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Display lets young architects share vision of Columbus

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If you’re spending next week’s spring break at home, there’s no need to be jealous of those heading out of town.

By staying home, your family has the opportunity to design the future of Columbus — much like the architects invited here by J. Irwin Miller did long ago.

New at the kidscommons children’s museum, City by Design is a hands-on exhibit that invites children and their parents to imagine Columbus in 2050 and build their own future city.

It’s just one of a number of family-centered activities that will keep young people entertained during spring break — and keep their brains engaged in learning through fun.

Designed by the Redbox Workshop in Chicago, the exhibit asks youngsters to channel their inner architect, designer or builder. The exhibit encompasses activities for younger children who can figure out how to construct an arch or tower based on existing buildings in Columbus. Older kids can dig into the more complex design process of creating a building using computer-aided design software.

Columbus’ rich architectural heritage is honored with photos of its treasures, including:

The J. Irwin Miller House and Gardens

The Commons

Stills and videos projected in the background about distinguished architects who gave the city its unique look.

The heart of the exhibit is about giving kids a chance to choose where they want to spend their time — whether it’s designing, building or the inspire section, where history and the future meet in children’s imaginations.

Four-year-old Kaydence was engrossed in the build section with her parents, Leah Crouch and Titus Rutan, on a recent visit, deftly putting together a structure just by glancing at a picture. Her parents had noticed Kaydence’s affinity for compiling puzzles and blocks and heard about the building exhibit.

“This is awesome,” Rutan said of his daughter’s reaction to the options in City by Design.

The exhibit was more than a year in the planning stages and went into the design phase at Redbox last fall, said Liz Peterson-Damm, kidscommons education manager.

Kidscommons staff spent months researching which aspects of Columbus architecture could be incorporated into the exhibit. They also wanted to go a bit further to include something that Redbox had never tried before — adding city planning and design into an exhibit designed for young people.

“Obviously, urban design is tough to tackle in a children’s exhibit,” Peterson-Damm said.

kidscommons wanted the urban design and planning section to be interactive and collaborative. It needed to have natural landmarks such as mountains or rivers, which sometimes limit where a city element may be located.

It had to be forward thinking, and there are even options for electric car-charging stations, depending on where a kidscommons urban planner wants to place them.

Designers came up with a puzzle concept, with youngsters choosing where to put buildings, homes, streets and other structures.

When done, it’s a proposed urban plan, according to Simon Lashford, Redbox director of design.

The pieces fit together on a pegboard-like structure and can be moved around as little or as much as a youthful planner wants.

Lashford explained that most of the activities in “City by Design” are open-ended and layered, and the city planning puzzle was by far the most challenging.

Youngsters are given some obstacles to work around and are free to use rubber bands to signify how electricity would power their city.

There is no wrong way to put the puzzle together, Lashford said, with the idea that anything is possible when starting the puzzle.

The city planning aspect of the exhibit is targeted toward kids ages 6 to 12.

Columbus Planning Director Jeff Bergman and his wife, Lisa, an architect, visited the exhibit opening the first week of March with sons Ethan, 7, and Adam, 18 months.

When Ethan was immediately attracted to the urban planning area, his parents did consider that perhaps their eldest might be following in their footsteps.

“It’s a pretty complicated topic,” Jeff Bergman said, adding that he also was drawn to use the cards to create different city landscapes from scratch.

He called the idea of watching his son work on a city plan “great,” adding, “We really liked it a lot.”

The exhibit, which cost about $40,000, is expected to be in place for two to three years.

One of its most interesting aspects is that it can be broken up and rebuilt anew with different stations and activities at will — sort of an architecture flexibility factor.

Each area can be taken apart and put together in a different way. Kids can crawl under and around the pegboard exhibit space, and if the floor needs to be building space, it’s available.

In one part of the exhibit, youngsters who are having a hard time figuring out what to build may spin wheels to determine function, form and space. For example, the wheels may designate that a child should design a play space out of rectangles in a cave.

Don’t like that approach? Just spin the wheel again, Lashford said.

“We call those kickstarters,” Lashford said of the playful wheels.

“Some kids go into this exhibit, and they see a cathedral in their mind, and they know exactly what they want to build and how they will build it. Others are a little more intimidated. They might be overwhelmed by the choices,” he said. “So they can spin the wheel and see what they land on.”

Annabelle Mariner, 12, Greenwood, said she tried the urban planning puzzle because “it just looked cool.”

“I liked that you had to read about it to figure it out,” she said.

She and her friend Molly Hall, 10, Whiteland, were at kidscommons as part of a church group field trip.

Although they aren’t sure what they want to be when they grow up, Molly said she’s giving some thought to being an architect.

“I always thought it would be fun to make a city,” she said. “And I know they make a lot of money.”

Making it “fun” to build a city — particularly a city with the architectural heritage that Columbus has — is exactly what the exhibit is trying to do, Lashford said.

“You have such unique architecture relative to the size of your community,” he said. “It’s just a treasury of architecture. We’re trying to create that spark and kindle it. We want them to keep learning about architecture.”

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