Reinforcing the Excitement of Architecture as a Mentor

October 05, 2016

It’s Autumn, and across the country students are starting or returning to school. This is true for the Architecture and Landscape Architecture students at the University of Washington’s College of the Built Environment. September 28 was the first official day of classes but a group of almost 80 students jumped in early to participate in a charrette hosted by the UW Professional Advisory Committee.

Fellow SRGer Katie Hunt and I volunteered to be mentors to the first year undergraduate and graduate students during the day-long charrette. As UW alumni, we both remember the nerves and excitement of starting out in the architecture program. Little did we know how many hours we’d spend in Studio, the lifelong friendships we’d create, the joy of a critique going well, or the zombie-like tiredness of pulling an all-nighter to complete a project. And while that may not sound fun to an outsider, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. It was an amazing experience. So, here we are, Katie and I, back again to support and encourage a new group of budding architects about to embark on an incredible journey.

Katie explains that, “I really like being involved with my local university. It’s energizing as a professional to remember how I felt in school. Students have the opportunity to design critically, not read a code book, and while I need to know the codes now in my career, it’s fun to be unbridled for a change.”

The challenge of the day was to tackle the five blocks of Campus Parkway. Campus Parkway connects the west side of campus to the food and retail hub of University Avenue and to the newly constructed student housing buildings. The students were split into ten teams of seven and were assigned a block of Campus Parkway and the theme of either art or health. After walking around the sites to get familiar with the area and the constraints, the teams rolled up their sleeves and started developing their ideas.

A few hours, and many rolls of trace paper later, each team presented their ideas to the group. Solutions ranged from light-themed art installations to large scale infrastructure interventions. There were bridges, skate parks, boardwalks, and water walls proposed as ways to connect students safely to campus and mitigate the noisy surrounding streets and bus routes.

Katie’s group used the theme of art to transform a slope into a natural amphitheater. They took advantage of the gentle grade of the slope to wedge in stages and add a kinetically lit pedestrian path that interacted with pedestrians by glowing brighter as more people stood on it.

My group had health as our theme. The main challenge was how to best move students across busy Fifteenth Avenue and guide them toward West Campus. The two competing ideas were to limit street traffic to two bus-only lanes or build a bridge over Fifteenth Avenue. Ultimately the bridge idea won. They added a bike-only bridge, so students could access a campus skate park surrounded by stadium seating.

All in all, it was a fun and productive day. The students learned how to begin sketching out their ideas, manage their time, and of course recognize that “north is always up,” on a plan drawing. As a Professional Advisory Council member, I was thrilled to participate in one of our many events alongside so many other local professionals who volunteered their Saturday to work with the students at UW. When I was a student there, I was always impressed by the amount of time the architectural community donated to the university. Katie and I are happy to pay that back now.

The advice Katie has for the students she mentors is restraint. When participating in quarterly studio reviews and coaching students at UW, she consistently advises students to focus on critical design: “Not everything needs to be a big move,” although she concedes, “sometimes it is fun to just pile it all on, and school is the place to do that.”

I agree that it’s fun to push boundaries and see how far a design can go. My advice for students is to be bold and explore ideas while they have the freedom to try out crazy ideas. Also, shower before your juried critique. Seriously.

Keasa Jones