Cheerleaders of Possibility – continued

exploring: Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop, NYC - continued
engaging: play, embedded in design thinking
learning: play integrates seamlessly doing and thinking

23. May 2011 by Bea Beste

My previous blog post was about Public Workshop. Alex Gilliam agreed to answer some questions for playDUcation – so here’s a short interview with this cheerleader of possibility:

How did you found Public Workshop?

Public Workshop grows out of my work over the past 14 years helping a diverse group design organizations, schools, communities and cultural institutions more do more, and do it better. This work typically involves testing the limits of how we learn, design, collaborate and innovate. I have been fortunate to work with both the luckiest and unluckiest of partners, in some of the most supported as well as underserved places. I say that I am lucky because this has meant that there has been little opportunity to be hemmed-in by dogma or doctrine.

When you are faced with getting an unruly class of thirteen year olds or a collection of justifiably skeptical community members excited about learning or design, the only thing that matters is what actually works- these situations provide a very immediate, powerful feedback loop.

This has given me an incredibly unique perspective on how to stimulate the very best learning and design that happens to be particularly relevant right now as our systems for learning, design and making cities face tremendous challenges. Indeed, in many respects, I have been the R & D mechanism for my partners and Public Workshop not only continues this tradition but wholeheartedly embraces this role.

PublicWorkshop Museum

So what is the benefit that Public Workshop brings to people? Is it learning?

Public Workshop creates uniquely engaging opportunities for youth and their communities to shape the design of their city. You may wonder why learning isn’t an explicit part of Public Workshop’s mission statement. In fact, I see design and learning as synonymous and furthermore, I believe that the city will be the classroom of the future. Of course, with Public Workshop’s work, the city already is the classroom, our laboratory, but it’s important that we’re not the exception.

What’s the most playducative experience you’ve had? When were you learning by play – and how?

Play is absolutely central to my work, allowing me to help others accomplish great things. Although play has been a central piece of how I work for almost 20 years, as I’ve relentlessly evolved my the methods and tools that I use to do more and do it better, play has naturally come to fill a more prominent role in my practice. In fact, it is so embedded in what Public Workshop does and who I am, that I barely even think of it or describe it as play- it’s just how I do things.

PublicWorkshop Cake

How does this manifest itself?

On one hand, play can take the very literal form of a game, such as when I use massive games of hide-n-go-seek to rapidly accelerate young designers learning about the site upon which they may design, and build a structure. The simple insertion of a child’s game into a design/learning process literally shaves days off the traditional process of mapping and investigating a potential building site.

Sometimes play manifests itself in our work as the absurdly large, six foot tall thermometers we built for finding heat islands in an underserved neighborhood. Through this and other means, we made the simple act of measurement visible and ridiculous enough that passersby would be curious, disarmed and potentially willing to engage us, giving us access to stories and information about the neighborhood that might be otherwise inaccessible. 

At other points in our work, play is so embedded in what we do, that you just might miss it on first glance. For example, we rely heavily on the idea of doing and rapid-prototyping as tools for accelerating learning, collaboration and great design. These processes are inherently playful and even joyfully competitive when appropriate. They encourage the failure, resilience and the uninhibited testing of possibility that are very much part of childhood - skills that we often forget by the time we reach adulthood.

So, when people play they also achieve meaningful things?

Indeed, embedded in play is a seamless integration of doing and thinking, or even doing as thinking, which is absolutely the attitude we need to solve some of our most pressing challenges. And on a very personal level the language I use, the energy I put into any project/class and the physical expressiveness (leaping, running, getting dirty on the floor while building, etc.) of how I work or lead is unabashedly playful.

Sometimes all of these things are very intentional and do allow great things to happen but it is also very much who I am. In short, I work this way because it’s more effective but it also makes me incredibly happy and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank you Alex – also for all the projects and places you’ve recommended in NYC!

Public Workshop Alex Stephanie Katie

Alex Giliam has worked with such organizations as the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, the Rural Studio, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and the University of Pennsylvania. Helping start the Charter High School For Architecture and Design in Philadelphia and numerous other architecture programs for youth, he is a national expert on K-12 design education. His work has been featured on NPR’s Studio 360 and in magazines such as Metropolis, ID and the Architect’s Newspaper.

Recently, he helped an architecture firm and its community partners create an innovative program in which a cadre of talented young adults help initiate positive change in Chicago neighborhoods through environmental assessment studies, community asset mapping and neighborhood service/design projects. Currently he is a Fellow at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. 

On the last photo, you see Alex proudly explaning his playful approaches to me (camera), Stephanie Jansen from Phorms (left) and Katie Koch from Project Interaction. (Middle)

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