Dozens of eighth graders at Raymond Cree Middle School in Palm Springs spent several art classes hunched over cardboard models of familiar California landmarks. They weren’t working on models of California missions – once a common project in state grade schools – but bringing to life their own designs for a mid-century modern house.
With butterfly roofs, skylights, bright-colored doors and large windows, the models are instantly recognizable as mid-century modern-inspired homes. Some students had molded little clay pieces of furniture and used plastic to simulate the clear water of a pool. A few students took the project a step further and designed a floor plan for the interior, which they revealed by removing the roof of their house.
The Building Educational Architectural Models program (or BEAM), a curriculum taught by volunteers from the Palm Springs Modern Committee (PS ModCom), educates local art students about mid-century architecture and design, and culminates in the students designing and building their own mid-century modern home.
So far, the program is only offered at three schools in Palm Springs Unified School District and St. Theresa Catholic School, but Joan Gand, chair of the PS ModCom education committee, wants to take it valley-wide soon.
“One of our schools is in Cathedral City, and we’ve already customized the program to showcase architecture there, alongside Palm Springs buildings,” Gand said. She envisions customized programs for each valley city, while still focusing on the classics of Palm Springs.
The program began nearly a decade ago when an enterprising history teacher at St. Theresa’s, Linda Patton-Eakin, had the idea to weave in local architectural history and model building with her lesson plan. PS ModCom had been speaking with classes at St. Theresa’s for six years before they brought a similar program to PSUSD in 2020.
Now, the program lasts for several weeks and starts with a presentation from members of the city’s modern committee, who teach students about desert modernism and introduce them to some of the renowned architects who left their mark on Palm Springs.
For the following weeks, mentors Peter Blackburn, an architect, and Greg Braun, a former model builder and computer aided design, or CAD, instructor, visit the class to help students conceptualize and build their models. The committee will then select about a dozen models to go on display at the convention center during the annual Palm Springs Modernism Show, which starts this Friday.
On a recent afternoon, Gand joined Blackburn, Braun and other modern committee volunteers in the classroom to check on the students’ progress.
“This is structural design,” Blackburn said, marveling at one student’s homemade trellis. “It’s ingenious.”
Another student, Eliana Lim, had decked out her model with a classic yellow car. “It took me all weekend,” she said. “I had to use these sponges for hedges.”
At the end of the class, several students said the project made them contemplate a career in as builders or interior designers. For Gand, seeing the students’ models feels like the joy of Christmas morning.
“It’s just so thrilling,” she said, adding that seeing the projects via Zoom during the pandemic, “I was practically in tears.”
“I didn’t know if they would finish without us there on site to help,” she said. “They did an amazing job, and it’s been like that ever since.”
The goal of the program, Gand explained, is to spark an interest in architecture and design in the next generation, with the hope of preserving architectural treasures. Volunteers with the modern committee also want to expose the students to different career opportunities.
“Design is everywhere,” she said. “They don’t have to become architects — they can enter the trades and be a builder or a photographer, interior designer or even a city planner.”
If students become inspired by the BEAM program and want to study architecture or design in college, the modern committee can help with that, too. The Robert Imber Scholarship Fund offers a $2,500 scholarship to local students who plan to pursue education in architecture, design, landscape or building-related engineering. Each scholarship is renewable for up to four years, totaling $10,000.
One recent scholarship recipient, Ephraim Patterson, graduated from Palm Springs High School last year and is currently studying architecture at California Baptist University. Gand says Ephraim’s mother, an art teacher at the high school, told the committee: “Exposure to our program and meeting architect Peter Blackburn had a direct influence on his decision to study architecture.”
Gand knows that when they first speak to the students, it’s likely the first time anyone has spoken to them about architecture.
“They’ve never thought about the built environment,” she said. “We want them to recognize that the buildings we live and work in have all been carefully designed and can be beautiful.”