From Scribbles and Sketches to Structures: La Jolla Historical Society young architecture camp wraps another year


In a barely lit room outside the La Jolla Historical Society gallery, kept cool from the humidity outside, architect Laura Ducharme Conboy guides 12 high school-aged aspiring architects through a sketching exercise as part of the La Jolla Historical Society’s young architect’s summer camp. She holds a piece of graph paper under a projector as her hand and sketches show up on a screen, and guides the group through how to measure the outline for the floor plans they would soon be creating. She notes that each square on the paper measures five feet of actual space.

This is part of an elaborate series of exercises that cover everything an architect needs to consider — and the skills they must possess — to be successful. And all takes place within five very busy days in July and August.

Earlier that morning, the students were lectured on principles of architecture, sketching, one-point perspective and a short history of La Jolla. In the afternoon session, they participated in the “bell pepper exercise,” where a bell pepper is cut in half, dipped in ink and used as a stamp within which the students must design. They also heard from local architects who gave first-hand accounts of their processes, and met with a “client” who laid the foundation for their challenge in the coming days: creating a studio office. The students interviewed their client about his wants, needs and limitations.

And this, was Day One.

In the following days, the students toured La Jolla in all its architectural diversity and visited a house under construction. They also created floor plans, chatted with architects in their offices, sketched endlessly, learned how to use computer-assisted design software, created models, worked in groups to produce floor plans for the “client,” and presented their final projects to friends and family.

What I learned this summer

The camp is held in two sessions, one for middle school and one for high school students. Although none of the younger participants were from La Jolla, during the high-school session, three hailed from La Jolla High, two from Bishop’s, one from University City High, one who comes every year from Modesto, and Preuss School senior Isiah Rankin, 17, who’s been participating for three years.

“I really enjoy architecture and there aren’t too many programs, easy to join, that delve into all the aspects of what you can expect from architecture if you’re looking to get into the field,” he said. “The instructors are real architects and know what they’re talking about. They have good insight. Each time I come, I learn something new and it helps reinforce the things I already learned. I find it helpful.”

Ducharme Conboy added that an appreciation for the field is not rare among camp participants. “We don’t get very many kids here just for something to do. They have some interest level. So we’re trying to spread the enthusiasm.”

Enthusiasm, and a more in-depth understanding of an architect’s role in society.

“I’ve always had an affinity for drawing and ability to appreciate buildings in general,” Rankin said. “Sometimes specific ones call out to me. I’ve always looked at buildings a certain way and had an interest in them. But it wasn’t until I came here that I found out how they were made and designed. I knew I could draw them, but didn’t know anything of substance.

“A good house will incorporate the surrounding nature or sometimes you have a constraint based on where you are building or what the building will be used for. If you use your mind creatively, it can make the house really interesting, different from the box house with a triangle roof, which can be boring. But houses can tell a lot. With architecture, you are actually making something three-dimensional that is practical. People actually live there or use that building for something. You take something from an idea in your head to something real.”

In the coming years, Rankin said, he hopes to pursue an architectural degree from the New School of Architecture in downtown San Diego.

Slightly less passionate from the get-go was Bishop’s student Brooke Waite, 15. “My mom knew someone who did the camp for a couple of years, and my family is involved in development and building, so they wanted to see if I’d be interested. I took this camp to learn more about La Jolla and also to see if I enjoy architecture,” she explained.

So far, she has.

Software and sketching

“I’ve learned there are so many different ways you can go about design, both in styles and whether you’re working with interiors, exteriors, landscapes, etc. We worked on (design software program) Sketch Up and it was so interesting to see everything come to life digitally,” Waite said. “When we did the tours, we saw a lot of mid-century modern houses and a lot of office buildings that I never paid attention to before.”

But most surprising, she said, was the amount of sketching they needed to do in the sketchbooks gifted to them as part of the program.

“I didn’t think we’d do quite so many! Architecture is more art-oriented than I thought. I’m not super artistic, so this is a side piece of it,” she said.

But the importance of sketching, said Ducharme Conboy, cannot be underestimated.

“We emphasize sketching because there’s this connection between the mind, eye and hand. Architects have to visualize their ideas and communicate their ideas to themselves, their clients and to contractors … or a community planning group,” she said, chuckling. “The process starts with a hand-drawing because you want to get your ideas down before they go poof! from your head. You have to capture the idea and work at it, and let it evolve until it’s ready. But it all starts with scribbles.”

— The Young Architect’s Summer Camp takes place in late July, so those interested in next year’s session should start scribbling now. Laura DuCharme Conboy, AIA, LEED AP, is lead organizer. Tuition from $700. Learn more at