SIU Architecture camp still standing the test of time

By Gus Bode

In Quigley 119, the challenge placed before a group of middle-school-age children is this:In 30 minutes, build a bridge strong enough to hold a watermelon using only cardboard and masking tape.

There is only one question posed by the anxious 12- to 14-year-old youths in response to the seemingly difficult challenge.

“Can we start yet?”


The young children have assembled in several locations across the SIUC campus for Kid Architecture, a camp that takes place every summer at SIUC and one of the few architecture camps available to young children in the nation. The series of camps, which cater to children from fourth grade to high school, is taught by Jon Davey, an SIUC alumni and employee of the college for the past 20 years.

Participants of the camp are given the opportunity to commute or live on campus over the course of one week while devoting 10 hours of the day to architecture.

When 30 minutes have passed, Davey asks the children to bring their bridges to the front of the room.

One group carries its bridge to the front, as students nervously chatter worries that it will not hold the weight of the watermelon.

Members of another group assemble to confidently carry their bridge together as one grins and makes train sounds along the way.

In the end, three of the four bridges held the weight of the watermelon. Davey congratulates the groups on their success as they sit quiet and attentively, until, he mentions the term “stripping down” in reference to the bridges.

There are a few faint giggles, followed by an uproar of laughter, illustrating that although they have successfully constructed working bridges, they are still kids.


After teaching at University of Wisconsin, Davey said he returned to his alma mater where, amazed with how few architecture programs existed for younger children, he came up with the concept for Kid Architecture.

“We make our lives in the spaces we build,” Davey said. “We eat, breathe and die in them, and we don’t give children the opportunity to feel like they are a part of how they are developed.”

With that in mind, Davey applied for a grant for a program that would introduce architecture, an aspect rarely explored in most institutions for children. He was awarded a $2,000 grant and received 35 participants in his first year of teaching, which was more than 10 years ago.

Since then, he has conducted the program for 14 years, overseeing several learning activities such as the “watermelon challenge” and the building of various models. Davey has introduced children to architects they may have never heard of otherwise, and he has watched as four of his former participants of the program graduated from the architectural field at SIUC.

In addition to learning new things about architecture, children are also given the opportunity to see it firsthand. While he said there is “lots of great architecture on the SIUC campus,” he also introduces campers to examples in other cities such as St. Louis. On June 13, participants visited the city to view examples of architectural style in the Bellefontaine Gardens, St. Louis Cathedral and Union Station.

In the past, the program has had workshops in such areas as Springfield, Albuquerque, N.M., and the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

The amount of exposure Kid Architecture has provided children with has earned the program several awards including the Citation of Honor from the Council of the American Institute of Architects in 1994.

Considering the opportunities given to participants and the amount of recognition the program has received, it is no wonder that Davey has no trouble filling the program to capacity each summer. According to him, children have ventured to the program from as far as Niger, Switzerland and Germany.

Paul Adkisson traveled to Carbondale from Atlanta so his 12-year-old son, Kevin, could participate in the program.

“Kevin’s always had a craft for this area, so I started looking at camps for him to attend,” Adkisson said. “When I finally found Kid Architecture, all my friends were impressed. They’d sent their kids away to sports-related camps and had never heard of an architecture camp. I’m still amazed at all the stuff they do.”

Kevin, who is attending the program for the first time, said the trip from Atlanta was well worth it.

“I came to the program, because I’m interested in architecture and design,” Adkisson said. “We’ve made lots of models and learned about different styles and periods of architecture.”

Fourteen-year-old Erin Yancey shares Kevin’s interest in observing a variety of styles of architecture, and says the experience has further encouraged her to look into the field.

The interest Erin and other female participants possess is particularly exciting to Davey. Although the session that is currently underway is split fairly evenly between males and females, he says this is not the way it is in the actual field of architecture.

“The area of fashion design is overwhelmingly female at about 81 percent,” Davey said. “But architectural design itself is only about 11 percent.”

Another group that Davey feels to be underrepresented in the field is the minority population.

“The first day of class, I asked the kids to name an architect, and of course they could do that,” Davey said. “Then I asked them to name a black architect, and no one could. A lot of people don’t know that Paul Williams, the man who built St. Jude’s hospital, was black.”

Jon Davey sees a definite need for more knowledge concerning blacks in architecture and will provide more information on the subject during a lecture called “Color Blind.” The lecture will take place during a first-year camp at the academy for students at high risk for academic failure.

Whether it is academically challenged or gifted children he is instructing, Davey feels it is imperative to introduce individuals to architecture at an early age.

“Architecture is a great field because you never know what you’re going to do next, and when you design for someone, you have to put yourself in their shoes,” Davey said. “It’s a beautiful combination of art and technology.”

Reporter Jessica Yorama can be reached at [email protected].