Architects think with their hands. It stands to reason that architectural education should involve learning by doing.

A child can fold mere scraps of paper and create a three-dimensional model of a compression column, the triangular structure responsible for the weight distribution that keeps a building standing. That child now holds the foundation for the world’s greatest structures in the palm of her hand.

She can crawl inside a heap of cardboard, and see how it transforms into a roof and walls that keep her treasures safe from a rainstorm. She wonders why these pieces do not fall and emerges eager for an explanation.

Senior architecture major Clair Dias and her peers created these hands-on experiences for children through the Kids in Architecture: Pop-Up Atelier project when they built a full-scale, interactive exhibit that was installed in the Children’s Museum of the Upstate as well as six additional children’s museums in South Carolina.

“Everything you do is something you make and share with other people,” said Dias, a Greenville native. “Architecture is collaborative and hands-on, so architectural education has to involve a learn-by-doing approach.”

The exhibit was inspired by a study abroad Dias completed in Genoa, Italy, an experience funded, in part, by a travel and study grant from the Clemson Architectural Foundation. There, she and her classmates saw the unique Genoa landscape — a rich array of topography complimented by pristine architecture. They were inspired by their own thrill of discovery to try to recreate that feeling for young children as they, too, found inspiration in architecture.

“Being in a place you are unfamiliar with, you have to see it through fresh eyes,” Dias said. “As an architecture student, you want to look at every new project with fresh eyes, and Genoa set a precedent for perceiving a place or thing from a completely different perspective.”

Being the daughter of a designer, Dias already knew she wanted to help children find the passion for creativity that had been instilled in her from a young age. In order to do so, she challenged herself to reconnect with her roots. By going abroad, she could run her hands over doorknobs constructed by Carlo Scarpa, a master architect who inspires her. She could survey a city off the beaten path of the modern tourist with the same splendor as the child who would explore a museum exhibit.

“Spending time overseas was one of the defining factors of my life as a Clemson student,” Dias said. “Architecture is physical, and you have to experience it by being there; it’s a feeling you just can’t replicate in a book. Taking our approach and using it to teach children made perfect sense, and it’s almost impossible to think about how I would have been able to do it without support from the Clemson Architectural Foundation.”

Clair Dias, second from right, was able to study abroad in Genoa, Italy, in part because of the generosity of donors to the Clemson Architectural Foundation.

Clair Dias, second from right, was able to study abroad in Genoa, Italy, in part because of the generosity of donors to the Clemson Architectural Foundation.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

The group’s architectural experiences in Genoa were combined with a study of Reggio Emilia — a hands on, early-childhood education method practiced in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Together, the studies produced a blue print for the exhibit.

For Dias, the trip wasn’t just about creating a building plan for the student exhibit. Rather, it was about mapping out a collection of experiences that would change her personal outlook and contribute to her identity as a Clemson architect.

“I’ve found a new perspective on the world,” she said. “Clemson has given me more opportunities than I can name in terms of how to expand my perspective, and that’s the most valuable thing I’ll take away from my college experience.”