In studio: A look at last semester’s review at UVA’s School of Architecture

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For her final project, third-year Eleanor Birle presented “Milkweed,” created during the studio’s “3-D Metropolis: Mapping Spatial Operations,” in which each student chose a different seed pod and analyzed its possible influence on a building in downtown Baltimore. Says Birle, “I focused on how the given site could operate as a new ground plane to disperse seeds that germinate through the wind, using the many vacant lots in the downtown area as targets for dispersal.” Photo: Rae Swain For her final project, third-year Eleanor Birle presented “Milkweed,” created during the studio’s “3-D Metropolis: Mapping Spatial Operations,” in which each student chose a different seed pod and analyzed its possible influence on a building in downtown Baltimore. Says Birle, “I focused on how the given site could operate as a new ground plane to disperse seeds that germinate through the wind, using the many vacant lots in the downtown area as targets for dispersal.” Photo: Rae Swain

Previously in this column, we’ve explored a graduate student’s perspective on architecture’s trajectory—one that leverages architects’ unique skill sets to address, through the built environment, uncertainties facing society today. This semester at UVA engaged this topic directly through school-wide discussions facilitated by the biennial Woltz Symposium and design courses.

The Woltz Symposium, a two-day event comprising lectures from a diverse set of speakers, enabled a dialogue in three parts, discussing design’s role in reimagining urban development, socioecological challenges and individuals’ “right to the planet,” and why urban sprawl necessitates new scales of design, materials and conceptual tools. The event is not only thought-provoking for students and architecture enthusiasts, it echoes and elevates much of the coursework completed throughout the year in studio classes.

Studio is the essential course that defines the education of a future architect. Each semester, it is through studio courses that we define, research and design a project that responds to a problem. Fall semester studios at the University of Virginia were unique in that students from all disciplines—architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning—could take the same design studio, allowing for cross-disciplinary learning and collaboration.

Graduate students had a variety of options this semester, many of which addressed themes similar to those of the Woltz Symposium. One studio dealt with complex social issues and worked with the State Department to propose projects for a new U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Other studios explored issues facing growing “third-world” areas such as Mexico City or Caracas, Venezuela, and one worked with the Indian government to redesign a 50km open drain in New Delhi.

One studio imagined solutions to move Inuit villages that are at risk due to climate change, and another focused on designing a new museum in Washington, D.C., seeking to rethink the human relationship to the natural world. Two studios dealt with design problems facing UVA itself, proposing campus-wide strategies for accessibility oriented design and an adaptive reuse project of the west campus medical complex that seeks a new urban university life.

The semester ends with a school-wide final review where students defend their projects to a panel of professors and visiting critics. These projects are real, even though they will not be built. The work we put in while pushing a project forward, learning how to be decisive, solve problems, communicate through drawings and words, collaborate and defend our decisions will serve us throughout our careers. The problems we are dealing with in studio are the problems facing the world today. Architecture becomes more than manipulating materials or designing a particular “style.” It is also about navigating complex social conditions and systems structuring the built environment. As students, this is how we want to engage with the world. We see how the conditions that our studio projects address will re-emerge in the profession we seek to shape.

Many people, across disciplines and with diverse backgrounds, are rethinking the foundation of modern society’s relationship to the natural world and built environment. The UVA School of Architecture, drawing on the history of the university in promoting an active citizenship of independent thinkers and leaders, is engaging directly in this discussion.

Joseph Brookover is the editor of Catalyst, the School of Architecture’s annual publication. He is pursuing a master of architecture.

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