Architecture schools teach students to consider community and history when designing

In her mind, Principal Crystal Edwards sees a very different William D. Kelley school.

There is a full cafeteria instead of one that doubles as a gym. A community garden grows on what is now an expanse of bare concrete at the North Philadelphia School which serves Kindergarten to Grade 8.

The school entrance has been moved to the center of the aging building, with a spacious foyer. The space has been added and reconfigured to allow the school community to interact with the community as a whole.

The vision is not the figment of Edwards’ imagination. It’s a plan developed over the past few months by architecture students from Thomas Jefferson University.

Under the guidance of Assistant Professor Max Zahniser, the students searched for ways in which architecture can meet the needs of the community by working closely with neighborhood residents rather than forcing a design on them just because it makes sense on a drawing board.

This is just one example of how architecture schools in the region have evolved in recent years to train students able to consider the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the discipline, rather than just the ‘ How? ‘Or’ What “.

Some examples :

  • At the University of Pennsylvania, a screenwriter was hired to help students improve the presentation of their ideas.

  • In Temple, a collaboration of schools of architecture and public health helps students learn the design of public health facilities.

  • At Drexel, “sustainability” is no longer an elective course but an integral part of the curriculum.

  • In Jefferson, a master’s program in historic preservation launched in 2019 has proven popular, already attracting around 20 students.

Architecture schools “tend to focus too much on technical and mechanical issues,” says Zahniser, who has taught at Jefferson for a decade while pursuing a full-time career involving green building consulting, entrepreneurship, and engineering. non-profit organizations dedicated to sustainability and social justice. .

“I get them to think about living systems,” he says.

His “lab” is currently in the Sharswood area of ​​north Philadelphia, a low-income neighborhood that is feeling the mixed effects of gentrification.

“It’s a community that has been exploited and abused,” Zahniser says, so his students work closely with residents of the community to assess their needs.

In addition to the Kelley School, design projects include a community town hall, envisioned on now vacant land at 27th Street and Girard Avenue, and an extension of North Philly Peace Park in the 2200 block of the West Jefferson Street.

“They all know how to draw,” Zahniser says. “Here they must use their creativity in the service of understanding ecology, power structures and business models.”

While the neighborhood is quite different from where most of its students grew up, he adds, “they all end up falling in love with the place.

“Some moved there after graduation.”

The description of the graduate course in Penn History and Theory taught by lecturer Joan Ockman is an indication of the range of current architectural programs: “How Architecture, Urbanism, and the Environment do they reflect the prevailing social, economic and political changes of the 20th and 21st centuries? “

On a practical level, this approach leads to adapting buildings to new uses, rather than demolishing them and building something new. And that has meant adapting to new ways of life.

Winka Dubbeldam, chair of the architecture department, explains that students have to deal with race, gender, diversity and climate change, as well as the simple fact that cities are reaching maximum density and architects think extensions of existing buildings rather than new buildings.

READ MORE: A victory for historic preservation, but at a cost for a neighborhood in West Philadelphia

Jefferson professor Suzanne Singletary, a historic preservation specialist who started the program in 2019, asked students to design possible new uses for the vacant NBC10 building on City Avenue.

At Drexel, associate professor Rachel Schade says the students designed a cohabitation home on Christian Street in South Philadelphia, starting with basic amenities like a large communal kitchen and moving on to “something so mundane. than the place where the bikes are stored. . “

Students also explore how architectural design can contribute to sustainable communities, including features such as food banks, green spaces, local employment opportunities, and access for people with disabilities.

And she adds that “the subject of gentrification is more frequently broached”.

Being an architect was the last thing Emily Potenza thought of when she was a student at the Academy of the Arts at Benjamin Rush High School in northeast Philadelphia.

“I never thought I would end up here,” says Potenza, a high school theater student and now a fifth year student at Jefferson School of Architecture. “It’s not something I grew up with.”

She started out as an interior design student, but has always been interested in art and psychology. When she found herself in a studio that included architecture students, “it brought to light what I really wanted to do.”

“They were like ‘Come to the dark side’,” she recalls.

The program, although more difficult, intrigued him. She ended up working on projects like designing an alternative incarceration center quite different from regular prisons.

In Zahniser’s class, she was part of the group tasked with redesigning Kelley, which Zahniser hopes can eventually become a reality with the support of the foundation.

Leaders of architectural schools say the interaction between architects and students is increasing, to the benefit of both.

“They want to throw their students into the fire,” says Potenza. “It must be a passion. “

And she’s elated working with community members on the redesign. “They are fighting for the lives of these children,” she said.

In some ways, architecture schools began to prepare for COVID-19 before there was COVID-19.

“We had to learn and teach online,” says Barbara Klinkhammer, dean of the Jefferson School of Architecture.

While face-to-face contact is important for incoming students, she says, fourth and fifth year students are comfortable with virtual learning, and “some will stay in the future.”

In fact, it has helped foster interaction with students from different disciplines and from different geographic areas.

In one case, a professor from Jefferson unable to leave Malawi, where he was working in the field, taught his course from there.

READ MORE: How the smartphone explains the most profound urban design changes in Philly this decade

Leaders of architectural schools also say they are increasingly emphasizing cooperation, especially with people from different disciplines, government officials and community members.

“We teach students to collaborate,” says Rashida Ng, chair of the architecture and design department at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University. “They don’t work in isolation.

“How do you communicate with someone who is not in your discipline? ” she asks. “We have our own jargon. We are as guilty as everyone else.

There is also growing interest in the expanding demographics of the field.

Klinkhammer is concerned about the low representation of women: Only 22% of certified members of the American Institute of Architects are women, according to the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. Many female architecture graduates instead turn to fields such as government or urban planning or the nonprofit sector, she says.

She adds that “architectural education was once heavily focused on Western culture, which is now changing.”

At Penn, Dubbeldam says students spend time studying the cityscapes of downtown Cairo, Istanbul and Mexico City, as well as those in the United States.

And, she says, they’re doing it in a pretty different studio from the past, with 3D printers and robotic devices.

But the links with the past are still there.

“You have to know history,” she says, “to be avant-garde.


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