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Architecture Student Builds Up Experience with a Smithsonian Co-op

About 24 million visitors annually drop by the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. But thanks to his current co-op work experience, UC architecture student Christopher Davis has the one-in-24 million chance to do far more than just visit. He is, in fact, working at the Smithsonian, helping to shape its future.

Date: 8/11/2006
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Submitted by Christopher Davis
UC ingot Everything, literally, from A-Z (from its art to its National Zoo) draws a world of visitors to Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution. Many come to view art, to study history on display, or to track technology’s advance.

Christopher Davis

University of Cincinnati graduate architecture student Christopher Davis, 23, of Loveland, Ohio, came to the Smithsonian to work (via UC’s cooperative education program) and for the experience in understanding the best processes for creating preservation efforts that will work in the real world.

Davis began a six-month, paid co-op in the Smithsonian’s Division of Architectural History and Historic Preservation in April. Since then, he’s been working with the National Zoo (part of the Smithsonian) as it fleshes out its master plan. 

“The Smithsonian is comprised of 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo, and many of its structures are historically or culturally significant, and so, new development must always balance with the institution’s public role, its historic and cultural heritage,” explained Davis.

What that means, in practical terms, is that expansions or other changes in the physical fabric of the institution’s facilities require a sensitivity to their potential impact on the historic and/or cultural character of the Smithsonian as a whole.

While on his co-op, Davis reported he’s been working with the National Zoo as it implements its master plan. “It’s a great job with a lot of self-direction that seeks to promote compromise,” said Davis. “Let’s say we’re at a master plan meeting reviewing a proposed renovation. Let’s say that new windows are needed in a historic building. We’ll review the change to see if it preserves the overall character of the building. If it doesn’t, I can make recommendations.”

As an advanced architecture student from UC’s top-ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, Davis has found that he’s able to make real contributions and problem-solving suggestions to further development while also respecting the historic value of a site.

Christopher Davis
Christopher Davis stands in front of the historic Smithsonian Castle.

“The fact that I’m trained as an architect has been a great benefit in this work,” according to Davis. “I can present alternate ideas, focus on sustainable strategies that work well for everyone. In this job, a professional without that background would pretty much be reduced to saying, ‘You can’t do that.’ And that would be seen as obstructionist, and in the long run, likely doesn’t garner greater support for historic preservation.”

And garnering support for historic preservation is an important long term goal for Davis. One of the reasons he was anxious for the chance to work for the Smithsonian and in Washington, D.C., is that he hopes to pursue a career that will allow him to affect issues surrounding architecture and policy management.

Davis said he’s always been intrigued with the question of how architects, developers, preservationists and communities can all work together to create livable, vibrant communities that serve people today while also connecting them to their own culture and collective history.

“I’m interested in broad policy decisions that affect everyday life, things like smart growth and accessibility,” stated Davis, who is heavily involved with the American Institute of Architecture Students, a national group for architecture students. For instance, last year, he was active in coordinating the group’s national conference in Cincinnati. He may also pursue plans with the group in the future. “…I’m considering running for [AIAS] national president,” he said, adding, “I think my best abilities come out when I’m working with people, and I’m more interested in broadly influencing the profession than in pursuing any specific design project.”

He added that his time at the Smithsonian – where he’ll work till mid-September – has taught him a lot about the process and patience that’s necessary to get an idea approved through organizational channels. “That’s been the best part about working here,” he said, adding, “That and the sheer fun and grandeur of working on the Mall in Washington, D.C.”  

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