Cheerleaders of Possibility

exploring: Alex Gilliam of Public Workshop, NYC
engaging: design thinking and adventurous prototyping
learning: creating caring communities through play

by Béa Beste

20. May 2011 by Bea Beste

One of my childhood stories is the first thing my father said when he learned that my mother was pregnant: “It’s going to be a good architect!” I was raised in the spirit of understanding three-dimensionality and visualization. An often heard appeal by my father: “Baby girl, forget the dolls. You get Lego!”

But the rebel in me decided to study engineering and communication. There‘s a tiny feeling of betraying my family by choosing not become an architect, yet at the same time I still harbor a child-like fascination to architecture and design. Especially when they‘re connected to learning environments.

In New York I met an architect whose work combines architecture, design and education: Alex Gilliam, the founder of Public Workshop.

The playDUcative principle behind Public Workshop is to organize the collective creativity of communities for making change. He gets groups of people, such as schools or neighborhoods, to actively contribute to changing public spaces for a better life. He involves regular people in design processes that otherwise be done by experts. He gets young children, mommies, teens, school classes, business teams... all kinds of groups to go deep into insight, to research and understand what the spaces are and could be for. Then he prototypes their solutions with them: Out of the most impressive materials they create shapes and constructions that finally lead to new architectural pieces or landscapes.

As an example of his work he described the revitalization process of a creek area in Austin, a space initially occupied by rats and obscure people. Public Workshop took the neighborhood along a designing journey consisting of different creative steps like searching for the answer to the question: “Who is Waller Creek for?“. The people spent time in the creek area, questioning the use of the area by the neighborhood and its possibilities in an extremely playful way. They hung red swings, played croquet, had brunch in the creek, played tag, looked for fossils, explored... stuck out feet in the water and played dominoes. And that all started from the questions: "Waller Creek Is For........" and "How do you know if you haven't tried?"

One of the playful brainstorming and design thinking ideas was to bake a huge cake instead of architecture model with more than 100 people – and to eat in on the spot afterwards, continuing the discussion about the redesign of the place.


Another example was the renovation and refurbishing process of a whole school during a couple of months – and embedding the planning and doing process into the learning of the kids. And from what I understood, it was a lot more than putting some paint on the walls, even if they were rebuildig existing structures. They were going to the core of the of the building and transforming it.


Through its tools and events, Public Workshops creates communities and generates deep learning, understanding and ownership about the spaces and their transformation. The really cool thing about Public Workshop is the atmosphere Alex creates - it comes across even in a short discussion: There is play in the air and smiles on all faces. People collaborate, investigate and create. They take on role play. People learn together, by doing, combining, trying out, failing, doing it again.

For me Alex is one of the many inspiring agents of a new learning culture who directs the pleasure and benefit of architectural and design thinking straight into educational processes.  He's a cheerleader of possibility.

Alex agreed to answer for playDUcation some questions – read tomorrow a short interview with this passionate architect and educationalist by play!

All photographs from this blog post are published courtesy of Alex Gilliam and Public Workshop. Thank you Alex!

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