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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.