Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am


Neutra House camp builds foundation for design careers

Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Photo Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier

Ellie Dupin sketches a vision for Los Altos during Neutra House’s Design Camp.

While the city of Los Altos pulled out jackhammers to improve downtown aesthetics, a number of aspiring young designers took to the streets of Los Altos last week, armed with sketchbooks and clipboards to create ideas of their own.

If these local youth had it their way, they would transform the Civic Center site into a 6-acre lake or renovate Los Altos’ Community Plaza with trees, tables, a fountain and additional landscaping.

Even if only on paper, 12 incoming eighth- and ninth-graders flexed their creative muscles in a series of architecture, urban planning and landscape design exercises last week at Los Altos Neutra House’s inaugural Design Camp. During the career-immersion camp, a volunteer faculty of professionals from around the Bay Area challenged students to redefine how they see the world around them.

“We told the students they were the MVPs of the class,” said King Lear, Neutra House director. “They put in a full 40-hour workweek, and they didn’t flinch.”

After mastering the basic tools of the trade – map reading, developing a design concept, perspective drawing, collaboration and consensus building – students tackled a variety of real-world design problems. In addition to field trips to architectural landmarks in Los Altos, they explored downtown and studied how landscape design, urban planning and architecture shape the environment.

“I go there with my friends and hang out … but it was fun to take a place you see every day and try to change it,” said Sana Khader, an incoming Los Altos High School freshman, of the experience of redesigning the town plaza during the camp.

Studio time at the end of each day offered students the opportunity to develop their design skills alongside professionals.

Pairing traditional skills with Google SketchUp to create computer-generated 3-D models, students designed and developed their dream homes and site plans – roads, landscaping and planning elements included. Instructors mentored students in the improvised studio space at Neutra House, providing constructive criticism and insight into careers in the design field.

“It was so amazing to get feedback from people who do it for a living,” said Design Camp participant Ellie Dupin, who said she has wanted to be an architect since she was in sixth grade. “You don’t need to be perfect, don’t need an eraser … that was really interesting to me.”

Volunteer instructor Jonathan Pearlman, design principal at Elevation Architects, said he found the maturity and focus of the Design Camp students impressive. Although accustomed to teaching at the university level, Pearlman added that he was pleased to discover that the students didn’t need much persuasion to express themselves or push creative boundaries.

“I think the thing that surprised me the most was their level of sophistication,” he said. “They had an incredible facility for tools.”

Design Camp was an eye-opener for students as well, according to Pearlman. Even the campers who expect to pursue other careers gained invaluable insight, he said, with the opportunity fueling interest in the fields of architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning.

“The notion that this little house can bring an education about architecture to a community is exciting,” Pearlman said of Neutra House, designed by famed architect Richard Neutra in 1935 and preserved by the Los Altos Community Foundation.

Lear and Pearlman said they plan to offer the camp again next summer.

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