Spreading design knowledge

Architect uses toys to inspire kids

June 13, 2012

Wauwatosa-based Architect John Peine has left his mark on dozens of structures in the Greater Milwaukee area. From the Stateview Condominiums in Wauwatosa to the Lego play area at the Summerfest grounds, he has designed it all.

On top of his success in the business world, he has found that spreading his knowledge to children by helping them become architects and engineers using Legos and K'Nex is equally rewarding.

John and his wife, Sylvia Peine, hold sessions during school high interest days, family events and at libraries throughout the metro area. The goal is to show children how to put their creative and problem-solving skills to use by building 20-foot-long stay cable bridges using K'Nex or giant cities complete with airports, train tracks, waste facilities, funeral homes and bus stops using Legos.

"It's hard to get into the child's world, and we do that," John said. "The results are amazing."

Found passion early

John knew in seventh grade he wanted to be an architect.

Growing up in Davenport, Iowa, he remembers seeing the construction on an office building and knowing that's what he wanted to do.

"I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world," he said.

His parents gave him a book on Frank Lloyd Wright and the rest was history. John received his master's degree from Notre Dame before working on projects in Saudi Arabia, Paris and Athens. After three years abroad, John and Sylvia moved back to the Midwest where John worked at General Electric MedFacs as an architect.

In the mid-1980s, the family decided to move to Wauwatosa, where John began his own architecture practice, Peine Design.

His work with Legos began through the Wisconsin chapter of the American Institute of Architects. John volunteered to assist with running a Lego area for children at Summerfest, which he ended up chairing for about five years. This led him to designing the AIAW Summerfest Lego play area.

"We had the Lego play area and that led to a lot of things," John said. "People would always come ask me to bring the Legos to their school for things like high interest days."

That's exactly what John and Sylvia decided to do.

Using their experience

Sylvia also had plenty of experience to bring to the table, as she worked for Lego for nine years, training educators around Wisconsin on how to use Legos in the classroom.

After expanding their personal collection of K'Nex and Legos, they have been holding their own architecture classes using the toys ever since.

"It's really good for problem-solving, it's also good for sequencing, following directions and modular designs, which is how buildings and everything are made these days," Sylvia said.

The classes are held yearround. John and Sylvia teach all aspects of Legos and K'Nex, including how they are made and parts of the toys' history.

"They are hanging on every word because you're talking to them in their world, and they just love it," John said.

On top of the classes for children, John continues his own practice, as well as teaches classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College on sketching and architecture. In addition, he has worked as an instructor at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Mount Mary College and the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.

John was asked to participate in the grand opening of the Quadracci Pavilion, an addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, in 2001. John built a large Lego replica of the pavilion complete with wings that open and close using a Lego pneumatic pump system.

Upcoming class

WHAT: John and Sylvia will offer a weeklong class that involves creating a LEGO city, a K'Nex bridge and show and tell

WHEN: the week of July 23

WHERE: Northshore Academy of the Arts in Grafton

WHO: children ages 6 to 9

REGISTER: visit NorthShoreAcademyOfTheArts.org; for assistance, call (262) 377-3514


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