EE&K at Phelps Vocational HS in DC

by Jessica Scott

What is Urban Design? As part of a month long effort by DC area architects and design professionals to teach the students at Phelps about different areas of practice within the architecture profession, EE&K employees Mark Gosnell, Chris Rzomp, and Tim Wright spent the day helping the students, at Phelps Vocational High School in Washington, DC, to answer that very question.

Utilizing examples from the firm’s experience the students were introduced to the idea that a city’s great places are the result of careful planning and creative thought. Students were introduced to the ideas of creating walkable neighborhoods, responding to the city context, and place-making. Students were also shown examples of urban design drawings – such as aerial massing views, diagrams, plans, and renderings – and how they are used to convey the ideas that drive the designs. The students were also shown the original L’Enfant plan for Washington in order to learn about the hierarchy of streets, shape of blocks, and the placement of prominent public buildings and open spaces, particularly the US Capitol.

The students then broke into small groups to put their new-found knowledge to work. The exercise asked students to look at the current site of RFK Stadium as a location for potential development. The students were asked to assume that RFK Stadium was to be demolished and East Capitol Street continued on its axis through the site. Each group was given a scaled base map, a kit of Lego buildings at the same scale, which represented mixed-use office, multi-family residential, and townhouse buildings, as well as one institutional building which could be a school, museum, library, or other community building, as well as green paper to represent park space.

At the end of the session, each group was asked to present their urban design to the rest of the class and the visiting architects. From their work, it was clear that the enthusiastic students had grasped and employed some basic urban design ideas, such as grouping different uses into districts, maintaining views and sight lines through thoughtful placement of buildings, and creating neighborhoods around public buildings and open space. For many students, the exercise was not only a lesson in urban design, but in collaboration and communication as well – important skills for any design professional.