:

Vaux Big Picture High School

Opened in 2017, Vaux Big Picture High School is a public, four-year neighborhood high school in the School District of Philadelphia primarily serving young people in the Sharswood neighborhood of North Philadelphia.

Vaux’s mission is to equip every Vaux graduate to find and walk their pathway to a successful career. They do this by centering students’ learning on their interests and passions, integrating career exploration and internships into our school curriculum, and creating a supportive and nurturing school environment focused on youth resilience and a restorative behavioral model.

Center for Architecture and Design, Art + Design Education

The Center for Architecture and Design’s mission is to engage and educate the public about the importance of architecture and design to the quality of their lives.

Our Architecture and Design Education (ADE) program is committed to exponentially expanding access to design education for K-12 students in Philadelphia. Diversity in the design and construction industry is woefully inadequate. One of our primary goals is to make more BIPOC and Latinx students aware of the career opportunities in design.

Dox Thrash Project

The Mission of The Dox Thrash Project is to promote the equitable preservation of historic legacies in underserved communities and places.

To this end they aim to leverage historic preservation as a tool to combat erasure and uplift the voices and narratives of the communities that have often been overlooked by typical historic preservation practice and policy. In this way the Dox Thrash Project seeks to promote the legacies of community empowerment, activism, and arts promoted and established by the artist Dox Thrash.

1 Comment

  1. Pamela Reilly

    What a great program– so innovative, creative and inclusive!

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