Architecture firm celebrates design: Its own and a building program for children | St. Louis Public Radio

Architecture firm celebrates design: Its own and a building program for children

Sep 28, 2015

With middle age comes maturity and often maturity brings resources, making it possible to look around and discover how one can help out in the community. It’s wonderful when you land on something appropriate, something close to home, and something that just might make a difference in someone’s life. For the Mackey Mitchell Architecture firm, The Alberti Program-Architecture for Young People presented such a possibility.

Mackey Mitchell is almost a half-century old. The Alberti Program is almost 10 years old. Alberti is for children, and it is named for Leon Battista Alberti, the 15th century polymathic Florentine genius whose animated intelligence and aesthetic prowess seemed to know no boundaries.

The Mackey Mitchell firm began life when Eugene Mackey III cantilevered himself over a torrent of competitive and financial risks and set up a one-man architecture firm. Architecture and art were in his blood. His father Eugene Mackey Jr. not only practiced architecture but also taught at the architecture school at Washington University. Young Gene rented an  office in a good building downtown and moved in. Now, two years shy of a half a century of ups and downs but ultimate survival and success, the firm has hundreds of projects to its credit in St. Louis and Missouri and Illinois and around the United States and the world.

And now also, Mackey and his colleagues are involved in this Washington University-based project. As the firm's brand new website notes, it is "a problem-solving studio workshop about architecture, community, and the environment for fourth- through ninth-grade students from St. Louis schools."

The Alberti Program, like the genius for whom it is named, is designed to find variety in the world of creativity, a world in which children are encouraged to experiment. If there is a requirement, it is sustainability, a noble requirement indeed. The dean of the architecture college, Bruce Lindsey, designed the program for any youngster who shows an interest in architecture and design, but he was particularly keen to offer it to boys and girls who can’t afford this sort of experience.

The program operates out of Washington U’s Architecture College, but has the resources of the St. Louis region as its classroom, especially Forest Park. It is a year-round program, with Saturday classes during the school year, and week-long classes, with lunches prepared by Washington University students, in the summer.

Tonight Mackey Mitchell will celebrate this new website, which includes a page devoted to the Alberti Program.

Professor Gay Lorberbaum, a member of Lindsey's faculty, has for years given material form to her instinctive ideas about the built world, and the whole world for that matter, especially where young students are involved. Older, college-age students are drawn to her dedication to ideas and to children, and many of them end up working in one program or another of hers. For example, a dozen years or so ago, she and grad students designed and built an outdoor classroom at the Adams Schools in Forest Park Southeast. Young students were encouraged to join in where possible.

[Alberti Fall 2014] DAY ONE from WUSTL Alberti on Vimeo.

Lorberbaum said last week, “Bruce wanted kids in the city to learn about design, and with me, it is about sustainable design, and they come from all over. Bruce wanted those who couldn’t afford programs about two- and three-dimensional problem solving.”

The teachers, she said, are students, but others, such as Tom Peterson and his significant other, Sue Pruchnicki – both architects – volunteer time and expertise, too.

Peterson is a partner in the Mackey Mitchell firm. Pruchnicki works at the firm of Bond + Wolfe Architects. They live in a 1914 building that started life as a telephone company facility near Carondelet Park in south St. Louis. When they acquired it, it had lain vacant for five years. They are gradually renovating the building. The neighbors assumed these architects would slice it up into condominiums; that wasn’t the case. They live there in square-foot luxury with two border collies, one of which tries to climb trees. 

Their experiences in this complex and fascinating process serve as a backdrop for the Alberti classes, Peterson said. “It’s a good, real life example of the work involved in design and construction – but perhaps as important, a way to learn creativity, problem solving and sustainability."

Peterson, in Albertian fashion, is a woodworker as well as an architect, and that is another skill he can share with the students. Another process high on his list of things to teach the children – no saws, hammers or chisels are involved, thus intellectual rather than hands-on -- is making certain you’re focused on and working on the right problem.

He told of a friend who was rehabbing a building, and his strategy was to move from one room to another – when one room as finished he’d move to another. And while that worked, he continued to live in a rather Sisyphean atmosphere distinguished not only by the perception of eternal unfinishedness but also of chaos, paint fumes, plaster dust and so forth. However, another part of the overall plan was to create a separate apartment for guests, which he decided to leave until last. Suddenly it dawned on him that if he constructed the guest apartment first, he could live there in relative comfort, while proceeding with the larger rehab project.

“It’s a good lesson for kids,” Peterson said.

Good for grownups too.

Also good for grownups is to kick loose and to celebrate accomplishments, so tonight Mackey Mitchell and invited friends will celebrate its new website and ballyhoo it. There also will be some promoting going on about a program aimed at teaching boys and girls about the exciting and challenging work of building buildings, while making friends by working and thinking together, and maybe building relationships too – strong, useful, satisfying -- and designed to last for a long, long time.