Studying Architecture

Last week I had the opportunity to sit as a jury member for the student final reviews for a class of architecture students who are in their final year of their Master’s program at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design.  I also had the opportunity to meet with the students throughout the semester and they made a special impression on me.  Being in their presence was like stepping back in time – 21 years to be exact – that’s when I was in their situation.  Even though I attended a different University and admit that making comparisons are not scientific, here are some of my observations of how things have changed:

 Male / Female ratio: 70% of the students in this particular class were women; Women made up 36% of my class in 1991.  (Only 15% of us ended up becoming Registered Architects…)

 Canadian / Foreign Student mix:  At least 50% of the class were foreign students; our class had a single foreign student.  Remarkably, this class had 4 women from Iran.  It is fantastic to see these women working on a Master’s degree at a time when recent news from Iran has women being banned from taking certain degree programs including architecture.  Many famous Iranian-born architects have been educated in the west and have continued on to find international success from their new homeland.  Will Canada be the eventual home for these women to practice?  I really hope so.

 Professor teaching style:  The professor, John Brown really has his students’ best interest at heart.  He organized his Senior Research Studio with a thoughtful pedagogy of how to take design skills to the next level by bringing in contextual and economic parameters into the design criteria.  By contrast, I remember most of our professors taking a much more academic or theoretical approach to design problems.

 Technology:  Wow, this one is the most significant.  Back in 1991 we didn’t even use the internet.  Our final drawings were drawn with technical pens on mylar and we made scale models of our building designs out of cardboard or wood.  Now of course the students draw everything electronically so making changes is a snap.  3D graphic models are used to demonstrate the designs.  They use photoshop to locate their buildings into the real context.  Basically they are using the same software applications that are used in architecture offices today.  The presentations are perhaps more glamourous but I think it can also give the illusion that designs are more developed than they really are.  In 1991 we were required to draw several sections through our building designs.  These students only drew one “typical” section of their project.  Architects know that it is by drawing the section that you see potential problems and conflicts that need to be resolved.  The biggest thing I noticed is how the student can control the views of their project.  For us, since we had physical scale models the entire model would be examined and critiqued.  Students today can choose not to show a specific view of their design that is not properly resolved.  In other words they can emphasize the good parts of their building design and hide the weaknesses quite effectively.

 The Crit:  This is when the student presents their work to a jury panel for critique.  I was so relieved to see how this process has changed to a more positive experience for the students.  Back in our day, the Crit was a back and forth of “attack “ and “defend”.  The emphasis was always on pointing out what was wrong and positive comments were rarely floated by the jury members.  In last week’s session, I saw nothing but constructive criticism.  Students were not attacked for their ideas or the quality of their drawings.  This atmosphere created a much more comfortable dialog between the jury panel and the student and it was evident that the students acknowledged and accepted the criticism.  For them it was another step in their learning process which is exactly what it should be.

 Community Engagement:  During my architectural education we had to design buildings for real sites.  Once we were tasked to develop a design for a whole block frontage along Gottingen Street in Halifax which was in a derelict condition in the midst of a impoverished neighbourhood.  As students we had to do community research on our own individually.  Our professor didn’t invite anyone to speak to the class about their neighbourhood.  By contrast, at The University of Calgary, the President, Elizabeth Canon has been encouraging all faculties to engage with the Calgary community at large in their student work.

For this studio project, Professor Brown brought in a developer, Charron Unger from Homes by Avi to participate in the studio.  This interaction gave the students a deeper understanding of what scenarios could be economically viable.  They also visited and discussed new trends in housing models that are new to Calgary but have been successful in Vancouver and other cities.

Professor John Brown contacted me back in August to see if the Planning & Development Committee for Triwood Community Association would be interested in working with him and his architecture students.  Since we are looking at some strategic ways to integrate higher density developments into our neighbourhood without threatening the predominant RC-1 single family land-use, we jumped at the opportunity.  Two days after the final reviews we organized an exhibition of their work at the Triwood Community Centre.  This is the first time the students have had an opportunity to respond to questions from the public.  The student’s projects were all for mixed-use high density developments for 3 under-utilized sites in the neighbourhoods of Charleswood and Collingwood.  The student’s work demonstrated that some higher density developments are not “scary” for our community.  In fact, if properly designed, they can provide the things that we are missing in our community such as housing options for seniors and empty nesters, live/work units, desirable commercial enterprises such as restaurants and office space.  Located along the busier streets, these developments can create a buffer for the single family housing stock.  The work showed an incredible level of sensitivity to our community context and the students should all be proud of their hard work.

Our alderman, Druh Farrell attended our community Architecture Exhibition.  It was a thrill for the students to hear her speak about the revitalization of inner city neighbourhoods that is starting to happen in our city.  The student design concepts are a meaningful step in starting the conversation for how communities can proactively be involved in the planning process to develop a positive vision for future development.

Studying architecture today also has many similarities to 21 years ago.  Student are still working incredibly hard to keep up with the volume of work, often putting in 18 hour days plus some all-nighters.  Maybe this is why a special camaraderie develops between the students.  They help each other and develop friendships that can last for decades.

Now that they are in their final year, the students are so anxious to finish their degree program and find a job where they only have to work an 8 hour day.  I remember thinking the same thing.  However, when I graduated in April 1992 the Canadian economy was in recession.  Most graduates weren’t able to find work in an architect’s office.  Those of us who did were paid low wages and we put in lots of free overtime.  A 60+ hour work week was common.  Fortunately as the economy improved, so did the working conditions in the firms.

These students that will be graduating in 2013 will likely have good job opportunities with fair compensation.  Hopefully Registered Architects will step up to the plate and mentor them so that their energy and optimism can carry them through their internships.

1 Comment

  1. Adam Bluhm says:

    Great post, Monique! Very interesting.

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