Redrawing the architecture major

A restructuring of the architecture major three years ago emphasized design techniques within the undergraduate program.
A restructuring of the architecture major three years ago emphasized design techniques within the undergraduate program. Photo by Natasha Thondavadi.

Three years ago, administrators at the School of Architecture turned back to the drawing board.

Students and professors had raised concerns about the undergraduate architecture major’s sequence of courses, said Bimal Mendis ’98 ARC ’02, the major’s current director of undergraduate studies and an assistant dean at the Architecture School.

This May marks the graduation of the first class to have completed the restructured major, which includes a new prerequisite sequence and an updated history survey taught through the School of Architecture.

While the standard five-year undergraduate program offered at other universities enables students to obtain the license for professional practice without any further training, architecture major Kevin Adkisson ’12 said, Yale undergraduates do not graduate with enough skills to compete with those students.

Instead, students at Yale are meant to benefit from a liberal arts education and only begin taking prerequisite architecture courses in their sophomore year, Mendis said, adding that only about half of the students in the program are planning to become professional architects.

Still, Yale’s new undergraduate architecture program treads a fine line between Yale College’s liberal arts philosophy and the preprofessional culture of its home in the Architecture School’s Rudolph Hall. Due to the major’s rigorous coursework early on and focus on production, six undergraduate students in the major interviewed said that they feel the program is more “preprofessional” than other majors at Yale.

“I think compared to the general Yale major, it’s more geared toward going to professional school,” Sydney Shea ’14 said. “But I personally don’t want to be an architect. I’m really interested in it, but I don’t enjoy it enough to do it as a career.”

A NARROWER FOCUS

Mendis said that one of the most significant changes the program made was to move “The Analytic Model,” a course in which students study one canonical building in depth and use it to practice architectural production techniques, to the sophomore year. The early placement of the course, which is now a prerequisite to the major, has discouraged students uninterested in learning the techniques of design from applying to the program.

“You realize whether or not architecture is right for you as a student,” Scott Simpson ’13 said of the course’s role in students’ decisions to apply. “It’s a really honest perspective on what the major is really like.”

Mendis said that since the course — known for its emphasis on drawing and modeling skills — was moved to sophomore year, the program has grown smaller. Prior to the class of 2012, the first class to study in the revamped major, between 20 and 25 students entered the architecture program each year. Now, he said, that number has been reduced to between 16 and 19.

Although over 50 students enrolled in the fall 2011 sophomore prerequisite “Introduction to Architecture,” a survey course that involves basic drawing assignments, only about 22 decided to take “The Analytic Model,” which requires even more drawing technique, current students in the major said. Eighteen students applied to the major this April, yet two of five sophomore applicants interviewed saying they are not sure they will continue with the major next year.

Once accepted into the major, students choose between three tracks — architecture and design; history, theory and criticism; and architecture and urban studies. While the total number of students in the major has decreased, a larger percentage of those enrolled have opted for the design track, Mendis said.

Alyssa Navarro ’14 said that she began the sophomore sequence at the beginning of the year, intending to major in architecture after learning about the history of architecture in her history of art courses. But though Navarro wanted to pursue the history, theory and criticism track, she felt intimidated by the production requirements of the sophomore sequence.

Now, Navarro said she plans to study of the history of architecture through the Department of the History of Art, adding that neither option is a perfect fit for her interests because the history of art major does not offer as many courses that focus on architecture as she would like.

“I’m not a drawer, so I was already a step behind,” Navarro said.

Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the School of Architecture, said the undergraduate architecture program should emphasize the production elements of architecture. It is possible to study other aspects of the discipline through a variety of majors, he added, noting that many students interested in urban studies but not architectural design apply to the ethics, politics and economics major.

“An architecture program has to be about design,” Stern said.

NEW WAY OF THINKING

While the program does place a significant amount of emphasis on design, Simpson, a junior in the major, said that he does not believe undergraduate architecture students feel forced into a professional track. Both students and faculty members said that the critical thinking skills developed in a design education are useful in careers other than architecture.

Cynthia Deng ’14 said that while she is devoted to learning about architecture through the lens of production, she does not plan on entering the field.

“I think it teaches you a different way of thinking and gives you a set of skills you couldn’t get anywhere else,” Deng said. “Learning to think about buildings from so many different angles teaches you how to think critically.”

Mendis emphasized that students still take many classes in Yale College other than the 15 architecture courses required for the major, giving them a true liberal arts experience.

In comparison to five-year undergraduate programs, Adkisson said, the Yale architecture program still adopts a much broader definition of architecture. Since so many courses from a other disciplines count towards the major’s requirements, he added, the program adopts a liberal arts approach within the major itself.

Although the program’s recent focus on design has made visualization a larger part of majoring in architecture, Mendis added that creating drawings and models is as much a form of expression as practice for a professional education.

“Here, you’re articulating your ideas visually, and you’re analyzing things visually. The studio environment is where that takes place,” he said. “But that’s no different from a humanities major expressing their ideas in writing.”

Adkisson said that if he decides not to become an architect, he may never make a model again, but he will still graduate with an enhanced ability to think creatively that he can carry into other areas of his life.

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