It’s amazing how your perspective changes when you have a child. For Peter and Sharon Exley, it was a game changer in their profession.
After following typical career trajectories in the architecture and design fields, the Exleys started seeing the world through their young daughter’s eyes. That’s when they noticed a lack of architecture dedicated to the whimsical nature of children’s imaginations.
In 1994, they took action, devoting their Chicago-based firm, Architecture Is Fun (AIF), to creating playful and educational environments. Since then, the husband-and-wife team have designed children’s zoos, museums, schools, parks, libraries, science centers, and other facilities where kids can be kids and adults can be kids again, too.
The Exleys are fully immersed in the architecture world. In addition to serving as Director of Architecture at AIF, Peter Exley is the 2013 AIA Chicago president, as well as Adjunct Professor of Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Meanwhile, AIF President Sharon Exley is also the founder of interiors firm Fun Finders and an author of several books, including a collaboration with Peter, Design for Kids.
To infuse their designs with a sense of childlike wonder, the Exleys root AIF projects in a tried-and-true ancient philosophy.
“For us, there’s a three-legged stool,” Peter says. “If you’ve ever read about the Roman architect Vitruvius, he talked about architecture with firmness, commodity, and delight. The ‘delight’ is completely qualitative: That’s the stuff that inspires you. The pragmatics, the non-negotiable stuff—getting it done on time, on budget, making it accessible, codes, zoning, and regulations—is easy to take care of. The inspirational or delight stuff is what emanates from some crazy thing that somebody says or some spark of imagination that somebody had in a brainstorming meeting. It’s the stuff that’s more heartfelt and makes you go, ‘Wow!’”
So while aspects of “firmness” and “commodity” are crucial, it’s the “delight” factor that allows AIF to bring the unexpected to everyday life. “We live in a very predictable world,” Peter says. “We go to schools in gray boxes designed or commissioned by bureaucrats and administrators. If we’re lucky, we get great teachers, and they take us places that the architecture doesn’t take us. So our perspective is to give those visionary people a physical environment that supports their mission and ideas.”
For Peter, play-based architecture shouldn’t be relegated to places like Disney World and Las Vegas. Even when designing schools, he believes in inspiration, not just instruction and order. “If someone designs a school, they put a lot of energy into putting a line on the floor so the kids will have something to signify where they need to line up,” Peter says. “Well, the kids can see the door. They know where they’re going. The line reinforces discipline, not creativity or invention.”
The Exleys’ first client was Chicago Children’s Museum. Since then, children’s museums have become the norm and an area of expertise. Recently, they were approached by the Children’s Museum of Fond du Lac in Wisconsin. After receiving a large donation, the museum decided to move from a community center to an old supermarket in a strip mall.
As part of their strategy, the Exleys started by gathering feedback from the museum’s staff, including educators, administrators, board members, and exhibit-floor staff, as well as patrons (kids and parents). “We’ll spend at least a day with everybody just doing a brain dump: What’s your benchmark? What are you dreaming about? What’s your wish list? What have you seen that you like?” Peter says. “It’s getting everybody’s perspective and trying to generate a map of a program document from which you can develop these stories and narratives.”
Part of the process was understanding children’s needs. “You know the rigmarole of going anywhere and the paraphernalia that you take with you? Children’s museums are not difficult places to plan, but there are details and nuances,” Peter says.
The Exleys teamed up with a local architect to collaborate on research, plan adaptation, and integration of amenities. The experience at the Children’s Museum was intended to be both inspirational and practical. “There’s a four-tiered threshold that works as you’re going in and out of the museum,” Peter says. “The first zone makes the first impression. So it’s being super-artful and dynamic. From the moment you get out the car or off the bus, you understand that there’s something special and interesting and that you want it.”
The next layer in the plan was organization, taking into consideration the harsh Midwest winter. “In Fond du Lac, six months of the year you’re taking off your boots and coat and needing somewhere to wipe your feet,” Peter says. “You have to be able to go to the bathroom straightaway, have a secure place to put your stroller and a locker to get changed, and deal with all the paraphernalia that comes with a two-year-old. Strollers are like little BMWs these days, so you need to accommodate those expensive vehicles.”
The third order of consideration is a child’s stomach. Sometimes kids eat like birds and sometimes like ravenous, insatiable monsters. So a place to snack is key. “The best public spaces the world over, whether you are in Rome or in a children’s museum in Fond du Lac, is where you sit down to eat and drink,” Peter says. “You stay a lot longer, and you reflect a lot more on the world if you have the opportunity to look after yourself in that way. So we think a lively café that is attractive and more like the Piazza Navona than the school lunchroom is really an important aspect.”
The final layer is where your family can ramp up (orientation, ticket exchange, etc.) or wind down and prepare to go home. Most parents are unaware that architects like the Exleys consider toddler meltdowns when they design public spaces. The experience is meant to be gradual. “You go through that whole winding-down process so it’s not traumatic,” Peter says. “It’s not like you’ve just been picked up and whisked away.”
Now in construction, the museum is expected to reopen this summer.
Read part two in the Architecture Is Fun story, in which Peter Exley discusses designing a safe haven for families of sick children, an innovative entertainment complex in Brazil, and facilities that bring unexpected revenue to towns and churches.