This story is the second in a two-part series about Chicago-based firm Architecture Is Fun (AIF) and the facilities they design to inspire and educate children. In part one, Director of Architecture Peter Exley talks about AIF’s philosophy and the multiple layers of designing children’s museums.
Designing a Safe Haven
There’s often a crucial psychological component tied to AIF projects. One that tapped into the mindset of family needs was the Ronald McDonald House in Oak Lawn, Ill., a home away from home for families of sick children hospitalized at Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital. AIF worked on the project in association with Constantine Vasilios & Associates, also based in Chicago.
“If your kid is critically ill, the last thing you need to be doing is looking for a hotel or sleeping in a waiting room,” Peter says. “The [Ronald McDonald House] we did is across the street from an oncology and preemie heart unit for kids. Childbirth is supposed to be a euphoric moment, but sometimes you end up not being able to take your kid home for weeks and months.”
So the goal for the project was to create a sense of solace and community. The only rule of the house: no eating in bedrooms, which ensures that families are better able to connect with one another. “It’s like three residential kitchens slammed into one,” Peter says of the common areas. “There are alcoves for eating in, a large dining space, and counters in the kitchen. It’s a comfortable, good place to be. That’s really important. It’s not sexy architecture, but it’s a really nice house.”
The Exleys attribute their highly involved collaboration to creating an ideal space. “We’re very conscious in engaging our clients as much or more than they expect, so we’re very front-loaded in our work,” Peter says. “We spend a lot of time in what we call four-dimensional programming: writing and illustrating narratives and making drawings that people relate to. So rather than defining a program for a project in very empirical terms—it needs to be so many square feet, it needs to have this much cabinetry, this number of chairs—we talk about the experience. How do you want it to feel?”
The Exleys bridge the gap between their clients’ dreams and the empirical possibilities. “It’s our job to listen and calibrate their expectations in spatial and physical architectural terms,” Peter says. “We listen hard, and then we illustrate in recognizable, understandable media. If you can tell a story and that story has a genesis in the client’s dream, then they can relate to the process of creating the architectural idea, become invested in it, and help you develop it.”
As for the AIF design process, Peter still loves drawing on paper. but sometimes he’ll drop images into Sketchbook Pro or use 123D Catch for 3D modeling. When the Exleys travel to see clients, they bring an iPad and Sketchbook Pro as a communication and presentation tool, using the Layer tool to make notes on drawings. “It works really well when you sit head-to-head, face-to-face with somebody, and it works really well on an airplane, when I’m sitting in bed, or at dinner around the table at home.”
Successes and Challenges
Throughout the years, the Exleys have seen considerable results following the construction of their play-based projects. According to Peter, their Exploration Station project in Bourbonnais, Ill., built in 1997, has had a $1-million-per-year impact on local tourism—a big win for a town of 30,000 people.
AIF also designed the Crosstown Children’s Ministry at the Fellowship Missionary Church in Ft. Wayne, Ind. Before the build was completed in 2003, the church had a congregation of 1,500 people. “The Easter after our project opened, 10,000 people showed up to church,” Peter says. “Now, that’s a ‘Houston, we’ve got a problem’ moment when 10,000 people show up to church.”
Although AIF has won nearly two dozen awards for their designs—including AIA Chicago and Benjamin Moore (the HUE Award) honors—the Exleys have also had challenges, particularly in economic downturns.
“Our traditional clients, which have been community-based and not-for-profit, are struggling economically, and they’re not investing in capital expenditures,” Peter says. “So we’re seeing far less investment in building children’s museums. People are not voting on referendums to build new libraries, so we’re seeing a lot less investment in this infrastructure based in play and learning.”
Fortunately, the Exleys have not needed to shift focus, just clients. “What we are seeing more of are expanding businesses trying to get in on creative approaches to play and learning,” Peter says. “We’re working right now with a pediatrician who wants to set himself apart from the other pediatricians in his building, and he’s doing that through design and service.”
Meanwhile, over the last four years, AIF has worked on the Rio de Janeiro Entertainment Complex in Brazil, an outdoor children’s entertainment and exploration facility.
“In Rio, there are two things to do: The first one is go to the beach, and the second one is… go to the beach,” Peter says with a laugh. “The beach is a magnificent public space. Everybody is out there socializing. It’s an interesting urban fabric, but [Rio doesn’t] have the sorts of museums that we so take for granted here.”
So AIF aimed to create a facility that would cross socio-economic boundaries, a place where kids can make art, build and engineer things, play music, dress up, climb a geodesic dome, sail boats in a mini-lagoon, explore wind turbines and solar energy, and play games.
It’s a kind of project that plays into everything Peter loves about his job: creating “architecture and design that really makes a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “I suppose the moral of that tale is to do what you’re good at and what you believe in. We’ve been very lucky and made our path through being committed to what we do. It is our life. Our daughter Emma is 24 years old now, and like Sharon, she has a degree in art and education. She’s a budding architect.”
So what would Peter tell his daughter if she were to start her own architecture firm? “Be diverse, creative, tenacious, and get yourself out there,” he says. “Speak, share, and teach. Nurture your network, be highly conscious of what you do, and be comfortable in talking about it in a way that engages people.”
The Exleys lead by example: “We dip our toes… no, we don’t just dip our toes; we jump in. We swim around.”