Curriculum Changes Make for a Better-Designed Education
An Update on UC's Architecture Program

The assignment for UC's nationally ranked School of Architecture and Interior Design has been less than simple: Design the best architecture education possible for American students.

It's a long-term challenge that began in the summer of 2001 when the school, part of UC's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), launched new undergraduate and graduate programs. At that time, the school began to phase out its stand-alone, six-year baccalaureate program in favor of a course of study that offers a four-year bachelor's degree followed by a master's degree. The first master's class is set to graduate from the architecture program, which is ranked by professionals as the third best in the country, in June 2003.

This top-to-bottom renovation of the architecture curriculum is designed to meet the changing needs of practice in a field buffeted by a fast-changing economy as well as technology and materials advances. Nothing better exemplifies how dramatically and deeply the ongoing curriculum changes reach than UC's sophomore-year "immersion studio" which began last year and is unique among the nation's architecture programs.

According to Gordon Simmons, interim director of the architecture program, "This studio is intense. It eats up every bit of energy from our faculty and students. It's a return to the one-room schoolhouse in that it runs all day long throughout the 10 weeks of fall quarter, mixing together lecture and studio practice. The second-year students are not permitted to take any other courses anywhere in the university during that quarter. They focus only on design -- its poetic and pragmatic aspects. They're learning to integrate aesthetics, theory, practice and the basic mechanics of building design. They focus on design history and environmental and technical requirements. The students also visit some of the country's most unique, yet practically well-designed structures during two extended bus trips."

Similarly, the freshman curriculum has been thoroughly revised. "It used to be that we asked students to begin designing on the first day. It was sink or swim, but that produced na´ve structures," explained Marc Swackhamer, assistant professor of architecture. Now, the initial focus as students start their first year is the creative re-examination of design issues, starting from items and elements students are accustomed to in every day life: movies, dining, music, household appliances. Now, on the first day of their professional education, the future architects watch the film, "Babette's Feast," which explores the aesthetic possibilities to be found in cooking.

"We don't just learn from buildings. We can learn the principles of design from cuisine, art, dance, music and the every day objects around us," said Swackhamer. "All of these can be used to introduce design issues, to develop a critical disposition."

So, in addition to watching, drawing scenes from and re-watching "Babette's Feast," the first-year students in UC's revised freshman curriculum:

  • Eat in a fine restaurant and report on the experience: What worked aesthetically in the environment in terms of the meal, the space, the lighting, the dishes and utensils? What made it memorable, cuisine rather than sustenance? Likewise, what makes a common building vs. architecture?

  • Completely dismantle a washing machine, refrigerator or dishwasher to examine a parts-to-whole relationship. Just as all larger objects are made up of progressively tinier parts, so it is with a building.

  • Take the appliance pieces and create full-scale, 3-D, "self-portrait" sculptures. Up to 60 line the stairs of DAAP every winter.

  • Create musical instruments from the appliance parts. The architecture freshman must write original compositions and perform in small groups.

  • Fashion large, 8x4 foot brightly colored "steps" of plywood and metal hardware that generate a musical note when stepped upon by the campus community.

  • Fashion large, variably shaped caves where those entering can explore the curvature of the walls, boundaries, and the relationship between light and dark.
  • This overall redesign of the undergraduate experience is linked to a new master's of architecture. Students completing the new four-year undergraduate curriculum are now eligible, because of the extensive work experience they gain via UC's cooperative education program, to seek admittance into the new, two-year master's curriculum.

    UC undergraduates in architecture who apply for the new 4+2 option to earn a master's begin advanced studies days after receiving their undergraduate degree. They begin in June, just after graduation (and so the two-year master's program is actually two years and three months). In addition to coursework and intensive research, the master's program includes a 6-month co-op work experience and a 3-month "option" quarter for additional work, study or travel.

    Said Simmons, "They integrate their 6-month co-op with their master's thesis research. They must conduct real-world research while on co-op. We call it an e-Coop because we, as faculty, are in constant e-mail contact with them, and we post research results on the school Web site." He added that the revised curriculum, while seeking a more rigorous education, builds on the strength of UC's vaunted cooperative education program. In fact, UC is the only school in the country in which full-time, cooperative education work experience is required.

    A longer master's program is also open to students from other disciplines, allowing them time for additional coursework. All students in the master's program select an area of emphasis for in-depth study beyond their basic design education. This career-focused study includes sustainable development, urban design, interior design, theory and practice, building economics and production, or historic preservation.

    "We're offering more academic rigor and specialization, and in return, we're gaining greater demographic diversity in gender, in the form of non-traditional students with a broader range of life experiences, students with degrees in other disciplines, students from other geographic areas and from varying ethnicities. With the reworking of the undergraduate program and the new master's, we now have a more interesting mix of students and of coursework that better prepares students for an increasingly competitive, specialized market," said Simmons, adding that the school just began its second year of offering the Master's of Architecture. There are 56 students in the first-year track and 56 in the second-year track.

    First-year master's student Sarah Lauffer from Cleveland began her advanced coursework after earning her four-year baccalaureate degree last spring. "I didn't even look at other schools. I knew that UC's baccalaureate program was nationally ranked, so I was willing to give the master's a try," she said. So far, she best likes the specialty seminar courses with their sharp focus on a specific area of design -- interior design, sustainable development, historic preservation - previously described.

    The reworking of UC's architecture curriculum is part of a long-standing debate within the architecture profession as to what form of education is best for preparing architects for their chosen profession. It's a debate that stretches back to the beginning of the 20th century and still reverberates today as more universities with undergraduate architecture programs are adding options for advanced study.

    For instance, National Architectural Accrediting Board statistics show a 23 percent increase in the number of Master's of Architecture students nationally between 1995 and 1999. During that same time period, the number of students graduating with Master's of Architecture degrees rose from 36 to 43 percent. And 25 universities now offer doctorates in architecture as compared to 12 in 1990. Of the 107 accredited architecture schools in the country, 75 already offer a Master of Architecture.

    However, while academics debate whether a baccalaureate or master's degree is best, practitioners are less concerned, according to Simmons. He said, "The bottom line is that an architecture firm wants an effective person in the office. We're seeking to provide that...."