Monday, January 22, 2007

Pedagogy in Liberal Arts Colleges - Ronald's Response pt.2

In my previous post, I gave a general run-down on the Studio Art programme in general. So in this post, I shall focus on how architecture sits within the programme. (Or rather, how architect-wannabes make the most out of this given framework.) I find that it’s still a very well-kept secret even at Wesleyan.

In actual fact, there are no more than 2 faculty members who are truly architecturally qualified. (For want of a better term) The first is Joseph Siry, our professor for architectural history. Siry is a nationally-renowned Wright and Sullivan scholar, though on campus he teaches one seminar on Frank Lloyd Wright, one module surveying the history of modern architecture, one module surveying the history of European architecture up to 1750, and one seminar class on discourse and critical theory. Siry is a truly inspiring and exceptional teacher.

[Coincidentally, Henry Russell Hithcock, who curated the polemic “International Style” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1932, also formerly taught at Wesleyan.]

The other person is the studio instructor for architecture, who has spent a few years working in the profession, has embarked on personal creative endeavours, and usually has a M.Arch degree from one of the East Coast architecture schools (i.e. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, etc) The current instructor at Wesleyan (who came in after I left), Elijah, was one of the top of his class at Yale, worked for a few years at Cesar Pelli’s office, and was a finalist in the High Line ideas competition, before taking on the position at Wesleyan. It’s a comfortable teaching position that affords a lot of space for thinking and pursuing personal creative endeavours.

Because I was at Wesleyan during a time of transition, I had the original instructor, Martha, take me for Arch I and Arch II, and then a visiting instructor, Barrett, as my thesis advisor after I returned from Columbia. Both of whom inspired me immensely.

In general, only about 5 students per year go on to major in studio art with an architecture concentration. My year had a bumper crop of 8 students. (remember that we all share the same thesis advisor who is also studio instructor.)

So as a re-cap from the earlier post, in terms of studio classes, there is only Arch I, Arch II, and a year-long thesis investigation that culminates in a gallery installation. (There is one more class, Measured Drawing, which I did not get to take....and still regret not having taken. It involves analytical drawings of objects and finding angles and hidden geometrical construction lines in seemingly normal 2D graphics etc.)

Architecture I is the introductory class which is intensely abstract. (Depending on the instructor, the way the assignments are designed are different.) Only the final assignment has a fixed site and a fixed program and involves a real building. The motive for setting such abstract assignments is for us to understand that behind each building or piece of architecture exists a concept or parti that pulls everything together.

Because it is an introductory class for students with little or no architectural experience, it can only deal with very elemental ideas: space, form, solid, void, material, etc. To give you an example, my very first assignment was to pick an object analogous to habitable space and to recreate a model of its form, and a model representing the space it contains, in corrugated cardboard. I post a picture of it below. My second assignment was subsequently to abstract the lessons I learnt from reproducing the first object into an abstract form within an imaginary 9-inch cube with a randomly assigned material. I post pictures below. (so embarrassing.)

The sneaker, that was my "object"

An abstracted form that explores the idea of "layers" from the sneaker.
Also delves into the idea of skin and structure.


Architecture II is the class that involves what we commonly know as architecture: with a site, program, client requirements. Of course, the principle is that we are supposed to apply the conceptual/abstraction tools from Arch I into this class. We started the class with analytical precedence assignments of houses and drew models of analytical diagrams (e.g. parti, circulation, etc) on Form Z. Then there was an assignment with a real client, a possible extension to the Center for East Asian Studies. Most of our drawings were pencil drawings, and models were made of basswood. (pictures posted below)

proposed extention to Wesleyan's Centre for
East Asian Studies


The quality of the work and extent of commitment from the students can cover a range, so the experience still does not have the intensity of the charettes that architecture students go through. Our instructors usually acknowledge the limitations of resources and exposure that such a small school can provide, and hence encourage seriously interested students to gain more studio experience elsewhere: like the summer Career Discovery Programme run by Harvard GSD, or the year-long New York/Paris Programme that I did with Columbia.

To me, the part of the programme that is most rewarding and most intense is the senior thesis project that culminates in a gallery installation. It is the one time when one is pushed beyond the limit to learn, with a group of 8 other thesis-mates, and to make discoveries. We usually have to first ask a question, then refine it, then test it, not unlike how you guys do your thesis. It is as possible to pursue questions that relate to a building, site, program (i.e. conventional architecture) as it is possible to pursue questions that culminate in a sculptural installation or something else. (bearing in mind that it is a Studio Art major, not an Architecture major) There are review sessions with guest critiques a few times each semester.

Among my thesis mates, I opted to do a more “conventional architecture” project, whilst my friend Taka pursued a question of ephemerality that led to him weaving textured fabric out of Japanese rice paper that formed memorable spaces within the gallery. Another friend, Sara, loved fabrics and focussed her question on translating architectural principles into clothing. Specifically, she focussed on the ritual of wearing clothes and the process of wrapping (putting on the clothes). In one of her pieces, she focussed on removeable parts (think pre-fab construction) and a quality of hem not unlike construction detailing. I am posting pictures of Taka’s thesis project and mine.

Taka's thesis, entitled "Widow's Walk"

Sara testing one of her pieces in our studio.

Ronald's thesis, don't ask me to explain. (too troublesome lah.)

Ronald's gallery installation, plus one more
large section drawing behind the camera

All in all, the beauty of the programme is that it encourages discovery through rigorous investigation and in a way that is not bogged down by the constraints demanded of a professional programme. The Wesleyan program affords a very unique kind of flexibility and diversity. I learnt as much from myself, as I learnt from my peers, as I learnt from intense interaction with my advisor. This, despite the fact that we had 8 very different projects by 8 very different students. ( in my year)

Typically of the handful of architecture concentration students for each class year, a little more than half will eventually go on to a professional M.Arch programme in an architecture school. (Usually after having spent some time off working, or travelling, or on some fellowship, etc.) I’m personally going through that rite of passage now, working as a model-builder/designer in a firm.

Recent graduates have gone on to Harvard (2), Yale (4), Columbia (1), Penn (2), Princeton (1), and Rice (1) [that I know of or have met, at least]. Our most well-known architectural alumnus is probably Paul Lewis, of Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects, currently director of graduate studies at Princeton.

As mentioned in my previous post, however, a large part of the education involves what I learnt outside of architecture. Be that as it may, I wonder if it is too long-winded for me to post yet another instalment on just that part of my education (which is as crucial to my education and my understanding of what architecture I want to pursue.)