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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.