After you ride the bus to North Campus, find Bonisteel Boulevard, enter the Art and Architecture Building and climb three sets of stairs, an exclusive world unfolds in the form of an expanse of desk areas. Bodies spot the space that flows with natural light pouring from the grand windows, paper cutouts hanging, colored Christmas lights wrapping around the floor-to-ceiling beams, Aunt Jemima bottles, wooden paddles, glue, Vitamin Waters, coffee, chargers and beanies cluttering the area with trendiness — this is their living space.
“The relatively insular nature of architecture schools is reinforced by (our school’s) location on North Campus at (the) University of Michigan,” said Prof. John McMorrough, the chair of the department. “What’s unique in the institutional setting … is a lot of work happens in the building.
“This is where they do their homework, this is where they’re doing the designs of the building, they’re drawing — and so it creates a living situation, almost,” he added. “Sometimes they sleep up there, but they’re not supposed to. So it just creates a kind of intensity.”
The architecture school, a part of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, is not just a hidden and intriguing aesthetic place, but a place for a kind of thinking that teeters toward philosophy. McMorrough began his position at the University in September 2010 and wants the program to not only be about realizing buildings, but also about realizing that “architecture is a form of thinking more than just a form of thinking about a thing.”
Entering the studio
The Architecture program’s acceptance rate from 2010 to 2011 is surprisingly high at 94 percent, but there is an explanation for this. The students can apply as incoming freshmen or in the winter term of their sophomore year after getting a letter of recommendation, writing a 500-word statement of purpose and creating an impressive portfolio of their work, predominantly derived from the pre-Architecture studio courses ARCH 201, 202 and 218 — not the easiest of tasks.
Once they get in, Architecture students are quickly submerged into the studio culture. Junior Hannah Hunt Moeller gave the low-down.
“I feel like the word ‘studio’ gets thrown around a lot and not always in the same way,” she said. “Studio is like, ‘Are you going to studio?’ — like the place where you’re actually working in your desk. But it’s also like the studio that is broken up within your class or your cohort.”
The teachers of each particular studio quickly establish personal relationships with their students because of the small but fierce work environment. Moeller explained that there are three levels of evaluation in the program: the desk crits, the pin-ups and the review. These are Michigan Architecture’s forms of feedback.
The least serious of the three is the desk crits, in which students benefit from casual discussions with faculty about their current project. In the less-frequent pin-ups, students literally pin their drawings on the wall with pins and discuss them. The semester reviews, also referred to as critics, are essentially final exams to the rest of the academic world. In them, the students read an extensive essay about their semester-long project to other students and professors. These reviewers are able to subsequently challenge the presenter and foster back-and-forth discussion.
“The reviews do have a performative quality,” McMorrough said. “You get up, it’s kind of a rhetorical thing … probably our most public sort of manifestation of something that’s really pretty private a lot of the time.”
There is a comprehensive progression up to the students’ final term — for the Masters students this means a big “thesis;” for the undergraduates this means a final project called a Wallenberg Studio. These studios are funded, dealing with socially relevant topics. McMorrough said those are the program’s capstones.
Finding (or not finding) the balance
Second-year graduate student Kyle Sturgeon went as far as to call the physical studio in the third-floor space “the arena, the Coliseum,” architecture humor fully intact. According to Sturgeon, the students want to be at the studio instead of working in their homes because the space allows helpful conversation between peers and provides for surrounding motivation.
“The studio culture sort of fuses your personal life and your work,” Sturgeon said.
However, Sturgeon admitted that the studio can be like an addiction.
“It’s kind of like nicotine in a way, it’s a smoke break,” he added. “You’re there, you’re working, it’s really intense, its really hard … you’re pushing yourself and you’re uncomfortable where you’re going, but you have lots of people doing the same thing and you know how to blow off steam, you know?”
And most Architecture students appreciate the dualistic culture of the studio as Sturgeon does.
But there is another struggle that comes with the intense nature of the architecture program, particularly in the process of getting a Masters degree. Sturgeon verbalized specific examples of what he gives up in the program.
“I used to work out every day and I used to love to cook and photograph food,” he said. “Always going hard, but I’m in graduate school mode so just bang it out. I know I’m all there still. Like all of me is still there, but right now it’s like working on a part of it.”
Even if his life is a bit more unbalanced, at least all of his personality is still there. Yet Sturgeon does believe that architecture studies aren’t quite as difficult as one might imagine.
“You just have to be sort of creative and tenacious,” he said.
The words were said, but Sturgeon and his peers must experience the word “tenacious” in an entirely more rigorous and less trivial manner than Mr. Jack Black in his musical pursuits.
What is too far?
Sturgeon spoke to the wild places that architecture is reaching of late.
“I think now we’re in a place where everything’s on the table,” he said. “We could be talking about fruit flies, and it’s architecture.”
Exquisitely dizzying ideas seem to materialize out of the senior theses that the graduate students in the Architecture program embark upon. Sturgeon’s thesis, titled “Cultivating the Enormous: Agritainment-Infratecture within a new fishing paradigm,” begins with studying the $7 billion fishing industry of the Great Lakes and operates architecturally to propose a carp processing distribution center and vessel.
These mindful connections are so far away from being inside the box that the students need a release from the intensity. Sturgeon said when he’s working too hard and becomes a “crazy hermit,” it helps to “bring it back to the dinner table.” In translation: Behaving within normal daily life — outside of the architectural bubble — assists in maintaining a clear mind for the fortitude of an untamed idea.
Sturgeon’s standard of sanity is measured by calling his mom when things appear to be getting too crazy.
“I like the test where if I can talk to my mom about it, it kind of makes sense, it’s valuable or something,” he said.
Accelerating this notion forward, he debated with himself the validity of discussing architecture instead of performing the practice, concluding that it is possible to be “too theoretical” in the academic setting.
Floating down to real life
So the architecture students are taking 20-minute power naps beside their best friend, the laser cutter, and leaving the gym behind, but for what result?
It seems that the students have a variety of aspirations and McMorrough is confident that their education at the University will support eclectic desires and decisions.
“For the Bachelor of Science, of course I think people join the degree thinking they want to be architects, but a lot of people don’t go on to be architects,” he said. “Not because they couldn’t, but because they discover other things … people have gone and become filmmakers or painters or lawyers or all sorts of things.”
He is sure architectural education is more about theory than practice. The great reality about that belief is that this unique way of problem solving can translate into a lot of different careers — it’s why the Architecture program tries to describe the undergraduate degree as liberal arts.
Though undergraduates are afforded a more diverse future, those who go to graduate school and receive a Masters most likely want to build — that is the expectation.
The undergraduate students can walk down varied avenues. Junior Hannah Hunt Moeller tends toward the humanitarian-oriented direction. Alongside her peers, Moeller started a group called design FOR//HUMANS at the University, using her skills to help developing countries. The group submitted two designs for a playground competition for Burmese refugee kids in Mae Sot, Thailand. According to Moeller, their small student-run organization serves as a think tank for community design projects centered around human needs. It fits what Moeller believes architects see themselves as — “activists” and “change-makers.”
And in this light, the students in the University’s Architecture program go beyond the making and start to make change.