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Freshman Studio: A Journey Unlike Any Other

By Madelyn McClellan (MArch '15)

While long hours and hard work are the conventional wisdom of studio, those who have been through it remember most the camaraderie among studio-mates, the value of trying and trying again (and sometimes failing), and the endless possibilities that arise when students and faculty work together to solve design challenges. 

Read on for a first-hand look at freshman studio through the eyes of Julia Hunt, a member of the Class of 2017, and the team of faculty members and teaching assistants who guided her on that journey. As a teaching assistant for Julia and a former freshman architecture student myself, I am honored to tell this story.

First Semester: A New Way of Thinking and Working

Studio is a “class” in which architecture is explored physically through the development of a series of design proposals (models and drawings) and discussions about the work produced. The culture of studio promotes an adventurous and explorative approach to understanding spatial possibilities and relies upon active dialogue among students and faculty. It is in this energized atmosphere that students are introduced to the design decisions and thought processes that will follow them throughout their entire career.  

The Class of 2017's first semester of freshman studio would introduce the five fundamentals of architecture: space, order, tectonics, site and use, layered and reinforced through a series of design projects. The work culminated with a final assignment - the transformation of a rectangular space (16' wide by 26' long by 10' tall) into a space of repose with special consideration to the occupant's outward view, indirect lighting and the space's entry and exit.

Those students expecting to jump right in and design a building were instead forced to reorient their thinking about architecture and design and consider space from the inside out. In fact, the project was designed precisely to rattle these preconceived notions and abstract the process into something explorative.

"Students tend to look at architecture, rather than into it, through it, or from it," says Korydon Smith, associate professor of architecture and faculty lead for the Class of 2017's first semester of studio. He notes that much of their exposure to architecture at this point comes from the popular press, magazines or blogs, which tend to portray architecture as form and material. "A crucial part to a student’s first year is helping them see architecture from the inside-out, realizing that architects make spaces not buildings."

As a teaching assistant, I had the opportunity to nudge students along in this process. Often it was as simple as encouraging them to pick up their models, peer into them and describe the space verbally. Gradually, students began to conceptualize their space in qualitative ways rather than simply as lines on paper.

Freshman studio also involves trial-by-fire adjustment to new ways of working. For many students, this is their first exposure to studio learning and its culture of experimenation, collaborative learning and the decidedly non-linear process of design and making. 

Julia identifies with this typical freshman struggle. "The most difficult part of first-semester studio was overcoming the iterative process. Accepting that your first idea isn’t right and going back once you think you’ve found a solution is frustrating. To overcome this, it was important to me to keep track of my thoughts in writing or drawing form, constantly."

Students at the School of Architecture and Planning begin almost immediately to work with materials and physical modeling to advance their design. This is partly due to their inclination as "makers" but also because "thinking through making" is the pedagogical crux of the School of Architecture and Planning. Dennis Maher, clinical assistant professor of architecture and lead faculty member for freshman studio semester #2, explains:

"This school believes that learning through making gives students a far better understanding and confidence in their work. They learn what labor is involved in the pouring of concrete, wood joinery, fastening different materials, and basic support systems. This also allows students to appreciate the poetic reality of details, through process and materiality. When they make the things they draw, students then have to face their flaws and successes. This then can be translated through multiple scales, preparing the students for future situations."

This all became abundantly clear to Julia as she constructed her first-semester final project: 

Second Semester: Design as Discovery

By the second semester, the students had grown confident as designers and makers and developed strong facility with architecture's distinctive vocabulary. All of this would be challenged with a new series of projects, new instructors and new perspectives. 

With Maher as the faculty lead, students would conduct a series of material experiments focused on architectural space, form, composition, organization, order, structure, hierarchy and scale. Students began with the procurement of regular artifacts – balls, books, shoes, toys, etc. – which they then “bundled” using tape. Cutting the bundle in half revealed layers of interesting spaces and a scaled environment to be interpreted by the student. Again, the students were asked to shed their biases, in this case toward the architectural potential of ordinary objects, and articulate the bundle as a space to be inhabited and experienced.  

"We as architects use tools, but those tools aren’t always architectural, and it is essential that students discover new ways to understand their environment," explains Maher. "This approach provides a way to get lost. Design is about making discoveries, finding unexpected solutions and taking risks that challenge preconceptions." 

By diagramming over their drawings, describing the spatial qualities of found spaces, and observing spatial relationships, the students transformed their found artifacts into profound architectural compositions. As the final exercise, students sculpted a concrete and wooden model that exemplified their bundle's layered spatial qualities. 

Adds Maher: “As architects, we need to know facts, but design taps into our ability to accept indeterminacy, it allows ourselves to fall, land and discover.” In the studio, he would often take a student's model or drawing and simply turn it upside down. A seemingly empty gesture allows the student to reconsider space and to use unconventional experimentation as a way to design. 

Julia describes the second-semester project as a "brain teaser." She continues: "After diving into the project, I stumbled upon new concepts of architecture that I had not previously considered." Her final project also tested her making abilities, requiring her to learn an entirely new method of pouring and forming concrete. 

Hands-on Teaching

Often, students spend long nights and weekends fastidiously generating ideas, exhaustively creating and recreating a physical manifestation of their concepts, all the while adapting to a new mode of thinking. 

The School of Architecture and Planning's close-knit studio culture and hands-on engagement with faculty smoothes the learning curve. The teaching team typically consists of three faculty members per semester (one lead and two assisting) and seven teaching assistants (graduate architecture students), allowing for one-on-one interaction even with a freshman class that can number around 150 students. 

During studio class hours, students are organized into small groups through which they engage in group discussions and critiques facilitated by the teaching team. Students have regular sit-downs with teaching assistants for more detailed assessments of their in-progress designs. In this way, students are eased into the studio culture of critique and the "try and try again" process of design and making. 

Dennis Maher says there is a practical reason for this - architectural firms operate in the same way. "In order to find a design solution you have to persistently search. Students must learn to embrace the process - there are no failures. We must always ask, 'how can this be improved, refined, focused, and intensified'? As instructors, we have to help them see relationships and comparative angles among their own work." 

As a teaching assistant, I saw it as my unspoken responsibility to get to know the students and their projects and serve as their mentor in the studio. In this environment, students are comfortable asking questions and participating in discussions. Even the occasional humorous comment from a teaching assistant or faculty member during a pinup could help break the tension and foster a more open dialogue with the students. We also look out for the students, bringing them coffee or telling them to take a break after a long day. Another TA on our team was in the studio at 2 am helping a student with a difficult concrete pour.

Freshman architecture studio is always abuzz with activity. Here, first-year architecture students prepare for a pinup and critique session in spring 2014.

Freshman studio is a rite of passage for the aspiring architect and, for most students, a metamorphosis of sorts. Over the course of a year of intensive, hands-on study, the student evolves from someone who looks at buildings to a designer who thinks through making, able to create spaces and experiences.

Julia Hunt

Class of 2017, Bachelor of Science in Architecture

Madelyn McClellan

Teaching Assistant and MArch Student

Korydon Smith

Associate professor of architecture; lead faculty member for freshman studio semester #1 (ARC 101)

Dennis Maher

Clinical assistant professor of architecture; lead faculty member for freshman studio semester #2 (ARC 102)

The studio space is an empty slate that students make their own. Drawings, models and books quickly overrun the space. Here students draw, build, create, redraw, rebuild, and recreate.

Rattling preconceived notions

"A crucial part to a student’s first year is helping them see architecture from the inside-out, realizing that architects make spaces not buildings."

Students dive head first into building and making at the School of Architecture and Planning. Here freshman architecture students work with concrete and wooden formwork.

"We were working with materials we’d never used before, like wood, wire and soldering, and plaster, and it forced us to think about the details. Additionally, transferring scales was a critical moment for everyone. You begin to imagine what it’s like in the space.”

'Finding unexpected solutions'

"We as architects use tools, but those tools aren’t always architectural, and it is essential that students discover new ways to understand their environment...Design is about making discoveries, finding unexpected solutions and taking risks that challenge preconceptions." 

Members of the Class of 2017, pictured with teaching assistant Madelyn McClellan (center, with glasses). Madelyn was one of seven teaching assistants supporting this freshman studio.

[All images by BUILD LLC]

As an office full of architects, we’ve spent a great deal of time working up the ranks by way of architectural internships. Our experiences were productive, enjoyable, and full of invaluable lessons. Today’s post is a summary of those lessons collected into what could be used as a guide to securing and getting the most out of an architectural internship.*

1. The early bird gets the worm. It’s no coincidence that this post is launching in March. You need to get an early jump on your competitors. Different schools let out for summer break at different times, and the ones that let out early have a significant advantage over the programs that run longer into the summer months. Build in a bit of time to get those rejection responses out of the way, fine tune your approach, and stick the landing. And don’t forget to have that portfolio and résumé ready to go.

2. Look beyond architecture firms. Graphic design, photography, engineering, and related design fields all have the potential to offer an excellent professional experience. A great engineering firm can teach you volumes more about architecture than an average architecture firm. A summer of construction experience can also provide you with the direct knowledge of how things get built and make you a better designer in the long run. Getting big picture experience also provides the added advantage of diversifying your knowledge base, and setting you apart from your peers. And in the end, the people and values will have a more powerful impact on you than the work itself.

3. To be paid or not to be paid. Not all internships pay, and you’ll want to sort this out sooner rather than later. And if it is a paid internship, find out how much (if not already stated). You’d be amazed how many interns don’t ask, considering this not-so-small detail can often be a deal-breaker for even pursuing a specific internship. And, of course, you can negotiate as an intern … just keep those expectations in check.

4. Interviewing the firm. The character of the firm you intern for has the ability to set the course for your career. Asking questions during the interview process will help you express the things that are important to you in your professional development and uncover whether there’s a true fit or not. Do all of the interns sit isolated in a windowless model shop? Will you have actual interaction with a design team, principals, etc.? How often do interns get to go on site visits or attend on-site construction meetings? These things matter, and they should be sorted out before you make a commitment.

5. How much structure is right for you?
There’s no right or wrong here. The level of structure in an internship is highly dependent on the size, culture, and process of the firm. But it’s important to know what you want out of your internship experience, and how you work best. If it’s too structured, you may not have the freedom to work on different projects for different teams. Does the firm have a formal internship program? Do interns get to work on a variety of projects? If it’s not structured enough, you may spend more time cleaning the model shop than you bargained for. Does the firm have a project in mind that you’d be starting on? Would you be part of a design team? Size and name recognition play a significant role here, and should be thoughtfully considered. And with the multiple summer and winter breaks at your disposal, it’s a good idea to get a wide range of experiences at various firms.

6. Choose the people over the projects. The company and people you work for will have a profound effect on how you eventually practice architecture professionally and how you perform in the work place. The habits of your employers and mentors set the tone for your own career, the good and bad. Working for a firm exhibiting poor habits or practicing mediocre architecture will be frustrating and discouraging, with the potential to damage your professional trajectory. On the flip side, interning for a firm whose projects excite you and with a team that cultivates a healthy work culture can become a solid launching pad for your career. And in your time there, make an effort to get to know your co-workers and form connections. It makes for enjoyable workdays and increases your chances at being asked back (more on this below). Or, in the very least, you’ll garner a stockpile of glowing letters of recommendation for your next job.

7. Keep your eyes and ears open. The model you’re building is only one of the aspects of the internship experience. Internships offer an invitation behind the curtain to see how a particular firm works firsthand. Make the most of your time by paying close attention and asking a lot of questions. Absorb as much as you can. It’s your chance to learn how clients are treated, tight deadlines are managed, and team dynamics play out day-to-day. These informal lessons will stay with you the rest of your life.

8. Get professional credit. Track your time and get IDP credit for every bit of work you do. Stay on top of the requirements, as it seems to be a moving target in recent years. The various categories of required professional experience should translate into different tasks and a bit of time on the job site — use this to your advantage to round out the internship experience. A good employer should understand the value of diversity in your professional experience.

9. Document, document, document. The value of having professional projects in your portfolio can’t be overstated. Make it a point to document the projects and your role in them for the résumé updates after each internship gig. Don’t be shy asking the firm about the use of photos for your portfolio. We’ve all been there, and we all continue to need photographic documentation of projects.

10. Keep in touch. Checking in at key points during the school year can lead to a few weeks of work around the holidays, and you can sometimes secure the next internship with a simple note or email rather than going through the entire interview process again. As well, each firm you work for becomes part of your professional and personal network. That network can be part of what you earn with your labor, it’d be a shame to waste it.

Cheers and Happy Internship Hunting from Team BUILD

*Quick Disclaimer: This guide is intended for student interns as opposed to graduates who are in their first several years of full-time professional work (often referred to as “architectural interns” until they become licensed).

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