From Construction Site to Studio, Architecture Graduate Students Explore Broad Array of Studies

From Construction Site to Studio, Architecture Graduate Students Explore Broad Array of Studies

By Timothy Parker, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Architecture + Art

Across the globe or close to campus, graduate students in architecture at Norwich find themselves immersed deep in practice, from first-hand experiences with dusty drywall to abstract design, understanding cultural connections and the inner workings of a professional office.

The practice of architecture is an integrative act, requiring an architect to reconcile competing aspects of a design into a coherent whole. The same is true of architectural education. This is reflected in the mission statement of the School of Architecture + Art in its opening and closing sentences: “We endeavor to contribute to the making of meaning and the meaning of making. . . . Through a balanced curriculum comprising observation, analysis, exploration, iteration, and synthesis, we grapple with abstract as well as concrete material, intellectual as well as hands-on experience.” This concern for integration is one reason incoming graduate students are required to spend a summer working in a firm within—or closely related to—the architecture profession.

Concurrent with their work in a firm, students take a six-credit online course that ensures they are not only receiving practical experience but also reflecting upon it in critical, productive ways. Weekly reading and writing assignments are intended to complement the daily routines of professional practice. Through these and online discussion forums, students approach many aspects of the work environment, including project delivery, financial management, legal and managerial organization, marketing, and more. And they read beyond the everyday office context to consider how the profession as a whole could—and perhaps should—be different. The aim is to integrate in a provisional way the historical, theoretical, economic, political and cultural aspects of architectural practice.

Students typically scatters across a wide variety of locations, working in diverse environments on different kinds of projects. This year was no exception. Among just 10 students, internship positions ranged from local (Northfield, including one working for Construction Services at Norwich) to national (Maryland, Indiana and Massachusetts) to far afield. In Berlin, Germany, Taylor Davidson enjoyed his CityLab experience so much he chose to remain for the internship, and in Wellington, New Zealand, Charles Thaxter, a 2013 Norwich B.S.A.S. graduate, returned in August for the Masters in Architecture after stints in China and New Zealand, and back to other locations in Vermont.

Work environments varied from large multidisciplinary offices to small residential studios. Projects included community-based nonprofit work, barn restorations, healthcare and other institutional design, and design-build endeavors.

Individual experiences also varied. Sheridan Steiner met with clients as well as laid drywall. Charles Thaxter worked on daylight studies and a master plan for a new school building. Kyle Niehaus faced the challenge of making an addition cohere well with an existing building. Dave Burke reflected upon the mixture of tasks that had to happen all at once, struck by “the idea that design and construction documents need to happen coincidentally, almost as one process.” Each student had his or her takeaway moments as well as occasional frustrations:from the drudgery of “redlines” (making corrections to a drawing on the basis of markups, typically in red) to the riveting surprise of realizing one is handed more responsibility than one had been expecting.

The varied perspectives gained from these internships animate the thesis work that follows, the research and design that occupies the bulk of the students’ time during the fall and spring semesters. Pursuing a topic entirely of their own formation through sustained research, as well as an architectural design whose site, parameters, and functional requirements are likewise their task to develop, this yearlong endeavor is the capstone experience of integrating all strands of their education into a coherent whole.

Whether students struggle with questions of institutional identity, confront environmental and climate concerns, address public and regional matters in Vermont or Germany, or explore the theoretical potential of film or sound, these masters students show great promise. We invite you to come by Chaplin Hall Gallery on Tuesday, Dec. 13, at 9 a.m. to see the results of the research phase of students’ projects at their Final Review.