Project: The Birds-A Design Project Of Extra- ordinary Insanity For High School Students.

Posted on February 11th, 2010 at 3:21 pm by in Our Work

Project: The Birds-A Design Project Of Extra- ordinary Insanity For High School Students.

From Public Workshop’s Project Archives:

Project: The Birds-A Design Project Of Extraordinary Insanity, Charter High School For Architecture And Design
Location:Philadelphia, PA
Project Director: Alex Gilliam
Year: 2001

Can design project based around Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, ‘The Birds’ lead to tremendous academic achievement from underperforming children?

Can designing for a red breasted sapsucker and a frazzled couple from Bodega Bay lead to great things?


But first, a common misunderstanding about the Charter High School For Architecture And Design (CHAD) in Philadelphia is that it is a magnet school……that the students are motivated to be there and are achieving at or above grade level. The best of the best.


During my tenure at CHAD as the Director of Design, not only were a majority of our students performing well below grade level but many of them really didn’t want to be there- in their parents’ eyes CHAD was simply a better alternative than the traditional public schools. At the same time, while the one of the essential missions of the school was to use design to facilitate greater achievement in traditional academic areas, helping students see the inherent interconnectedness of knowledge, most of the core subject teachers were struggling simply to control their classrooms and thus asking them to start weaving elements of design or design thinking into their classes was a near impossibility.

In 2001, I created created The Birds: A Design Project of Extraordinary Insanity largely as a test and demonstration project (for the students and other teachers at CHAD) of what’s possible when we use design and project based learning to help students better explore biology, psychology and story telling. Hitchcock is a great starting point for such an endeavor because the content of his movies is compelling, the movies are very spatial and the spaces in his films are laden with emotion which I believe actually makes a nascent designer’s job much easier.

Did it work?

Wow, did it ever.

In fact, it worked well beyond my wildest dreams. The students worked harder and more effectively than ever before. They were insistently rigorous in learning about and then designing for the behaviors, and needs of their birds- under their own direction learning more about such things as niches and biomes than most freshmen or sophomores in college. In fact the class as a whole was so effective in their learning and sharing that they routinely challenged one another to do better in ways that are pretty remarkable for at-risk youth. They turned out some nice designs and some pretty darn attractive drawings for a collection of nascent designers.

But most importantly, they developed a newfound understanding of what they were personally capable of achieving. The transformation was remarkable.

This project and the students’ work was ultimately featured on Kurt Anderson’s radio show, Studio 360 (here) and in 2003 I taught a master class on the project to design educators from across the country at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum‘s Summer Design Institute (here).

For more information on CHAD, click (here).

Interested in reading more about the project?

Here is the general project description:

Despite the rather unfortunate incident a number of years ago at Bodega Bay, Mitch and Melanie Brenner have decided to return to the Brenner Family homestead. They have refurbished the house and yard to its original condition. Melanie, refreshingly insistent in her love for birds, after much psychotherapy, has decided that the place simply wouldn’t be home without a bird. Intelligently she has decided that caged non-native birds are not what she would like to have around the house. Instead she would like to construct a home and habitat to attract one of her five favorite local birds: the brown booby, the rufous hummingbird, the peregrine falcon, the california condor, and the red breasted sapsucker. She really only wants to attract one species of bird, more then one type would prove to threatening to her fragile psyche, so you must chose the one that you believe would be most appropriate. Once you have chosen the bird you wish to attract, you must design a home and habitat in the Brenner’s backyard that will attract the your chosen bird, while still expressing you creative design ideas.

I have used the word ‘home’ because you might decide that a traditional birdhouse is not the best answer- certain birds will not live in a birdhouse. It is important to thoroughly consider what the bird’s habitat is as well. The backyard need not become a permanent residence for the bird, but it must attract it all the same. For instance, many types of owls eat field mice. Therefore it would prove intelligent to create an environment in which field mice live. This would involve understanding such things as the foods a field mouse eats and including them in the back yard. This will attract the field mice which will attract an owl. Obviously the more research and knowledge you acquire about your animal, the better your design will turn out. You will have some class time to do research, but after that the responsibility is up to you. A visit with your science teacher might be an intelligent move as well. Perhaps even poetry about birds, historical knowledge of falconry, or the geography of the land surrounding Bodega Bay will prove helpful- you must decide what you need to make your design the best it can possibly be to win the commission. Additionally you should choose one specific element of your design to develop in more detail. This may a bird bath, a bird home, a seating area, etc.. It will be the subject for your plan, section, and elevation.