Architecture School: Integrated Education

Students in the University Honors Program are encouraged to think about how their unique intersection of interest and ability match up to the big challenges facing our world. In their ePortfolios, Honors Students are asked to reflect on how their course work and extra-curricular activities are helping to prepare them to engage those challenges, now and in the future. Brian Sowell, ’14, has created an excellent example of this in the presentation he made for his capstone.

In this presentation, Brian traces the skills he learned in various courses, how he applied and developed those skills throughout his undergraduate career, and how he came to understand himself and his craft better through the process.

– by Brian Sowell

When I began architecture school in the fall of 2010, I wasn’t sure exactly what I would learn. I knew the curriculum revolved around a core of design studios, but I wasn’t entirely sure what the rest of the curriculum involved or how influential it would be on my education. The four years of my undergraduate degree have involved over 36 all-nighters, 52 books, 8 design studios, 124 credit hours, 6 sketchbooks, and countless pens, lattes, and late-night conversations with my classmates questioning the meaning of our projects and lives. But after all the project deadlines, the presentations and posters, I am struck by how my perceptions and goals changed and developed throughout my undergraduate career. This diagrammatic look at my undergraduate experience is a tool for myself to plot my direction and refocus my intentions as I enter graduate school. But even more so it is an opportunity to demonstrate to incoming freshman and those considering architecture school a snapshot of the degree, so that they may understand some things I did not, and make the most of their education to further architecture in their communities.

Kindall Stephens '14 & Brian Sowell '14 present on their capstones
Kindall Stephens ’14 & Brian Sowell ’14 present on their capstones

Architecture is different from almost any other career. Project development is never a linear process. Often it’s a sideways, shifting progression that requires integration of knowledge from a plethora of fields. Architecture is no-holds barred. Architects are expected to produce the best designs possible, drawing connections and solutions from unexpected and unprecedented sources and fields. Architecture school doesn’t just teach students how to design functional buildings. Students who engage purposefully with the curriculum will also learn how to think creatively, to make connections that others cannot see, and develop successful projects that would be otherwise impossible.

In 2009 most days would find me in blue jeans and a cowboy hat, working in the sun with dirt up to my knees and elbows, running a bobcat or digging up a flower bed. Growing up in a rural area outside Austin Texas, I appreciated open spaces and the opportunity to work hard at the satisfying job of landscape design and construction. My intention to pursue a college degree combined with interest and experience in construction and design led me to pursue architecture in late 2009. The summer before my studies began at Texas A&M, I worked a part time job with Jackson Galloway and Associates where I worked on construction document sets for church projects in Central Texas. My background was shaped by a focus on physical and practical design concerns, and I didn’t give much regard to the bigger picture in design. I had yet to learn to ask, “what can a building do to help the greater community?” I didn’t realize the incredible impact an architect can have when their designs are influenced by history, theory, and community.

My first year at the College of Architecture I had two studio courses, complimented by two design communication courses. The remainder of my schedule was filled with courses in global practice, architecture history, and political science. I focused nearly all of my energy toward my design courses, nearly to the neglect of anything else, including my social life. I found my design courses exciting, however I seldom stopped to ask the question ‘why?’ Rather, I focused my energy on creating, without regard to the connections between my classes, or how my designs might solve problems beyond those immediately present within the project.

The classes I took outside of studio weren’t lost causes. But it took some time before I recognized their value within the context of architecture design. In my second year the design studios focused on very practical problems. We considered questions of space planning, the psychology of architecture, and sustainable, vernacular methods of construction. What I learned in studio was complimented by courses in social and behavioral factors of design and in geosystems. I embraced the scientific application of my new knowledge, and I was gratified to produce projects I felt were successful. But they were only successful unto themselves – the projects only considered how to build around a series of constraints and respond to the needs of their inhabitants. I was still failing to ask the right questions about my projects.

A turning point came when I took ‘The Making of Architecture’ with Michael O’Brien in the second semester of my sophomore year. Throughout the course, Professor O’Brien presented a series of modern projects notable for their innovative structure and construction methods. That same semester I was enrolled in a core curriculum course that considered the history and theory of modern and contemporary architecture. The two courses complimented each other – often I would learn the basics and theory behind a project one week, then study the very same project in detail the following week with O’Brien. Through that semester I began to look at projects differently, as something more than just an attractive arrangement of spaces. They became projects that meant something, and produced solutions for the community they were a part of.

When I completed my sophomore year and entered into upper level classification I held an intense interest in architecture for health. Specifically I was interested in how architecture could encourage or discourage health among its users, including healthy public interaction and positive mental outlooks. This interest had grown from my design studios and lecture seminar courses that studied similar topics. To this end, most of my studios had considered very practical, straightforward design challenges, which I tackled head-on through research and application. I had developed a system of design that worked for me and I had embraced computer programs I was most comfortable working in. I was becoming complacent.

The summer between my sophomore and junior year I was unable to find an internship with an architecture firm. The economy was down, and no one was hiring. My old landscape clients might have been interested in work, but there was a drought in Central Texas that stifled developing any business. A friend contacted me and asked me to work as his legal assistant for the summer. I accepted and spent the summer performing evidence research for a case involving property rights, flood plains, and unfulfilled promises from a negligent developer. The work was so intriguing that by the end of the summer I was researching law schools and considered changing my career. I changed my mind when I returned to school and realized there were opportunities to apply what I had learned within a design context. The following semester I took a writing intensive course that considered professional practice for architects. Each week we produced a submittal, request for qualifications, field report, or purpose statement for review, each with an eye for limiting liability. My summer job could not have come at a better time.

The fall of my junior year came as a shock. The program shifted from a focus on practical design issues to questions of theory, design, and the application of architecture history. To say the least, my background and preference for literal concepts with practical application left me ill prepared for my studio course that focused on design theory, and I floundered for the first half of the semester. It wasn’t until I began to let go of my preconceived notions of design that I was able to understand and embrace the concepts I was being taught in studio. During the course of the semester we considered concepts such as phenomenal transparency, the feeling of space, and how architecture form changes the perception and application for a space. Slowly but surely I began to understand that the studio didn’t invalidate what I had learned before. Rather, it opened a new realm of application. I began to understand that architecture was more than attractive and efficient organization of spaces. Architecture is found in the manipulation of space that creates new environments and causes its users to consider something beyond themselves – the people around them, or new experiences provided by the architecture.

In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs describes the social interaction on Hudson Street in Boston as a sidewalk ballet. Architecture is an active performer in the ballet, providing public forums for social action. These public spaces are the great equalizer, disregarding social status, race, or belief system. While these social interactions are not caused by the architecture, the thoughtful design of the public space provides outlets for the interactions to take place. In the spring of my junior year I traveled abroad to study in Barcelona where I had the privilege to witness a similar effect on La Rambla. Comparing my experiences in small towns in rural Texas to the social engine of Barcelona, I recognized a distinct difference in their attitudes toward public space. Barcelona embraces the knowledge that the plaça belongs to the public, while Texans seem to eschew any public right. This observation helped me to clarify my understanding that architecture is the direct product of the designer’s beliefs and experiences, and led me to question my own understanding of the architecture framework I considered valid.

My senior year provided the culmination of everything I had been learning throughout my studios. The integrated studio sequence in the fall combines structure, systems, and design into one project. Students are expected to draw on all their previous experiences to successfully produce thought-out, meaningful projects. During our investigation the design of a small community theater, my partner and I were inspired by Lewis Mumford’s interpretation of the city as a stage for social action. We investigated ways our theater might be a stage of performance for both the ticket holders as well as the general public, opening the city to the interior. This progression forced me to ask questions about the project’s greater impact on the community. We strove to create architecture that did more than simply fulfil a programmatic need. Instead, we created something that would activate the surrounding community and promote positive discourse.

Our final studio developed ten design interventions for a small town in Kentucky that had been decimated by a tornado in 2012. This studio presented a unique challenge. In all of my previous studios we have been designing for a theoretical client at best. This spring we were designing in a real context for a city that was hurting. Our designs couldn’t get lost in theoretical permutations or muddled in expensive artistic elements. The city needed invigorating design that would give their economy a jump-start and promote sustainable growth. To accomplish this our approach had to be different from previous studios. Rather than beginning with the architecture design, we devoted the entire first half of the studio to researching the city, its history, and what made it unique. We sought to find an economic driver for the city that could help them recover and carry forward. Then each design intervention began by considering a greater network of connections it would stimulate. In this way our studio attempted to not only create new buildings for the city, but cast a vision for a future economy that would sustain the city moving forward.

Brian Sowell's map of an integrated curriculum.
Brian Sowell’s map of an integrated curriculum.

Looking back on my undergraduate career I’m struck by how my goals have developed and changed. When I began at Texas A&M I just wanted to become an architect and design buildings. I had no concept of the power and impact architecture provides. By the end of my sophomore year I had developed an interest in architecture for health, but my interest was limited to a project’s direct impact on its users. My thinking was still limited, and I had yet to connect my projects to the larger context provided by my other classes. Junior studios shifted my thinking to consider the art of a project, and the greater impact of a building on its city. My senior year provided two projects that demanded integration from all my classes, and required drawing meaning from more than the needs of the project program. I shifted from merely considering design projects within their immediate context to expanding my view to integrate everything from economics, history, or technology.

A recent lecturer at the Rice School of Architecture proclaimed ‘everything is architecture!’ He was making an argument for art developments in the 1960s, but the statement rings true for developing architects as well. Everything relates to architecture, and everything drives designs. It is the architect’s duty to consider the bigger picture and develop connections to sources outside the

ir background and comfort zone. Architecture must enhance and serve the community it inhabits. That service will only be effective when the designer considers the complexity of the system they are plugging into, and looks for innovative opportunities that enhance the system. The architecture student holds a responsibility to cultivate creative thinking while in school so they may enter the profession engaged to the needs of the community and conscious of what will drive successful architecture.

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