Sunday, April 6, 2003

UC school redesigns itself

Architecture, design programs to promote critical thinking

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Course objective: Turn a large household appliance into a musical instrument. Transform recycled parts into a robot. And illustrate the movement of a human shoulder with charcoal on paper.

What does any of this have to do with erecting a building? At the University of Cincinnati, it's a new kind of homework for students in the award-winning architecture and interior design program.

First-year UC architecture student Mike Hatter works on a robot he designed using household items and a budget of $25.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
For the first time in 25 years - and despite its already acclaimed national reputation - the program that turned out famed architect Michael Graves and hundreds of other well-known professionals is in the midst of a curriculum overhaul.

Risky? Sure, says Gordon Simmons, interim director of the architecture and interior design school. But changes to the program in UC's College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning are already turning heads among academics and professionals. Talented students are already drawn to DAAP because it has the only cooperative education component of its kind in the country for architecture and interior design.

As part of their studies, students must work full time, six quarters in the new master's program in architecture and six for a bachelor's in interior design.
  The Almanac of Architecture & Design releases an annual list of the best schools and colleges for architecture and interior design programs in the United States. It is based on the hiring experiences of leading firms. This year's rankings:
1. Harvard
2. California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo
3. University of Cincinnati
4. Cornell University
5. Yale University
Interior Design
1. University of Cincinnati
2. Pratt Institute (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
3. Kansas State University
4. Syracuse University
5. Cornell University

While that has earned UC a reputation for producing among the most practice-ready students in the country, it's time to up the ante, professors say, in molding the type of graduate who is an even more critical thinker - one who can elevate the profession.

"In the eye of other schools we have been thought of as not being risk-takers," Simmons said. "Because of co-op, we have been thought of as a trade school and not as a place where people are taught to be critical thinkers. It has changed gradually over the last 10 to 15 years."

The hope is that the increased academic standards will better prepare students for an increasingly specialized and competitive market. This for a school that already is ranked No. 1 in the country in interior design and No. 3 in architecture in the 2003 Almanac of Architecture and Design.

UC is also the only public institution to make the worldwide top 10 list of design schools ranked by I.D. magazine in 2002. "The overall program is better now because I think students are better prepared after the first four quarters. It helps them learn quicker and easier later," Simmons said. "We want people who question, who challenge the way the practice works to improve it.''

Notable projects by alunmni and faculty members
That started with the addition of a master's degree in architecture that was approved in 2001 by the Ohio Board of Regents. But professors and administrators didn't stop there. They wanted to push their best to the next level.

Over the next five years, the bachelor of architecture degree will be phased out and replaced by a four-plus-two model. Before, students were awarded a bachelor's degree after six years. Now, students can earn a four-year pre-professional degree, then apply for the master's program.

"Before," Simmons said, "if students left the program after four years they would leave without a degree. Now, they have more options."

Cooperative learning will be an even more integral part of the architecture and interior design programs. "The program's major strength is co-op," said Mike Crosbie, an architect with Steven Winter Associates Inc., in Norwalk, Conn., and a writer for Architecture magazine. "Traditionally, architecture programs have a lot of emphasis on theory and not a lot on practice.

"The fact that folks in Cincinnati have this dual life is what makes the program strong. The faculty seem to be very well-rounded. Many of them have a foot in both worlds. It doesn't tip the program into being too much one or the other."

Name: College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP).
Address: Clifton Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, UC's Clifton campus.
Founded: Began as a department of architecture in the College of Engineering in 1922. It was organized as the School of Applied Arts in 1925 and began offering cooperative education programs in 1946. The name was changed to the College of Design, Architecture and Art in 1961. Planning programs were added in 1982.
Enrollment: 1,992; 43.3 percent male, 56.7 percent female. Students hail from as many as 14 countries and 25 states.
Faculty: 89 full time, 13 part time.
Average starting salary (spring 1999 graduates): $31,000 (bachelor's degree), $37,000 (graduate degree).
How students prepare for that work - and what graduate students in architecture do with it in the last year of their program - is what has fundamentally changed. During their fifth year of study, architecture students do a research project while they're working.

In the sixth year, students face a tougher research component for their thesis on such topics as solar energy, new construction methods, sustainable or environmentally conscious building or urban neighborhoods.

But for students to be ready to work in industry, they need to begin looking at everyday experiences in a new way, says architecture professor Marc Swackhamer. Forget building codes, lighting and air conditioning. Think food.

"The theme of the whole first quarter is cuisine," Swackhamer said. "We talk about universal ideas of design through cuisine. We watch the film Babette's Feast and they draw the dinner table in the movie, where people sit, and they begin to rethink their own skills of observation and analysis.

"They immediately understand that they don't watch a movie with that much attention to detail."

  Notable architecture graduates
• Ron Kull (1968), university architect at UC and former architect for the city of Cincinnati.
• Trent Tesch (1996), designer of professional sports and exhibition facility being considered for Manhattan.
• Richard Blinder (1959), partner, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners, LLP, New York. The firm was involved in the initial phase of the redesign of the World Trade Center site.
  Notable interior design graduates
• Carrie Parker Beidleman (1994), senior interior designer, KZF Design Inc. in Cincinnati. Recently designed the interior of UC's newest dorm, Jefferson Residence Hall.
• Eva Maddox (1966), principal, Eva Maddox Associates Inc., Chicago. Designer of numerous award-winning interior architecture projects, including some designs in the Interior Design Hall of Fame.
Mike Hatter, 34, a first-year architecture student, left Atlanta to come to Cincinnati, first for a marketing job and then for a career change. He had no formal design training, only an interest in it.

"It's a program that is really designed to expose students to a wide range of ideas," he said. "That's appealing for someone to come in who doesn't have a background in design."

Hatter has had a good experience in the first year of his program, he said, though it took a while to figure out how a potato chip container, wire framing and lamp parts for his robot were supposed to teach him how to design a building. But he and other students slowly started to realize the lesson in relationship of parts, composition and scale, he said.

"You start to think, 'How am I going to do this, A, and B, how is this relevant?'" he said. "Then you realize what you're thinking about is craftsmanship and efficiency. That doesn't come right away."

Students' first taste of what they'll do as professional architects comes in the first quarter of the second year and it's dubbed "immersion." It's one class on a single project for the entire term.

Last quarter it was on libraries. Students now learn about heating and cooling, how books and reading areas should be arranged and how to keep ultraviolet light away from the stacks.

"It's a situation in which they sort of sneak in the back door and teach you," said 20-year-old Sarah Hayashi, a second-year interior design student from Dayton. "The best analogy I can give is jumping off the cliff. You realize you have wings you didn't know you had."

This new approach signals a swing of the pendulum back toward an era when students were taught universal concepts of light, composition and form through abstract lessons.

"The idea was that students should be able to design a tea cup or a city with this knowledge," Simmons said.

After World War II, the pendulum started to swing in the other direction.

"We're always changing," Simmons said. "How to begin has been a fascinating question. How do you take these kids out of high school and introduce them to the field they're going to be in? Where do you start?

"In the 1970s, we actually went so far as to say we're going to start with architecture the first day that we're here. They'd start with, say, a doghouse. The problem is architecture is too complicated for 19-year-old kids to do. We were getting quite a lot of na‘ve students as freshmen. They haven't looked at their life experiences from an architectural point of view.

"What we've cycled back to is a combination of both ideas."

Hayashi said the new dual approach helped her understand both the practical uses of space and the beauty of it.

"What I've learned is you can make something beautiful and practical, but it's a challenge to rise to both of those."


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