Architecture students learn from pros, solve real design challenges


The Taubman College Gallery hums as four teams of six students each discuss approaches that might be taken on their project. Every once in awhile someone grabs pencil and paper to sketch out what he or she is trying to explain.

A large computer monitor at the head of each table displays the work of some of the students’ favorite architects, as terms like light membranes, solid volumes, kissing bow truss and waffle slabs are used to describe possible design choices.

U-M students work with visiting architect Mark Lee, founding partner of the international architectural firm Johnston Marklee and former faculty at Harvard, Princeton, and UCLA.

The students’ mentor for the weekend is due to arrive soon and they are excited to hear his perspective.

“We hope he’ll steer us in the right direction,” said Taubman student Cassandra Rota.

“We’re trying to take his values and apply it to this project. It may not be how we typically design,” said student Aly Truwit.

He is Mark Lee, founding partner of Johnston Marklee, an international architectural firm based in Los Angeles. The students are working on a real architecture design challenge Lee has brought from his office.

Students in an engaged learning workshop called Practice Sessions will mock-up a design of a solar umbrella roof for a former wallpaper factory that now is a graduate art center at UCLA—a project the firm has been working on for some time and will complete this year.

A single roof must unify the facility that includes studio spaces, lecture halls, art production spaces, and ceramic and sculpture labs, taking into account the important elements of light and heat.

“We can basically get a quick fix on a problem. You get very fresh and immediate solutions that the students come up with,” Lee said. “There are four different teams with four different approaches.”

The students who work feverishly over a long weekend—four days to be exact—wonder if Lee will see something in their final creations that could be used to design the real project.

“I guess that would be the hope. That a little bit of something that you do gets incorporated into the final design,” said architecture graduate student Logan Richmond. “It’s a true transplant of the office. It’s a real job. It’s a real building that gets to be built, and it’s interesting to see how we’re coming up with concepts and different ideas and techniques.”

Lee, who has taught architecture at Harvard, Princeton, and UCLA, said so much learning about the field these days is focused on what can be done on the computer. Even with the benefits of modern technology, Lee values face-to-face contact and models built by hand, which is what each student team will do throughout the weekend, leading to a juried presentation at the end.

Practice Sessions is a project funded by the university’s Third Century Initiative. U-M leadership dedicated $25 million to faculty and staff projects that promised to transform learning as the university, celebrating its bicentennial this year, defined education for its next century. Practice Sessions received one of the top awards. The $350,000 grant allows the workshop to be offered each fall and winter over five years.

The Winter 2017 workshop marked the fourth time an outside expert has been on campus to work with 20-25 students from Friday through Monday. The students don’t get credit for their involvement but participate to learn in an environment that is a departure from their usual courses.

Architecture assistant professors Ellie Abrons and Adam Fure designed the program as an intensive, hands-on study experience with masters in the field of architecture.

“We’d like to push the program to be more practice based. The perception is you either are in the academy or you build buildings. We’re trying to find the intersection of that,” said Abrons, adding that the workshops encourage deep thinking about architecture problems.

Fure says the experiences are designed to be intimate, intensive and collaborative.

“The students have loved the opportunities,” he said. “They get to be part of a team, collaborate and learn new skills, get exposed to new ideas, and the hope is that those ideas get taken back into the design studios and influence the work they are doing in a typical semester.”

Julia Muntean, an undergraduate student, said the program allowed her to “get to know a way of thinking” of architects she admires. She appreciated having the architect “pick apart” her team’s design.

Master’s student Tony Printz said the experience was not what he thought it would be.

“I was expecting something more conceptual but it was very practical, and the references he (Lee) was giving us were helpful to me and my education,” he said.

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