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Towers of Power and #MeToo

Image 8TOWERS OF POWER:  Snapshot of a Future I Want To Inhabit

By Shirl Buss, Ph.D.

I am an urban designer and educator.  One of the most joyful things I do is facilitate architecture and urban planning studios for elementary school children in public schools through Youth in Arts and UC Berkeley’s Y-PLAN.

Like many adults today, I am asking myself how—in my professional role—can I positively contribute to the #MeToo movement for and with the children in my life? How might I, when I work with young people, respond proactively to the gender inequities and injustices that we are witnessing every day?  How can I help both boys and girls express their own power, free from the distortions and abuses of sexism and racism?

In the 30+ years I have been working in the studio or classroom with children—even very young ones—I have observed how they all crave validation for who they are as human beings. Boys and girls openly express the desire to feel that they genuinely matter—to adults, as well as to each other.  They are also eager to energetically actualize their potential as makers, doers, and leaders.  Unfortunately the messages we all learn about gender and power are ingested at a very young age. Hence, in their quest for personal potency, children often adhere to traditionally defined masculine and feminine forms of power— to the detriment of both.

Within this context, I would like to share a very popular challenge that my colleagues and I pose for children when we start our architectural residencies in their classrooms. It’s called Towers of Power.

To begin, we ask each child to write down five distinctive adjectives describing his or her strengths and talents.  When they have a good list of descriptive words such as Creative, Athletic, Musical, Loyal, Friendly, Kind, Smart, they inscribe these words on colorful paper discs and put them aside. Each student then gets a 4” x 4” wooden base, a selection of recycled cabinetmaking wooden pieces, and glue.  Their mission is to build a model tower that may not exceed 20” in height nor extend beyond the perimeter of the base.  For the next hour or so, the students design and build model skyscrapers—testing structural forces, adding details, and creating their uniquely beautiful edifices. Because of the constraints on the project—especially the limit on height, and width— as the children build their towers they concentrate their energy on qualities such as elegance, strength, and balance. For a finishing touch they artfully affix the colored discs bearing their five adjectives and their name onto their tower.

When the towers are completed, we all step back and behold a stunning array of Towers of Power!  In that moment, all of us see an extraordinary “snapshot” of what an egalitarian future might look like. These beautiful structures—built by both boys and girls—stand before us adorned with proud adjectives describing each young architect. These towers stand tall, reflecting the shiny young people who so lovingly created them. They symbolize the many strengths, talents, and gifts these children have to share with the world.

At that point, we challenge the children to present their own tower to the group.  We often invite fellow architects and urban planners in to give the children feedback on their work during these presentations. One panelist, an architect, was nearly in tears while the children were sharing their towers.  She later told us, “It is so moving to see third grade children, girls in particular, stand before a crowd, and proudly proclaim, ‘I am strong.  I am talented. I am creative.’ What an affirming, empowering experience! I never had this opportunity when I was a girl.”

As I reflect upon this project and the hundreds of children who have built their Towers of Power over the years, I am moved to share it with everyone looking for light, optimism, and a new narrative about gender relations. Amidst the stories of sexual harassment, bullying, and discrimination, this project shows that during those early years—before sexism and misogyny become inbred—we can help children define and experience power in new and different ways.

We as adults can, and should, play a role in creating a healthier culture where the pathways to power for both boys and girls are not based upon dominance and submission, but rather equity and mutuality. We can create opportunities for children to experience their personal power and agency with integrity, dignity, and respect. These beautiful children and their Towers of Power offer us all a vision of gender equity and redefined power. Together they compose an image of a future I want to inhabit — NOW!

Thank you for your support, California Arts Council! CAClogo_stackedRGB


Resilient by Design Challenge at Laurel Dell

IMG_8117by Architect Shirl Buss
We are continuing to investigate the Resilient by Design Challenge project question: What will keep my family, friends, community and me—safe, strong, and prepared for floods, earthquakes, sea level rise, and other environmental challenges?

With the focus on the transect from the SF Bay to Laurel Dell school—through the canals and flatlands predicted to flood in the coming years—the students each took a site, and a theme (“Designs to Respond to Sea Level Rise” or “Building a Strong Community”).  The bar charts show the students’ preferences for different elements.

In our studio, the students created study models to scale, anticipating where their proposal will be situated along the San Rafael flatlands and canals. Next week we will critique the study models, and work together to knit all of the proposals into a cohesive urban design scheme.  A big challenge.

Architect Ann West will be rejoining us, and adding her brilliance to the mix.

Thank you for your support, California Arts Council!


Building Bridges at Laurel Dell

genesisBy Architect Shirl Buss
We hope everyone is safe and recovering from the horrible fires. The disaster highlights our need to enlist this generation of students as innovative designers and activists to meet the environmental challenges we are all facing today—and in the future.
I am happy to share that we had another very fruitful session with Mr. Belmont’s class last week—while we were all hunkered down keeping safe from the smoke.
The students created Friendship Bridges.  After seeing images of bridges from around the world and studying different bridge types, the students worked in pairs. Each pair built a bridge to symbolically represent their common strengths and interests.  We also introduced the first “Y-PLAN 5Cs” badge: Collaboration.
This is a very imaginative and capable group — with each team working smoothly and together to earn that badge, while building extraordinarily creative bridges.
Thanks again Mr. B and all!
Next up for this class: Animal Architecture (introduction to sustainable building).

Thank you for your support, California Arts Council!


Architecture Begins at Laurel Dell


Laurel Dell 4th graders working on their Tower of Power sculptures

By Shirl Buss

We had a lovely first  Architects in Schools session with Mr. Belmont’s 4th grade students today at Laurel Dell Elementary School.

A Tower of Power in progress

After viewing some of the more interesting skyscrapers from around the world, each student created a thumbnail sketch of their favorite. Then they each identified 5 adjectives describing their own strengths, skills and talents.
Adhering to a set of constraints (no taller than 20″, no projections beyond the base) they designed and built their Towers of Power, incorporating the 5 adjectives and their name into the structure.  Finally three students proudly presented their Towers to the group, and received feedback from their peers.

Using glue to hold together a Tower

It was a great kick-off for our 10-week Youth in Arts / Y-PLAN residency.I am really looking forward to working collaboratively with Mr. B and this group over the next few months. The students are strong, creative, and articulate.

A finished Tower of Power

Thank you for your support, California Arts Council!



Architecture in Mill Valley

Thank you to all who came to and supported our Youth in Arts Architecture in the Schools program. Gracious Hosts Maura and Chris Tokarski opened up their beautiful home to us as a starting point and then lovely and delicious farm to table meal. We took a walking tour through some historical sites in the Cascade Canyon neighborhood of Mill Valley. We thank the neighbors who allowed us to explore their amazing homes. Led by our own Jennifer Daly, Maura Tokarski and Debra Schwartz from Tam Hiking Tours and the Mill Valley Historical Society.  Architect Shirl Buss described some of the work she does in the classroom and showed off the kids Tower of Power structures and connecting bridges.  We all made connections and enjoyed a sunny and wonderful afternoon.

A special thanks to Cary Carpenter and Jia Han for supporting the event.

Power Building

Students at Laurel Dell are exploring architecture and the world around them. Mentor artists Rich Storek & Shirl Buss are working with 4th and 5th graders to investigate the community, learn about architecture and design their own projects. Rich’s classroom was working on building tetrahedrons and learning about how to make structures solid.  Shirl’s students were building individual Tower of Power structures and then creating bridges to link with a classmate. Shirl worked with teacher Mr. G to help students pick out words that represent who they are in the world. They then created the Tower of Power to help share their story. When they link with a classmate they begin the process of collaboration. Mr. G is part of an engineering collaborative of the Marin County Office of Education, he said the work they are doing with Shirl will carry over and connect with other aspects of the classroom curriculum.

Funded in part by a grant from The California Wellness Foundation.


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