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2014-01-16

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Taubman's blended blueprint: Architecture school a nexus of disciplines

Nicholas Williams/Daily
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By Karen Yuan, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 15, 2014

The lights are still on. Walk into the 3rd floor studio of the Art & Architecture Building at 3 a.m., and you’ll see row after row of students working at their desks – hear a page turned, a woodblock sawed, a sweatshirt thrown over a chair.

With only around 700 undergraduate and graduate students, the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning thrives as a rich yet tiny microcosm on North Campus. Founded in 1931, its name derives from Alfred Taubman, who donated $30 million to the college in 1999.

Not every student on campus will nod with recognition if Taubman is brought up in conversation. Even Architecture & Urban Planning junior Patty Hazle didn’t know it existed when she arrived at the University as a freshman.

“I didn’t have architecture on my mind at all,” Hazle said. “What drew me to Taubman was my first drawing class, taught by Melissa Harris. She was so charismatic and really opened my eyes to the world of architecture. I learned how amazing the faculty were at this college.”

Not many students know about the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, but given the quality of the program, they’re missing out.

In the classroom

For undergraduates, Taubman’s Bachelor of Science in architecture is a two-year pre-professional program beginning junior year. The application process includes review of a creative portfolio and assessment of grades. First year students focus heavily on design and must take drawing classes.

“There’s no single class that can simulate the complexity and breadth of a Taubman education,” said Associate Prof. Harris, who teaches the introductory drawing classes. “But I think our pre-architecture classes together give students a sense of Taubman’s theme. They’re sort of like a litmus test – if you have a personality that needs to know if something is right or wrong, Taubman may be tough. It doesn’t hide from the fact that problems are multifaceted with many solutions, so you have to be really flexible in your thinking.”

Drawing classes typically build on a series of exercises. Students may be asked to draw a seashell placed before them, or a wood block – and then again with fewer lines. Rather than merely learn how to draft, the goal of the classes is to teach students to question their work.

“If you draw a particular subject 20 times, you don’t see it the same way anymore. Students finish the semester with the analytical tools to view their environment with completely different eyes,” Harris said.

Harris, who has been teaching at Taubman since 1990, also coordinates the first-year studio classes. Studio classes take place in Taubman’s open studio space on the third floor of the Art & Architecture Building, the largest of its kind in the world. At one time, as many as 500 students could be at work in the vast space. It’s a flurry of activity and discussion, and its white walls are covered in students’ works-in-progress.

Lasting four hours, yet allotted six credits, studio classes are staple of a Taubman education. The classes always consist of 12 students and their professor, ensuring intimacy and individual attention, and are project-based rather than test-oriented.

“Studios were my favorite classes,” said Gerry Kreiner, a 2010 alumnus of Taubman who also works in the college’s admissions. “You learn as much from your peers as from your teacher and get to know all of them very well. It’s a support group – almost like a family.”

For each project, students must give a presentation as a part of a review of their work, and receive feedback from both classmates and a panel of professors in the studio. The collaborative nature reflects Taubman’s studio culture as a whole: The studio is never empty, and students can be found working in its cavernous interior any hour of the day or night. It becomes a home away from home, where students eat, sleep, watch Netflix, and even work. Every student has a personal desk.

“Architecture should be fun, and even if you’re spending a night in the studio working, the community atmosphere in the studio embraces you,” Hazle said. “You can always engage classmates in discussion and ask, ‘Hey, this is my idea. Does it make sense?’”

Studio classes extend beyond design, with assignments often emphasizing the personal vision of the student. The works pinned up on the studio walls are often abstract sketches, not just pristine drawings of buildings. Kreiner studied the muscles of the human body for three weeks to incorporate the research into a project on tessellation.

“By the end of the first studio, students are really looking at how an idea takes shape in a built world,” Kreiner said. “They realize that they can take a point of view. They ask, ‘Can architecture move people in a particular way?’ ”

Outside the classroom

“My favorite experience at Taubman was a studio trip to New York City during my senior year. I learned an incredible amount in 3 days,” Kreiner said. The professor toured her students at 3 firms, introduced them to colleagues and explored a hidden side of Manhattan.

“We found out, for example, that New York City actually sits on many fault lines.”

Studio trips are not atypical at Taubman. Professors have taken classes to Alaska, Kentucky and even Iceland. The location is dependent upon the instructor, whom students choose after viewing their presentations. Ranking their top choices, students match themselves with professors whose fields of study interest them the most.

“Taubman really fosters a community. To build a building is the epitome of a team effort, after all,” Harris said.

“Architecture is intrinsically collaborative,” Kreiner added.

The opportunities extend to study abroad and research programs, which allow even first-year students to accompany professors on an off-campus project, whether to Chicago or overseas. For the more career-focused student, Taubman provides externships over spring break at firms in major cities. Qualified students who apply are guaranteed placement.

On campus, networking events and lecture series help further career opportunities. Taubman has over 8000 total alumni, many of whom visit their alma mater for lunchtime meet-and-greets with current students, discussing their career paths or the nontraditional ways in which they are using their architecture degree. Taubman’s weekly lecture series invites guest speakers to discuss a variety of topics, such as their research or a book they’ve recently published. Because of Taubman’s small size, it can provide students with opportunities to meet professionals.

“I usually go to all of the lectures,” Hazle said. “Each one is fascinating.”

Resources

Aside from the academic offerings Taubman also boasts some of the country’s best digital technology and laboratory equipment. Any student has access to Taubman’s Digital Fabrication Lab (FABLab), which uses robots and other advanced manufacturing processes to test materials and concepts for commercial use. However, Taubman’s resources aren’t limited to its tools.

“People may say what sets Taubman apart is our FABLab, but for me that’s a very flat answer, because that’s just equipment,” Harris said. “It’s the minds that run the equipment that are our true resources.”

Each year, Taubman provides three fellowships to the country’s top young talent in architecture to help them their teaching careers. Students benefit from their proactive professors, who strive to find new and better ways to teach. For these fellows, their interest isn’t only architecture. It’s figuring out the best way to bring architecture alive for students.

Aside from fellowships, the college also offers substantial grants to faculty, including a $20,000 internal grant that professors can utilize for research projects, often engaging several students to assist them. The Taubman program is research-intensive overall, even down to the structure of studio classes, and students may not design anything until weeks of research have been completed.

“What really sets Taubman apart are the individual passions of our faculty and their dedication to having conversation with students,” Harris continued. “We teach how to diagram thought. The emphasis at Taubman isn’t so much to simply have students ready to produce drawings in an office, but rather to create students who ask questions. Why are we making these decisions? Why is this building organized the way it is? Students emerge as leaders.”

Correction appended: The article has been updated to include the full name of the college on first reference.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of Gerry Kreiner.