Soo Ok Han studied architecture in Canada and United States and received her Master’s degree in Architecture at UC Berkeley. She currently practices architecture in San Francisco, where she designs arts, communities, and education programmed buildings. She also teaches architecture and writes books for young students. In this essay, Han discusses how the Spring 2015 GUH course Public Space: Placemaking and Performance influenced her classroom lessons on architecture to young students.
Dérives are for kids, too. Although dérives were developed as a sophisticated technique of city exploration by the Situationists, these engaged city walks are also accessible and valuable for children. With my teaching partner Sun Kwon, we lead architecture workshops for elementary school students, helping them create cognitive maps and use all their senses to move through a neighborhood with a new mindfulness.
Paying close attention to place and space is a learned skill. I honed this ability--and learned how to teach it-- in an unusual Global Urban Humanities course taught by Erika Chong Shuch (Theater, Dance and Performance Studies) and Ghigo DiTommaso (Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning) in Spring 2015 when I was a M.Arch student at CED. The course was named Public Space: Placemaking and Performance. The course was about investigating the existing normative framework that surrounds public space, and intervening this notion through various techniques. The first part of the course was Theory of Practice, where we reviewed an extensive selection of theoretical writings and works on urban public spaces. The second part of the course was called Practice of Theory. We had a series of assignments asking us to engage with public space in the Bay area through mapping, writing, intervention, and performance that was thought-provoking and sometimes uncomfortable.
The two most memorable assignments were in the second part of the course. In one assignment entitled Drifting and Mapping, we were asked to explore the public space through the technique of dérive, a Situationist technique of exploring the city guided by the subconscious cues of sensory experience. My project was ‘Berkeley through others’ lives’ in which I chose the first stranger who passed by my house as my “guide” and followed secretly behind him. I went down streets and shortcuts I would never walk, and got more and more curious about what he was up to. After about a half an hour, we ended up at Tandoori Nite on University Ave., an Indian restaurant. I stopped following at that point. The other assignment consisted of performances in downtown Berkeley and Costco where we as a class engaged everyday spaces in unconventional ways such as placing our heads against the pavement and ‘listening to the ground’ that made other people in that space amused, uneasy, and curious.
I realized what I was looking for in both assignments. It was about the stories related to the space they were in. This was the beginning of my interest in storytelling, and how story can be a tool to engage people with the architecture and the places they are in.
Sun Kwon (M.Arch 2018) and I(M.Arch 2016) have been running architecture workshops in schools where we use story and storytelling to relate places to kids. We ask them to come up with a story and imagine buildings in the story as freely as they want. They also construct stories for existing buildings to bring the real beyond what it is. We don’t necessarily hope that they will grow up to be architects. We hope that our classes can give kids a chance to explore, imagine, and learn that space is not just about physical form but is a combination of the narrative and the activities and engagements that happen within. I asked the young students in my class to explore the vicinity of the school using the same dérive technique and make a map as freely as they wanted. It resulted in unexpected rich series of mappings and documentations, foraged materials, and memories, and stories presented in class.
I continue to ask these questions and teach young students to discover together how we see and interact with the space and architecture around us.
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