BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last week I visited the University of Oregon's White Stag building for what is an annual ritual: architecture students presenting their thesis projects. At the invitation of UO professor Gerry Gast, I perused the work of his graduate-level architecture studio class entitled "The Urban Stage."
Each year the event poses a dilemma: if one attends an official student presentation, there is the chance to hear in depth for up to an hour the ideas, details and inspirations behind a project. But with 16 students per class, and work from two other classes on display (Biosynergies Thesis Studio with professor Nancy Cheng and Regenerative Design Thesis Studio with professor Hajo Neis), if one only has a couple of hours to devote, that leaves time to hear maybe two presentations and none left to see other students' work. In the past I'd done the former, listening to a couple in-depth student presentations. This time I chose to wander on my own perusing all the students' work, although I found myself missing students' insight into their work.
[In full disclosure, the University of Oregon's architecture department is a Portland Architecture sponsor.]
Gast has been teaching at the University of Oregon since 1994, and has taught this public-buildings class for the past eight years. I asked him if students had changed much in that time. "There has been a remarkably small change in student attitudes. All architecture students tend to be filled with idealism and enthusiasm. That has never really waned," he says. "There’s been the ups and downs of the economy, but they are still very optimistic. I think that’s true of students in all fields: even though the jobs have been cut back, they’re confident in their career choice. We have maybe seen since '08 a little more interest in you might say courses that deal with more professional subjects and less in theory. But there’s still a balance. UO’s not a theory or a practice school. It tries to be both. Our students like to get into the details but still try to have a vision."
To be an architect requires a diverse set of skills: the visual acumen to draw and render forms, the sense of social and physical engineering to create functional spaces, and the charisma to meet and understand and express clients' wishes and dreams. Part of the interest in attending student-thesis presentations is to see how those skills come together, or are in the process of doing so. To present a thesis isn't the same as being an architect, but it requires a lot of the same skills.
"The work needed to be able to stand alone without a student presenting it, as this was an exhibition as well as a review," said Becca Cavell of THA Architecture, who attended and critiqued the presentations this year and is scheduled to teach a UO studio this fall. "Some of the presentations were exceptionally well designed from a graphic standpoint – great overall layouts, strong use of color and tone, and good typographic design can generate immediately attractive spreads that draw you to them. The models help too – some of the large scale, detailed models exploring architectural tectonics did a good job of saying, 'Look at me.'"
But, Cavell added, "The thrill of creating a 3-D model sometimes sidetracks students from the importance of providing reviewers with some basic information – good plans, sections and elevations are still useful for a quick understanding of a project as well as showing how a project has been appropriately developed. And while public speaking is easy for some, harder for others, excruciating for some, it’s an important part of life as a professional and one of the most under-taught skills in architecture school. Most of these students seemed well rested and had some idea about what they were going to say about their work, but some of them still struggled to convey the main themes of their work in a concise manner."
"My biggest criticism? It was incredible how many students – the vast majority – failed to adequately educate the newcomer about their site and its context," Cavell said. "Weeks and months of exhaustive research and documentation was forgotten in the excitement of the final building design. We, the reviewers, need to know: where is this? What are the neighboring buildings like? Which way is north? What is it like here? Without this information it is hard to formulate an idea about a project."
The student projects from Gast's class, which were charged with designing some kind of urban public space, offered an interesting variety. Some, such as Ryan Tyni and Ashley Koger, imagined boathouses along the water as places for intermingling and forming community ties. Others, such as Natasha Shirazi, Colin Jensen and Sarah Lundy, created community centers centered around creative arts. Jeremy Katich and Patrick Taylor imagined artisan food emporiums, while Nate Wood and Scott Winters created museums.
Given that some student projects were set in Portland and others elsewhere, I asked Gast how much of an example our city provides.
"We’re very fortunate in Portland to have so many good public space examples. We’re a good resource. But I also like to have people look at other places in the world where there are exciting things happening; projects like the Oslo Opera House, for example, are very stimulating," he said. "Portland doesn’t really have that kind of spectacular architecture that combines new public spaces with signature buildings. It would be nice to have a few more spectacular urban buildings like that. We have spaces like Pioneer Courthouse Square. But it doesn’t engage particular buildings. I tried with the studio to create interactions between buildings and outdoor public spaces and look at the tensions and relationships. We don’t have a space like the Seattle Library, which is a very stimulating interior public space, or the Olympic sculpture park. We really could use more of that. We really don’t have anything on the riverfront that’s provocative that’s been done recently."
"I think the students did investigate the whole idea of public space in depth," Gast added. "We looked at various philosophies of public space and writers like Richard Sennett who have written about public spaces as opportunities for diversity: to meet and engage with people not like themselves. I think our best example is Saturday Market: you have a whole wide range of people who show up for that. I think we need more events and spaces for that. if we could get a public market on the level of seattle or even a lesser example it’d be great. But I would hope we could get some public buildings like the Seattle public library that are open to lots of different people all the time and make some of our architecture more accessible and public. We really don’t have that kind of building here."
Still, it was illuminating to see these grad students complete the high-wire act of generating designs and presenting them to not only grading professors but members of the professional public with real criticisms to offer. If it's daunting, though, it also may be the way to a job.
"These end-of-my-life-as-a-student shows are also recruitment fairs," Cavell says. "Some students get this: they put out business cards and promote themselves well. Marketing is another under-understood aspect of our profession and some of these students are naturals. We should hire them."