Fam 1st Architecture Camp: Big Success

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This is not a story about architects.

This is not a story about NFL players.

This is a story about 18 kids who traveled outside of their normal box, climbed into a new one, and proceeded to build their own.

Fam 1st Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, created by cousins and NFL pros, 49er quarterback Joshua Johnson, and Super Bowl Champion Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, is built around a simple yet engaging framework: bridge athletics with academics. This mission is accomplished by hosting workshops, tutoring sessions, camps, bowling nights, barbeques, etc. for underprivileged youth in the Bay Area in order to empower and educate while simultaneously building self-esteem. But never before had they hosted an architecture camp.

When Cameron Toler, Assoc. AIA, learned Fam 1st was looking for someone with an architecture background to assist with building a youth center in Oakland, he immediately recognized a larger opportunity. What about an architecture camp?  Toler suggested the idea as it seemed to fall in line with Fam 1st’s mission.  “At first I couldn’t see the correlation,” admitted Lynch, “but the more I thought about it and saw, thanks to [Cameron], how the two corresponded— I became excited.” The basic concept—to host an event where kids delve into the world of architecture by designing their own youth center—made perfect sense. After all, these kids would be the target demographic who will populate and utilize the facility. Who better to design and understand what they want and need? The trick was then to figure out how to teach the fundamentals designing within a 4-day time span.

Toler  recruited AIA East Bay president, Jeremiah Tolbert, AIA, and got to work on this very quandary (among others). For the next several months, the two met on evenings and convened on weekends to plan, organize, strategize. Even their regularly scheduled runs around Lake Merritt were spent discussing logistics. Basically, all free time was devoted to Architecture Camp 2014.

Picture 3Thanks to over 6 months of preparation and an “epic volunteer power” (as Toler referred to the volunteer crew), eventually all fell into place and on Jun. 25, the first ever Fam. 1st Family Foundation Architecture Camp commenced in Wurster Hall, College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley. 9 boys and 9 girls between the ages of 11 and 14 were thrown in, and set to the task of creating their own youth centers—a place reflecting a determined, strong and resilient spirit.

These four days, however, were filled with more than architecture activities. Yes, the kids were all exposed to architecture vocabulary. They observed and sketched while taking in the jargon. Functionality. Sustainability. Praxis. Materiality. As they sketched, observed, listened, measured and cut, something in their minds began to transition, and a new mode of thought took over.

Days were filled with more than creating inspiration boards, completing 30-second sketch exercises, constructing 3-D models and measuring space and wind and weather and sunset effects. picture 1For example, the group took BART, many for the first time, from Oakland. Thursday afternoon was spent tossing a football around with Lynch and Johnson. (It’s not every day a child gets to catch a tight spiral thrown by an NFL player, no matter what neighborhood they call home.) The group also received a back-stage tour of the California Memorial Stadium on UC Berkeley’s campus—a field trip over which many adults from prominent communities would salivate.

All of these activities combined were in the hopes of making connections between the built world and the environment as well to the people served by the structure. “The skills I accrued through my childhood activities gave me the toolset I need to confidently pursue many things not just architecture.  Our goal with the camp was just that – provide our young people with a set of skills which they can put into their toolbox.  Hopefully someday they’ll reach into that toolbox of skills, pull out what they need, and be able to build their dreams,” said Toler.

“Design-thinking , the ability to communicate your ideas, problem solving—these are things that benefit us in life.”

As for the toolbox, the architecture one includes many marketable and necessary skills. Tolbert remembers having one conversation with a girl in attendance who mentioned she wanted to be a writer and musician. So he began to talk with her about the rhythm within a building and how it is necessary for the harmony of the entire structure. “Design-thinking , the ability to communicate your ideas, problem solving—these are things that benefit us in life,” said Tolbert. “It would be great if they all became architects, but if they could grow up and be good people who are consciously aware, then that would be better,” he continued.

However, it could very well be that some do end up becoming architects. According to Lynch, “When I saw what they were doing it blew me away. In such a short amount of time they came up with incredible ideas. You know, we put kids in a box but when you take them out of that box they surprise you with how they blossom and bloom.”

Blossom and bloom indeed. Some of the ideas were so impressive they will actually be implemented in the existing design scheme. Apparently, they were in their own zones, in their own Beast Modes.

(All photos courtesy of Jeremiah Tolbert, AIA)

For more information on other architecture-oriented camps and activities, visit:





Shannon Calder

Shannon Calder, a Sacramento-based writer, joined the AIACC in 2013. She is the author of, “Jack and Abigail Make a Compass,” a novel about people, birds, and orchids. She spends her days both on and off hours, looking for connection, which is a good hobby to have when linking the value of design to public perception.

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