A capstone is a project that takes the knowledge and skills our undergraduates learn in their courses and brings these together in a practical experience. Honors and Undergraduate Research runs four capstone programs–Undergraduate Research Scholars, Undergraduate Teacher Scholars, Undergraduate Service Scholars, and Undergraduate Leadership Scholars–that are open to all Texas A&M Undergraduates.
Students in the University Honors Program are expected to complete a capstone experience as part of the Honors Fellows distinction requirements but sometimes our existing programs do not fit a student’s career goals. Students who have an existing departmental capstone can modify that experience to fit our requirements and have the capstone count for both the department and the University Honors Program.
Environmental design major Daniel Garcia ’15, chose to pursue a departmental capstone to fulfill his Honors Fellows requirement. His project, an extension of a studio project completed for a class, examines how space can be designed to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and expand opportunities for lifelong learning. Below is an excerpt from Daniel’s presentation of his project:
The chance to complete a capstone project for me meant the opportunity to take what I have been learning the past four years in architecture and take a moment to step back to analyze how the architecture I design can begin to impact on a local, but more importantly, global scale. Specifically, how Media Labs as a building type can begin to facilitate the spread of ideas and the evolution of technology while unifying design professions.
Through my research I have found that the common thread linking media labs around the world is that media labs are “A PLACE TO DO” and “A PLACE OF ACTION”. What I mean by this is that Media Labs are the new platforms for design innovation and the advancement of technology. They serve as a haven for different professionals to come together to conceptualize and create solutions that would be harder to solve in their separate working environments.
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.
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.
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.
Honors Students away from campus for study abroad, co-ops, or internships are encouraged to write about their experiences to share them with the Honors community.
By Daniel Garcia
Deciding to Study Abroad
Before deciding on going Barcelona to study abroad for architecture, I have to admit that I had mixed feelings. It seems crazy to think that someone would doubt being able to go and learn in such an incredible city, especially for architecture. Looking back, I find that I was always focusing on the wrong things such as the price, being so far away from home for the first time, and of course, being in another country that I am completely unfamiliar with. There were so many of these little factors that made me nervous about the whole idea. Luckily, I had support from friends and professors who helped me think of these factors not as things to worry about but be excited about. The main idea that I got was that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will most likely never have a chance to experience the same way again.
Now that I have returned from Barcelona, I can honestly say that this is a fact. Of course anyone can go on vacation to visit cities like Barcelona, but that does not compare to actually living there. On the other end, you can move and live in a city like Barcelona as an adult, but then you have a lot more responsibilities for yourself. You have to work and pay bills, which ultimately, does not give you the free time you have when studying abroad. That is why the only way to have this mixture of tourist and local experience is to study abroad for an extended time. For those people that say, “Oh, I can always go visit that city when I am older,” that is simply an excuse that is only going to make you miss out on an opportunity to study abroad.
After deciding to study abroad, my next focus was working on paying for the cost. Although many people think they are going to have to take out large quantities of loans, this is not necessarily the case. If you actually do your research you will find that there are many scholarship sources that can help finance a study abroad experience. The first thing I did was looked at my existing scholarships to see if any would offer more money if I was studying abroad, which one actually did! All I had to do was fill out a form to prove I was studying abroad and the money was mine! Also, I applied for scholarship from the university, study abroad office, the College of Architecture, the Department of Architecture, and even my local architecture chapter at home. There is never an absolute guarantee that you will get money from applying, but if you don’t give yourself a chance, you are possibly missing out on thousands of dollars to help fund your education.
Another thing that I believe is beneficial is studying abroad during the best season for the location you are studying in. For me personally, studying in Barcelona in the fall was best. The city has beautiful weather in the fall and early winter which isn’t too cold, which is perfect for me.
Pre-Departure After everything was set for my study abroad in Barcelona at the Barcelona Architecture Center, I anxiously awaited the day I flew out. All summer I had been working at a local architecture firm in south Texas, saving up money for the “oh so expensive” but “oh so worth it” study abroad I have been hearing about since my new student conference at A&M. At around this time in early August, I had so many things running through my mind. Of course, the excitement of what was to come; the unknown that kept drawing me closer; and the idea that I would soon be face to face with some of the best architectural designs that I had only seen in books and lectures. The beauty of going to Europe in general to study a field in the art, architecture, and design is that compared to the United States, Europe has a much longer history of which these practices have been able to flourish.
My entire life has been pretty sheltered up to this point in my life. I have never actually traveled anywhere, not even the U.S. besides a few places in Texas. There was the two weeks in Las Vegas, but that was for a basketball tournament when I was sixteen. Now, I was going to one of the largest cities in the world, by population at least, and living there for three and a half months! The idea of it was still mildly horrifying at the time, but I would try not to psyche myself out. After all, I was going with a group of friends, and one of which who is my girlfriend. Also, I knew this was an opportunity to finally practice Spanish, although in Barcelona Catalan (mix of French and Spanish) is the dominant language. Something I was not sure of at this point was how adventurous I would be. I knew that I wanted to explore and expose myself to new things, but I also knew that I am not one to take risks or be the most outgoing when I am not comfortable with my surroundings. Little did I know that I would be more comfortable in Barcelona at times than I do at home.
My friends and I had all been warned of the dangers of the big city by this time. The area where we were going to live in was one of the oldest neighborhoods and the poorest neighborhood in Barcelona, El Raval. It was once a drug and prostitution ridden barrio that had undergone a major reconstruction to revive the neighborhood. Old buildings were demolished, new five star hotels were built, and student residences were put in to bring new life. This of course didn’t imply that there were going to be no danger. The area is in such a touristic location that it is teaming with pickpockets waiting for unsuspecting tourist to cross their path. We were prepped on the behavior to avoid being targets and stand out less. Although our group would later find out that there were consequences to not acting responsibly when walking to streets of Barcelona. Despite the fears of the city, nothing could overshadow the pure excitement and anticipation for the journey to come, and the joy of getting to experience it with my girlfriend.
Life in Barcelona
Upon arriving in Barcelona, I felt as if I had put my life back at home on pause and started a new life in Spain. My first impression was that life in Barcelona was fast paced and lively like any big city, but it is funny how that changed once I transition from a tourist perspective to a local perspective. When being a tourist and visiting museums, architecture, and parks, you tend to always be doing something or going towards the next thing you are going to do. Obviously this is the logical thing to do if you have a short period of time to see many things; however, after adjusting to the lifestyle and settling in, all that slowly changed. From the local perspective, time moves slower than normal (at least what is normal to me).
Everything from school, eating, and going out would start later. I would show up promptly or a little early for my 9:30 a.m. class and end up waiting half an hour before our professors arrived. This of course was more than welcomed and before I knew it, I too started showing up half an hour late (or on time depending on how you look at it). One of the most enjoyable things about class was that we got to take breaks and go to the nearby local cafés to get a snack. At first I thought that I would not get as much work done by taking half hour to forty-five minute breaks, but I found that once I returned back and started working, I was much more efficient and able to think of new ideas easier. I guess that in architecture, you can’t always sit and solve the problem, sometimes you have to distract yourself and let the solution come to you.
By night, the city would transform into a completely different world. Tourists and locals would pack the streets and subways, making their way to dinner (which is anywhere from 8-11 p.m.), followed by going out even later to go to the clubs and bars. People would usually go out around midnight and stay out until five or six when the clubs would close. This of course blew my mind since every club or bar I have been to closes at two. If there is one thing that the Spanish know how to do, is party till the morning. When I would have to leave my dorm at five in the morning to get to the airport, I would still see people out on the streets barely finishing up their night out.
As much as the culture of Barcelona was different to me, I have to admit I became quite accustomed to it. It was such a relaxed environment to live in, especially since I didn’t have to drive and everything I needed was within walking distance. I know I will always think back to those times where I could sit at a café with my girlfriend, drinking café con leches and eating lomo con queso bocadillos, enjoying the little things.
Architecture in Europe
One of the best things about studying abroad in Europe for me was being able to see some of the best architecture in the world. When I would be standing in front places like the Sagrada Familia, the Coliseum, and the Eiffel Tower, or even modern buildings such as the Eye, De Rotterdam, and the Maxxi Museum, I would feel so humbled and honored. To think of the history and future that these structures have and will make is such a profound sensation that no amount of pictures or words could come close to making one understand their significance and beauty of their architecture. Despite anyone’s opinion on their design or intent, no one can deny the power that these buildings command every time a pair of eyes gazes upon them. At this point it is easy for me to feel humbled knowing that I am only a 3rd year architecture student, but at the same time, I feel honored to be pursuing the same profession that has the ability to make such marvels a reality for all to experience.
That being said, there is a great respect for architects in Europe, especially in Barcelona. At a time in its history, the most important person in Barcelona besides the Mayor was the Master Architect. Above that, most influential architects were highly involved in politics. This tradition of respect is still maintained in Barcelona today. Even more so, the passion of the architect’s burns with the same flame as it always has. During my study, I got to learn from practicing architects who are well known for their architectural projects. Our Director, Miguel Roldan, just recently finished his latest building that will be the headquarters for the economists of Catalunya. I was able to talk with all my professors one on one to learn about their careers and lives as architects. They would speak with such emotion, understanding that they have the responsibility to the people of Barcelona to ensure that each project caters to all those that will be affected by it. This way of thinking is what makes me believe that being an architect means that one has the civic duty to make the best impact they can on their projects to benefit the people that will occupy the space.
The sad truth about architecture today, especially in the U.S., is that this idea of architecture for the people is not always practiced. Politics and money are always factors that are inhibiting the possibilities of great architectural structures and spaces to be created. I always think that this is a result of the U.S. being so business oriented with so many of its decisions. I begin to wonder if this idea is economically feasible. After all, the U.S. is much better off economically than Spain. Perhaps it is the private investors who have the money to fund such projects who demand things be done as low-cost and fast as possible. Honestly, I do not know the answers, and I am not educated enough on the subject to have a credible opinion. I hope one day I will so that I can impact as many lives as I can in a positive way.
When I came home, I have to say that I was elated to be back in good ole Texas. Not that I was tired of Spain or anything, I just missed my family. Immediately after being back a few days, I couldn’t help but notice the reverse culture shock that I was experiencing. For one, I was so happy to be able to get refills on my drink at a restaurant instead of a small soda can or water bottle. Also, I didn’t realize how big the servings were at home compared to Spain. Another big thing was driving again. I hadn’t driven all semester which I thought I wouldn’t like, but it was actually really enjoyable to walk and take subways everywhere. It was a nice feeling though when I was able to get back in my car and jam to music while driving places. One of the biggest things for me was realizing how much value you get for your money in the U.S. after having to convert dollars to Euros for an entire semester. I can get a meal twice the size and half the price that I could get in Europe.
I realize that all these factors may seem like the U.S. is better than Spain, but there were a considerable amount of things I missed about my life in Barcelona. The most prevalent one is the laid back culture of the people. The environment was so relaxed that I hardly would ever get stressed out. Also, walking everywhere really gives you a chance to enjoy the city as you go from destination to destination. A lot of walking and smaller portions (there are exceptions though) means that the people of Barcelona were a lot healthier than people back home. There were not many overweight people which also has to do with the many markets in the city that provide fresh foods without preservatives and other added contents. After using metros to get everywhere in the city and trains to get from city to city, I feel like Texas is so behind in transportation. Especially in big cities where metros or trams have the population that will utilize them, it is honestly quite pathetic that people have to drive so much in these cities. Also, the fact that there isn’t a train that links all the major areas of Texas is also ridiculous. I realize that many people probably are for this, but the politics of Texas have never been the most logical or efficient.
Despite the many things I miss about each country, I can now say that I had the courage to go outside my comfort zone, integrate into another culture, and come back to my own a better well-rounded individual. My goal now is to take what I learned in architecture in Barcelona and apply it to what I have learned at Texas A&M, so that one day I can implement the principles I have learned from both to design great architecture for the public.
Students wake up before the sun rises in hopes of securing a coveted seat in any of his classes. He ignites their passion for learning and creating through his thought-provoking discussions. He propels his students into the 21st century with his Honors environmental design class by asking them to dream up innovative products for the future. He is an inspiration and an integral part of the Architecture Department and Honors and Undergraduate Research (HUR) program. This May Rodney Hill, Professor for the Department of Architecture, has been awarded the Betty Unterberger Award to recognize his many years of service and significant contribution to the growth and development of HUR.
As a part of his courses Hill encourages students to think about what the future holds. Hill’s inventive teaching style, which consists of thought-provoking projects, forces students to construct their own concepts for the technology of the future. After taking his class students have gone on to win national awards for their ideas, such as ‘Seed to Feed’ a project submitted by six of Hill’s students to the Dell Social Innovation Competition. The ‘Seed to Feed’ project gathers left over or unused gardening tools and seeds to send to hunger-stricken areas. The group finished 49th in this national competition.
Hill has also held brown bag lunches to mentor students, discuss creativity and instill devotion to life-long learning. Many of his students are grateful to him for the invaluable advice and education they have received from his classes and discussions. “Professor Hill’s ENDS 101 class is structured very differently than any of the other classes I’ve taken, so I was definitely challenged because I do not consider myself a very creative person,” said Jennifer Bohac, junior animal science major.
Hill uses his knowledge of future studies in combination with social and behavioral sciences and the creative process to create unique educational, self-discovery experiences for every student that sits in his classrooms.