reflection from a graduate student whose name is a cardinal direction… Southern Ellis
What is the future of architecture? Design schools around the country, including the wonderful institution for which I have had the pleasure of attending for the last six years, continue to debate over this question. Forums are held, conferences are established, and articles are written discussing what might be around the corner for the field of architecture and, in return, design students. Clearing the air from the start, I have never been confused for someone who was not an optimist, and at times less than optimistic peers have even deemed me borderline naïve. This being said, I feel the future of architecture is far more predictable than our debates are leading us to believe and I feel “our generation” of designers will be marked by several distinct characteristics that carry us to another echelon of influence within the world around us. So what are the mystery ingredients I’m talking about? I believe they are multidisciplinary collaboration, mentorship, and a servant’s mentality. I feel each is imperative to the future of the architecture, and I believe the design studio is the perfect place to stir these ingredients into the mix. It’s my hope that the future of architecture will be marked by less talk and more action; less “I” and more “we”; and design will be less about me, and more about you.
This being said, it has often been frustrating as a student to sit back and watch our educational system, and the world around us for that matter, present itself as the direct antagonist to these pillars that I feel are in our future. The path to truly bringing interdisciplinary collaboration and vertical integration to fruition often resembles a minnow trying to swim upstream through a waterfall and a servant’s mentality often seems alien in a world and profession where pride and respect are so endeared. Although I agree that a student should assume a reasonable burden for creating change and molding their own education, long standing syllabus structures, course requirements, and antiquated ways of doing things leave many students to simply settle for the status quo rather than fighting to truly make a difference. This being said, I have been blessed to be involved in several efforts that break away from the normal studio experience to reach new levels of interdisciplinary collaboration, mentorship, and passion. Each of these efforts in return has led to vast imprints on my life and resulted in even greater impact around the world.
One such experience came this weekend when I received the pleasure of tagging along with Professor Lang’s fourth year studio as they travelled to the Texas-Mexico border to undertake the “Colonias Unidas Border Project” in the small town of Las Lomas, Texas. I feel this experience is a perfect example of the future of architecture in action. Driving the barren stretch of highway leading our convoy south towards the Mexican border, I learned that the students had spent the semester undertaking a series of studies each dedicated to bringing a distinct aspect of improvement to the lives of the people of Las Lomas. Stepping outside the realm of a simple “form giver” into the role of “change maker”, students researched everything from wax candle making to aquaponics, pavilion structures, and mural design. I also learned that the group had organized a number of fundraising projects around campus in order to see the project to fruition. So, in its essence, the truly multidisciplinary studio had already immersed its students into the realms of chemistry, biology, physics, art, finance, and marketing before the trip even began. Adding to the multidisciplinary aspect of the excursion, Professor Lang was accompanied on the trip by professors from the Department of Construction Science, Professor John Nichols, and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning, Professor Cecilia Giusti. Throughout the project the trio of experts provided pertinent insight into their field of interest for the betterment of the final result.
Another aspect that I valued from this experience was the fact that each of these professors acted more as an advisor to simply make sure we didn’t kill ourselves, while giving each student the freedom to act within their own specific area of interest to serve the community of Las Lomas in a unique way. Whether it was digital fabrication, artistic painting, video editing, photography, or graphic design, each student was allowed the freedom to serve through his or her own specific design talents. Inversely, the students were also exposed to a number of other realms of design that they would have never seen within a traditional studio setting. One might think that in any situation freedom to explore might be the result of a lack of leadership, yet it was evident that the leaders involved in the project were as passionate about truly helping the people in Las Lomas as the students working on their project, and it was their passion and encouragement that led the students to dream of new ways to impact the project….a true symbol of mentorship. I also appreciate the fact that graduate students such as myself were looped into the project, adding a sense of vertical integration. I think this unique opportunity for graduate students and undergraduates to work alongside each other has a huge benefit for both parties. As a graduate student I have always enjoyed opportunities when I could serve in mentorship roles for undergrads because I think we are in a unique position of empathy with an added level of experience to help them gain perspective on what they may be going through. Serving in these roles has also helped me refine my leadership style, which I am sure will help me as I embark on a career as an architect. The benefits for undergrads are similar. They can gain a new perspective on what may be ahead from someone who has actually walked in their shoes a few years earlier. The key to mentorship, as in any relationship, ultimately comes from attitude. Humility, openness, and a genuine caring spirit are the keys to successful mentorship, and thus, a successful project.
Lastly, as mentioned earlier, I believe a servant’s mentality will be the key to changing the influence our generation of architects achieves. The often quoted scene from Ayn Rand’s iconic novel, The Fountainhead, of the architect Howard Roark proclaiming, “My reward, my purpose, my life, is the work itself – my work done my way! Nothing else matters to me!”, has long been the perception of the architecture profession. The remnants of the prideful design snob can be seen throughout our educational system and design community, yet it is my hope that these efforts of critique for the sake of pride would one day shift to caring encouragement for the sake of incredible change around the world. This project is a perfect example of service because it took a group of students and faculty out of their comfort zone, College Station, and brought them to a place where even the smallest level of effort, creativity, and passion could bring about incredible change for a community. This project also allowed the students to see the faces of the people they are directly helping. A simple smile and a snow cone from a joyful community member can instantly make the pain from countless hours in studio seem more than worth it. I have always been a huge believer that college is the ideal time to embark on such service oriented endeavors, given the flexibility of schedule and relatively few life obligations, so it is always encouraging to see a studio professor make this a priority for their class.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Howard Thurman who said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I think this statement embodies the “Colonias Unidas Border Project”, my personal beliefs, and my hope for the future of architecture. I believe the world can use passionate people in every field, including architecture, who are not overcome with the need to talk about the future, but are dedicated to becoming leaders of change in the world around them. I think leadership through example and a servant’s mentality are needed in order to bring about change in our profession, and it is our responsibility as young architects to be this change.