Chicago Architect - March/April 2014
Carl D’Silva 2014-02-19 03:41:52
Study Abroad Shoulders HOW VIRGINIA TECH’S CHICAGO STUDIO ENHANCES ITS ARCHITECTURE STUDENTS’ EDUCATION Steeped in a strong foundation of modernist thinking, Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture + Design has had a welldecorated history of preparing students to meet the challenges of their future careers. Situated amongst the picturesque mountains of southwest Virginia, Blacksburg offers a quiet and rural environment for aspiring architects to work toward their five-year Bachelor of Architecture degree. One of the college’s underlying educational philosophies is to challenge the students to not just “find the answer” but to also help define the questions and problems that require solving. As current Dean Jack Davis, FAIA, phrases it, “architecture is not so much about problem solving as it is about thoughtful alternative generating. Problem solving alone is too often focused on a single response, rather than exploring alternative design scenarios for the best environmental condition.” In advance of their fifth-year thesis project, fourth-year students are encouraged to apply to programs that provide an alternate curriculum and setting for a semester. There are programs in Washington D.C./Alexandria, Va., and Europe, as well as individual internships. Over the last decade, Chicago Studio has evolved into a popular option. The studio benefits from “wide-ranging support from Chicago’s architectural community,” says associate professor Kathryn Albright, AIA, who created Chicago Studio in 2002. “The students’ design approach is broadened by having their projects reviewed through the eyes of practicing architects.” In the beginning, students split their time between Blacksburg and Chicago. In recent years, Chicago Studio director Andrew Balster has expanded the program to be a full semester in Chicago for 16 students. The students are divided into teams of two to five, which can contain a mix of architecture, interior design, landscape architecture and urban planning majors. As will happen throughout their careers, the students must learn to develop projects in conjunction with people from other disciplines. Supporting this process is a network of practicing architects in Chicago. Students are based in host firm offices—currently Cannon Design, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, GREC Architects and Von Weise Associates— where they can receive daily support for their projects. In addition, other Chicago architects offer their individual time as project reviewers, mentors, lecturers and case study presenters. The curriculum has now expanded beyond studio design projects for students to learning the latest building/ materials technology, pro practice experience and effective time management in a professional environment. Recent projects have focused on redevelopment potential in the Uptown and Chinatown neighborhoods. Balster has actively recruited the mayor’s office, local aldermen, developers and community activists to help create project design briefs, which are often based around the actual needs and current planning efforts of these communities. Those stakeholders also provide feedback during the semester, creating an interactive platform that benefits all parties involved. The students’ studio projects start to address many of the developmental, financial and political issues they will encounter in their future professional lives. The aldermen and developers get a chance to see how various redevelopment options, with a strong focus on design, could be realized in their wards. And the professional architecture community participates in developing the next generation of designers, who will soon become some of their peers. For the last month of the semester, the students’ professional experience shifts into a brief internship at the host firm. Sometimes this internship can be an extension of the studio project, when it ties into current office projects. Other times it can be a completely different workload, working with a project team for an upcoming deadline. While the program’s schedule and workload is more intense than some students had anticipated, many have commented afterward that it was a significant benefit toward how they approached their thesis projects during the following year. “Chicago Studio introduced a critical approach toward making fast-pace design choices,” says 2013 student Greg Catron. “The need to confidently progress in a project gave stamina to the process of exploration, and the rigor expected in Chicago easily reinforced the scope and drive of investigation in my thesis.” In the future, Balster hopes to expand the program into other prime redevelopment neighborhoods around Chicago while maintaining the existing relationships with the Uptown and Chinatown communities. The intent is to establish continuity within the program where the work of students one semester can be used as a foundation for those who follow in subsequent semesters. He believes “the program inspires students with the confidence that they can better our world through design. We help them build the skills to do so, expose them to the tremendous opportunity in our profession and connect them to real stakeholders. The curriculum is designed to test ideas for bettering Chicago’s future. With committed professional and local community support, we believe the students’ growth is ultimately a service to society.” Carl D’Silva, FAIA, is a vice president and principal architect at JAHN Architecture, an alumnus of Virginia Tech and an active contributor to Chicago Studio.
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