Professor profile: Playing with successful design

Nils Gore, associate professor of architecture

There’s an old saying that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. It turns out all study and no play makes for a less-prepared architecture student.

In a new KU YouTube video, Nils Gore, associate professor of architecture, talks about using play in the classroom, having students handle building materials as part of education and students taking part in public service projects in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Gore believes in having his students “play” as part of their classes. Before designing buildings professionally, they try new things in a setting unlike the traditional classroom setting.

“I started using play as a way of having students come to solutions that they wouldn’t otherwise have,” Gore said. “Through accident, through serendipity, from learning vicariously through their classmates. Students are geared toward success all the time. If you term it as play it takes the fear away, and it makes it kind of a lower stakes game, so that if they fail on one of their play experiments, it’s not a big deal.”

While Gore’s students are playing in class and when they’re working on projects, they get their hands dirty. Instead of simply talking about designing a building and letting someone else worry about building it, the students handle the materials and learn how to do the work of constructing a building. The practice makes a more well rounded architect.

“It’s really very possible for me to design something that can’t be built by somebody else,” Gore said. “Now if I’ve had to engage in some aspect of that (building) experience when I was a student in college, that may give me some insight into what a person out in the field is going to be facing. And my hope is I’ll be able to be smarter about what I design so that the outcome, when it’s all done, meets my expectations.”

As students learn to design and build projects in the real world, they’ve been able to put those skills to use to serve others, before they leave school. After Hurricane Katrina, Gore’s classes partnered with a New Orleans neighborhood to help revitalize their shared community. A city bursting with culture, KU’s School of Architecture, Design and Planning worked with a neighborhood organization known as “the Porch” to help retain and revitalize the spirit of community and the arts.

“After Katrina we decided as a school that we wanted to do something. There was a lot of need down there. We could provide both help, and lessons for our students if we went down there,” Gore said. “We built notice boards. This was before they had electricity, before they had Internet back and they wanted some sort of means to post information in the neighborhood. We built a tool shed, a shade structure, a mobile stage so they could have performances. As part of their cultural center, we built an outdoor classroom.”

In the years since, the neighborhood has had success with the project, gaining ongoing funding, hiring a full-time director and holding art classes for children. The project was an example of how an architect that is able to both design and build can both make a living and a difference.

“When a student achieves success at doing something that they’ve never done before, it’s really gratifying to them and boosts their self confidence,” Gore said. “Also when you go to a place like New Orleans and you’re actually doing something that you see is doing some good for a community in need, that helps your self esteem a lot.”

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