October Thesis Feature #3

MAKING RIDICULOUSNESS RELEVANT:

Tips on how to make even the most unconventional architectural thesis resonate within the conventions of standard design practice

Rebecca Soja

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Your thesis is labeled as unconventional – own it. When the skeptics start asking questions about why your project matters to the architectural profession, here’s how you can respond:

Where’s the architecture? There is an inherent assumption that an architectural thesis must include a building with a typical program to be considered architectural. However, a fundamental part of the argument could be that architecture is missing or disengaged when it comes to reconciling some of the most pressing and controversial issues of our time. I don’t know of many architects volunteering to design a beef processing facility, do you? But it should matter that architecture and design excellence (in a traditional sense) begin to intersect with the networks of countless externalities and unsustainable conditions that extend beyond immediate awareness.

What’s your agenda? Architecture is ubiquitous. Practically anything can be linked back to the built environment or the user experience and as architects we gain inspiration from a plethora of sources – history, art, natural sciences, technology, culture, politics, forms, and materials. Architecture is agency through design and it doesn’t end at the building envelope. In a thesis, there is the opportunity to redefine what constitutes the built environment beyond permanent structures. One can embrace notions of temporality, resilience, ecosystems (social, natural, or otherwise), etc. Push your agenda, at whatever scale from community down to a wall section detail, in favor of a broader public agenda, using programs, policies, spatial relationships, workflows, fabrication processes, and materials or systems as mechanisms for change.

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Are you a vegetarian? My thesis may have been about industrial beef, but truth be told, I’m not a vegetarian. Being passionate about a topic is a plus, but not a requirement to deliver an impressive body of work. You can make the project interesting in other ways by approaching whatever the problem is with curiosity and rigor. I chose beef because it was ostentatious and encompassed relevant themes of cultural overconsumption, the serious immediate and long-term ramifications and costs of sizeable industrial processes, and lack of transparency. I wanted to inject an architectural lens into a place it had never really been to make a point about the segregation of production and consumption practices and spaces. The focus could have just as easily been some other resource or commodity like petroleum, water, or electronics. Once I got started diving deep into research, I wanted to become a mini expert.

How will you apply what you’ve learned in the profession? I’m always surprised about the positive response my thesis arouses. I may never design a transparency tour, but as an architect, I feel it is my responsibility to consider equity, safety, health, wellness, sustainability, and context in order to design with intent and impact. Working on my thesis broadened my perspective and helped me to improve design and representation skill sets, which has allowed me to find a niche in my firm where I can be involved in research and developing tools or workflows that integrate all stakeholders throughout the design process. Two years after completing my thesis, I’m still getting a return on investment from the creative energy I put into it. It’s exciting to see the conversation continue.

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What if unconventional was the new normal? It seems that some of the most revolutionary ideas are deemed crazy at first. If everyone took an unconventional approach to thesis, whether it be the topic or the process, imagine how much we could contribute to the profession. Even if your thesis isn’t buildable, that doesn’t mean you can’t grab the attention of a practicing architect. In fact, you have to differentiate yourself to make a statement or nobody will notice you have something to say. If you start a conversation, whether with architects or other disciplines, you might motivate implementation/adoption of an idea or collective action towards a solution to an issue. What was once considered unconventional, may just become the latest trend and a future design standard.

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Don’t take thesis too seriously (seriously, though). You’ll get a lot more out of the endeavor if you factor a little bit of ridiculousness into the equation.

For an extended version of this post with additional tidbits of advice I have based on my experience, plus a look into my “unconventional” thesis, The Meat You Haven’t Met, check out the following links:

https://spark.adobe.com/page/HNhSHGzUXwEC7/

https://issuu.com/rebeccasoja/stacks/442f426a5c20415f845abd1f075ea061

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October Thesis Feature #2

Today we feature our second blog post highlighting one of the projects from this year’s thesis showcase winners. Great insight for those in the middle of this type of project!

3 Lessons from My Architectural Thesis

Pedro Sanchez

Much of my experience during my thesis project holds true in the professional world. It all seems different at first, but it is all about how you approach each challenge you face. Most of what you learn in school is actually independent of scale and topic. With that in mind, it seems that for most people, the thesis project carries the most pressure. A wise friend and colleague once said that the thesis does not define you. It does not have to be the best project you’ve ever seen. Putting too much pressure on yourself can leave you paralyzed. This is true for every project, and the thesis is just another test.

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My thesis, titled “Recovering Civic Space”, looks at the role that freeway and rail infrastructure plays as it relates to the city. It is about taking an area of uninhabitable and divisive infrastructure and elevating it to something civic. It accepts the premises that the presence of, and the need for, that infrastructure will remain. Just south of the Capitol Building, I’m proposing a master plan that makes use of valuable land, reconnects neighborhoods, and connects a place experienced through a series of civic spaces.

1. Sometimes the Topic Chooses You

You might be interested in everything, which if you are like me, makes it difficult to pick a topic for your thesis. The main thing to do is to not panic. Surround yourself with images and texts revolving around topics that you find interesting. If the project is going to choose you, then all you have to do is facilitate. Have conversations with your colleagues, professors, and even just with yourself. At this point you are well versed in the studio culture, and you know that sometimes you just have to try something and get feedback.

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This thesis project began with a conversation with my thesis chair, landing the project in a broad area of Washington D.C. Although I did not have a topic yet, I had the start. We knew that the selected area had many problems, and the topic emerged from studying those problems. The whole project felt like a discovery.

2. When Time is Scarce

Try to be realistic about what you can produce, while considering time and resources. One must accept the fact that you won’t solve everything. The process of figuring out what your thesis will cover, or what type of story it will tell, is one of discovery. As you study, iterate, and work through challenges and ideas, you begin to understand the problem – or the thesis. I would ask myself – When I am done producing my drawings, what big picture problem will I be addressing? I think this helps to not get stuck on the small stuff.

Time is something I had very little of. I was blessed enough to participate in the 2017 ULI Hines Competition which I devoted an entire month to. I was also blessed to have a Teaching Assistant position, teaching first year architectural studio, which took time and brain power. Meanwhile, a large portion of my time was spent struggling to understand what kind of project this was, and how I was going to present it.

You may have a perfect plan of how to execute your thesis, but remember, that you might get thrown off by your thesis committee, or even simply change your mind. As with any project, you might be forced to invent new ways to get things done. That is part of the beauty. You might even learn a few skills.

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As I found myself with one month left to go, and no images to show for my efforts, I was forced to MacGyver my way to the finish line. One and a half weeks of SketchUp modeling, and most of my urban design and buildings were done. Two days of Lumion and 2 days of Photoshop and I had 18 renderings that were unique and extremely well received. I even managed to create a 3-minute. Of course, it was a bit more complicated than that as it was a process of discovery.

3. When the Problem is Too Big

The size of the problem depends on how you approach it. You may find yourself with a very large project in the physical sense, such as an urban design project. This can be stressful, as you try to incorporate architecture and design of spaces. As we know time is very limited. Don’t try to re-invent the wheel. You don’t have to be creative in every single aspect of your project. Your strategy will have more value than the uniqueness of the product. Use your creativity when approaching the problem, instead of trying to be creative with the solution. If you have a unique view of the problem, then the solution will naturally follow.

Your project might seem to be asking too much of you, and sometimes all it needs is an answer, not the most creative or unique answer. In architecture we look at precedents to learn about topics, and for inspiration. We can also look at precedents as pieces of the puzzle that you can place, remove, and move around your project. Especially with a large urban design project. In fact, placing precedents in your project as test fits can help you farther understand the problem.

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My thesis project had several large areas that needed design, including streets, urban spaces, and the buildings that created them. Although I had ideas of what I wanted those spaces to be, precedents were especially helpful in executing the idea when time was very limited. They also helped others understand the quality of space, and proved that it was all possible. The selected precedents did not come out of thin air and were not hard to find. They were consistent with the ideas I stood for and the vision I hoped to create.

You may notice that there is not much that is new in your thesis project. You have learned all the skills and critical thinking to complete it. The things that are new will naturally come from you. Give yourself a pat in the back, relax, and remember that there is life after thesis.

 

October Thesis Feature #1

This month we will be featuring blog posts from our four presenters at this year’s thesis showcase! These posts will highlight each student’s path through the thesis process, the unexpected challenges they had to overcome, and the influence each project has had on their career.

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How to Explore, Push, and Prod Your Way Through an Architecture Thesis

Jeannine Muller

It’s time to start your architecture thesis: cue instant dread, nerves, and the feeling of being completely overwhelmed. Thesis can seem like an enormous challenge that tests your architectural abilities, time management skills, and sleep patterns. But it can also be your chance to explore exactly what you have been interested throughout your architectural education but haven’t had the ability to do yet. A good thesis is just that: an exploration; deep, probing, and meaningful, but an exploration nonetheless. In my opinion, it is not the job of the architecture student to pick an issue and be able to completely solve it in a year of thesis work; as we have all learned in school, there is no one way to solve a problem, and no one person can have all the answers.

By approaching thesis as an exploration of a topic you are passionate about, you can have an array of outcomes at the end of the day. One way to get started is to generate a series of questions that you hope to raise in your exploration. They might not be questions that you answer by the end of your thesis, but they can serve as probes that you return to through your process.

I think it is important to pick a topic that you are truly passionate about—something that you won’t get bored of during your year-long endeavor. Part of this is picking a topic that is broad enough to sustain your interest and passion. Once you begin researching one part of your topic, you might hit a dead-end or lose interest and it helps to have a topic that allows you the range and flexibility to approach it from several angles, or examine it through multiple lenses.

My thesis was about the relationship between waste and the city and how architecture can play a role in that relationship. The final title of the thesis was “The Architecture of Waste: Designing New Avenues for Public Engagement with Trash”. Getting to that point certainly took some time. I knew I wanted to focus my thesis on urban issues, as I’ve always been fascinated with all things related to cities. What interests me most about cities are that they are like living ecosystems: made up of a complex series of systems that must work together in order to function as a whole. When listing out these systems to pick a thesis topic, I was most interested in the systems that act as “invisible infrastructures”, systems that must work in order for a city to function, yet have little value placed on them. One of these that stood out to me was waste. Hardly anyone stops to think about the larger system of waste as they throw out an old food container in the trash or think about how waste collection has an effect on the urban environment they occupy until a noisy garbage truck drives down the street. But all of these things are important parts of our built environment. With the topic of waste, I felt I could delve into broad issues such as the sustainability of cities, public awareness of the cycle of waste, the technology of waste-to-energy, and lastly the lack of the involvement of architecture profession in these issues.

By pursing an architecture thesis on a topic most architects don’t typically associate with design, I wanted to push people’s perception of the types of environments we design. It was important for me to use this thesis as a way to contribute towards the conversation of how to push the field of architecture beyond its traditional limits, in order to become involved in all the issues that face our cities. I believe thesis is the opportunity for young emerging professionals to critically question the field of architecture and push the boundaries of it. It is the chance to become an expert in a particular issue of interest, but to also be part of a larger conversation of advancing the profession.

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5 Favorites Friday

1. If the state of the nation makes you want to do something (but you just don’t know what):

 

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Our fourth mentoring workshop is coming up next week! Aimee Custis, deputy director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, will be joining us to discuss real-world examples from her work in advocacy. Aimee will break down the steps you can take to reach the right audience and effectively use your resources to create the change you’d like to see at the local, regional, and national levels. Register today!


2. Hurricane season has you really concerned about Latin America but you don’t know how to give back.


3. Because talking to structural engineers gets you really excited! (Really!)

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Image from Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners/Hickok Cole Architects

We are planning our second joint construction tour of the new International Spy Museum with the structural engineering young members group (SEAMW-YMG)! The tour is scheduled for Tuesday, October 17th and they always sell out fast! Make sure to register early for this one!


4. If you need a little bit of inspo to get to work on a Friday:

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will, through work, bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art idea’.”

-Chuck Close, American artist who achieved fame as a photorealist through massive-scale portraits


5. You’re feeling like you should be volunteering more often in general…

Join Teass Warren Architects and the Washington Architectural Foundation at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens to celebrate National Public Lands Day! Volunteers will assist with the removal of cut lotus from the park’s ponds as well as a variety of other park improvement projects including transplanting perennials, removing invasive species, and picking up litter.

5 Questions for Brian Kelly

THESIS SHOWCASE SPLASH

This week we sat down with Brian Kelly, Professor and Director of the Architecture Program at the University of Maryland, to discuss what he sees as opportunities and challenges for recent graduates in anticipation of our Fourth Annual Thesis Showcase next Tuesday! You can register here.

  1. Are there specific themes that you have been seeing in recent thesis projects (i.e. sustainability, robotics, etc.)?

    In the past few years theses have increasingly focused on the big issues of our time. Students regularly probe issues of sustainability and resilience. For some students this is the central theme of their thesis investigation, but for nearly all students, theses tend to intersect these topics and students develop insightful responses to our current predicament. More and more thesis projects are taking up the problems of cities. This is particularly relevant as we see increased interest in living in compact, walkable, transit-oriented environments, like Washington, DC. Similarly, there are consistently groups of students who explore the social, economic, cultural, and environmental problems of places like Baltimore where there are drastic shifts in populations, deteriorated housing stock, de-densification, and gentrification in many areas. We also see trends to bring in experts from allied disciplines in the context of thesis.

    It is not unusual to have faculty members from Planning, Preservation, or Real Estate Development sitting on committees and students diving deep into these issues as they impact architectural thinking. Likewise, students are increasingly reaching outside of the allied disciplines in order to do deep dives into thesis topics, NASA scientists on campus, urban agriculture experts, and mentors in visualization all come to mind as additional resources rallied by students in the completion of their thesis work.

  2. Has your program made any changes to align with recent efforts to prepare students to take exams earlier?

    We are a NCARB approved iPAL provider, but we have yet to bring the program online due to a series of campus-wide approvals that need to be in place. We encourage students to engage AXP and are open to the idea of earlier engagement of the ARE, but there have been no structural changes in this arena.

  3. What do you believe is the biggest challenge for recent grads transitioning into the work place?

    Time management is the biggest skill that I think students don’t fully appreciate. School allows lots of flexibility, while in the workplace you need to perform efficiently and reliably. I think that some of our most successful graduates transition well because they have developed the ability to manage time. I also think that understanding that every project needs leadership at all levels is another important challenge. If you want to succeed, you need to convince your colleagues that you are capable of leadership even if you are relegated to the task of working out details for a fire stair or toilet room.

  4. What skills do you think recent grads can bring to a new office that might not be realized/utilized currently?

    I feel that students today care deeply about the environment and social conditions. They are well-versed in bringing knowledge into the equation beyond just that of the formal/technical dimensions of architecture. Unlike my generation that was preoccupied with issues of style and content, this generation understands that the solutions to the pressing problems that face them requires deep knowledge of the discipline of architecture and a broad knowledge of other disciplines that can inform what we do.

  5. Has the approach to teaching design thinking evolved/changed because of the millennial culture?

    Many millennials don’t know how to use their hands. Unlike students from a decade or two ago, the tradition of drawing, model making, even free-play, seem to have been pushed to the wayside in favor of a digital world. We believe that mastery of digital skills is necessary, but architects build real things in the real world, and thus need to draw and make models. Drawing offers insights into architecture and design thinking that digital media cannot replicate. I am reminded of how Louis Kahn always started design projects with charcoal and soft clay because the ideas were ill-formed at the beginning of the design process and thus needed media that could be forgiving and permit interpretation.

There’s still time to register for tonight’s event! Come with more questions!

5 Favorites Friday

1. If you feel like you could use a bit of creative inspiration:

THESIS SHOWCASE SPLASH

The fourth annual Thesis Showcase will take place on September 12th! Come check out a curated selection of thesis projects and take advantage of the opportunity for practitioners to view a sample of the work emerging from architecture schools. Register here!


2. You know that it’s about time to start to give back and helping to solve world hunger appeals to you.


3. Because you would love the opportunity to take over this blog:

August Meeting

Our September meeting is scheduled for Wednesday the 6th, which is important to note because it’s a week earlier than usual! Come help us brain storm about what 2018 should look like with the EAC!


4. You didn’t get enough time to socialize at our event because you were so excited about the food…

USGBC National Capital Region’s Emerging Professionals is hosting an end of summer social on September 18th! Come join a host of other professionals interested in sustainability and take advantage of the Wunder Garten’s awesome beer selection!


5. Because we’re feeling a little nostalgic about that rooftop last week…

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Thanks again to everyone who was able to attend our Summer Networking Bash! We’re looking forward to more events like it in the future!

5 Questions for Usman Tariq

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In anticipation of tonight’s #ArchitectUp mentoring session on architecture and business, we asked Usman Tariq, associate managing pricinipal at HDR, a few questions to gain some insight into his experience.

  1. Usman, you are Associate Managing Principal at HDR. Describe what this title involves, in fifty words or less.

    It is an office leadership role where I oversee the operations management of the DC practice working alongside with our Managing Principal. My role is focused on project delivery, project performance, and resource management.

  2. How did you become involved in the business side of architecture?

    From a very early onset of my design career, I was curious how the sum of parts on projects result in the overall performance for the projects and practice. I volunteered for various process improvement initiatives that provided more interaction with the senior leaders in the office to gain insight. I also undertook multiple graduate level courses with focus on project management, accounting and finance to put that learning into context. My involvement in those activities in addition to my design and project management roles helped me transition to the business management aspect of our practice.

  3. This mentoring workshop will explore business strategies in architecture. What advice do you have for emerging architects who would like more exposure to this critical aspect of the profession?

    Explore learning opportunities and be curious. Ask a lot of questions. Use every project as a learning experience to know a little bit more about the complete lifecycle of the project from initiation to closeout.

  4. What do you feel are the three biggest financial challenges facing the profession?
    1. Competitive markets and shrinking design fees
    2. Commoditization of services
    3. Risk management in alternative project delivery methods (design build etc.)
  5. Final question: what is the one thing you wish emerging architects knew about the business side of architecture?

    Value of their time. That is the fundamental unit of our practice and if managed well can allow us to continue to push the boundaries of creative problem solving and be business savvy at the same time.

There’s still time to register for tonight’s event! Come with more questions!

5 Favorites Friday

1. If that last peer review has you thinking about starting your own firm:

MENTORING WORKSHOP 3_BANNER

Our third mentoring session of the #ArchitectUp series will be kicking off Tuesday July 25th! This month we are featuring a panel of three architects that are heavily involved in the business side of things to help get you thinking about the business know-how the architecture world requires. Register today!


2. If you want to spend some time looking up this weekend.


3. If you’d like to stop hearing people remind you to network and finally DO SOMETHING about it:

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We’re hosting the second annual Summer Networking Bash on the Dock 79 rooftop, just behind Nats stadium, on August 17th! Come chat with other young leaders from the real estate, development, and architecture industries. Plenty of food and beer to break the ice! Registration is now open!


4. You find large installation art intriguing, but BBQ even more intriguing.


5. If you’re looking for some professional advice:

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Big take away from our monthly meeting: take the AREs as soon as possible!

5 Favorites: CKLDP Edition

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Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program applications are due this month on June 26th! We wanted to highlight a few things about the program on the blog today. If you missed the intro session last week, check out the application details here.

1. What is the difference between a nomination and a recommendation?

The important difference is that the nomination should explain why the author and/or author’s firm sees the candidate as a current and/or future leader. A recommendation reinforces the personal qualities and professional traits of the applicant.

2. What’s the point of the agreement form?

The purpose of the agreement form is to get you talking with your supervisors about the time you will be missing by participating in the program. Firms have different ways of accommodating this (making up the time, allowing hours for professional development, etc.). Its important to get your managers involved ahead of the start of the program.

3. Is there tuition assistance available?

There is! It covers 50% of the program costs, but there are a few qualifiers.

4. What was your favorite part about the program?

“My favorite part of the Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program was the time spent learning from the other scholars. It was an incredible experience getting to collaborate with peers in architecture who are driven, accomplished, and looking to take the next step toward becoming leaders in their firms and communities. Their example inspired me to expect more from my own career, and their insights helped me grow as a professional. They were also just damn nice people, and our group had a wonderful camaraderie that made the CKLDP a joy to attend. In addition to being terrific themselves, the other scholars brought in some incredible architectural talent from some of the best firms in DC to speak at each of the CKLDP sessions, which made even potentially dry material engaging and informative. If you’re looking for a great way to grow in architecture, apply for the Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program! It’s one of the best professional decisions I ever made.”

-Adam Schwartz, CKLDP Alum ’16

5. How did the program impact you professionally?

Completing the CKLDP connected me with an amazing network of diverse and emerging architects – an invaluable opportunity after recently moving to the DC area. Learning how fifteen other professionals navigate their office – some by even setting up their own! – and apply leadership, marketing, research and business techniques to their career development was inspiring and helped me to refocus on my own career goals. My classmates came from all other the country, attended a wide variety of schools and work at the biggest and smallest firms in the area. Each person had a unique perspective, and was incredibly engaged in hearing about everyone’s experience. They are already regarded as leaders in their offices, managing projects as simple as single family homes and as complex as entire urban developments. Spending time with my classmates, both during the program and since graduating, continues to influence my leadership strategies both in my day to day activities as well as my long term plans. I can’t recommend the CKLDP to future scholars enough!

-Brandon Tobias, CKLDP Alum ’16

For more info about the background and application, check out the website!

 

5 Favorites Friday

1. If you just can’t seem to figure out how to do a Snap Chat post on Instagram:

MENTORING SESSION 2 BANNER

Our second mentoring session of the #ArchitectUp series will be kicking off Tuesday June 27th! Deane Madsen, contributor to Architect magazine, will be talking us through the benefits and opportunities of using social media as a branding and marketing tool. Check out the details and register here!

2. If you need some inspiration when it gets difficult to work with consultants.

3. When you just saw Wonder Woman and you’re feeling particularly empowered:

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Apply to #CKLDP17! Applications are live for the Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program. If you missed the info session this past Monday, more details about the program can be found on the website. Applications are due Monday June 26th!

4. You got on a minimalist living kick and need to buy some new furniture.

5. If you’re still looking for a shot at the title:

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Thesis showcase submissions are due next Thursday June 15th! Help bridge the gap between practicing architects and recent grads (and show off those renderings that stole all of your sleep).