Redefining design education to engage the global and local

In an age when design problems are literally planet-wide in their scope and scale, new ways of thinking need to be developed to produce critical — holistic — answers. A partnership between Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture & Urban Studies and the Chicago office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) has over a decade of practical application. We believe in a close and active collaboration between academia and the profession to solve today’s problems.

The results prove that by working together, the innovative potential is extraordinary. SOM’s commitment to the Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design’s CHICAGO STUDIO is deeply rooted in thinking about contemporary urban issues with planet-wide vision — and applying those ideas at the most local of scales here in Chicago. There is one intention — to make our cities healthier, sustainable, and better for future generations.

In collaborations between Virginia Tech and SOM, we have focused on accommodating future growth in urban, compact and “natureintelligent” ways that strengthen the value and livability of cities. Some of these concerns build on the expertise and ongoing work of SOM’s City Design Practice. When you focus on global challenges every day, you continue to question, “How can these ideas be unpacked locally? What can the design of new cities and new systems teach that can improve our local neighborhoods or our infrastructure?” CHICAGO STUDIO, a Virginia Tech travel program that places design students in Chicago A+E firms for a semester, creates an intersection of the global vision that drives SOM’s City Design Practice work and finds local opportunity in Chicago to test it. It actively engages in challenging issues facing Chicago and generates ideas to make the city stronger. 

Virginia Tech and SOM have also partnered for advanced research on technical applications. Led by Professors Robert Dunay and Joe Wheeler, the Center for Design Research (CDR), a research center within the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech, and SOM have explored further innovation and local Chicagobased implementation of manufactured housing stemming from the award-winning LumenHAUS — a net-zero energy dwelling built by Virginia Tech students and faculty that won the European Solar Decathlon in 2010.

Both initiatives use Chicago as a local laboratory to explore a richer future for our cities— making neighborhoods active, diverse and safe, reusing of vacant buildings, strengthening multi-modal transit, enlivening vacant districts, activating the street front.

CHICAGO STUDIO is a semester long, multi-disciplinary program (architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, urban design) in Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies. Real voices, real problems, and real stakeholders inspire the curriculum to create real opportunity. It creates a neutral platform for the discussion of architecture, urbanism and the future of Chicago.

The program exists in the form of a virtual campus — the classroom and lecture hall are located within a network of shared spaces in design firms, civic institutions and other private companies. The program relies on active partnerships with visionaries in the public and private sector, ranging from leaders in practice to the city government to the local community. These experienced professionals help identify design challenges that exist locally and help the students create design solutions.

The process intentionally takes the university, the profession and the city out of the familiar and comfortable silos to drive true creativity and broad community-focused solutions that are relevant to the contemporary city. In just over 10 years, CHICAGO STUDIO has established an amazing outreach — directly engaging some 500 stakeholders, more than half of them local architects. This represents Chicago’s broadest design community — architects collaborating with other architects and design professionals to provide a catalyst for design as a social good.

In addition to SOM — Cannon Design, GREC architects and von Weise Associates are the key partners that provide office space, essential equipment and financial backing. These costs are far surpassed by staff time — from that of relatively recent graduates to the most experienced partners or principals — who provide formal and informal critiques throughout the year.

“Chicago is the quintessential city for exploring the future of our built environment. Working alongside some of the world’s most outstanding architects and urban designers, our faculty and students gain, and contribute, knowledge for the current and future public good,” said Jack Davis, FAIA, dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech.

The CHICAGO STUDIO’s professional/academic partnership began through relationships first formed by Kathryn Albright while working at SOM. When she began to teach at Virginia Tech, where she is currently the Chair of the Foundation year in the School of Architecture + Design, she renewed these contacts and saw the opportunity for engagement. In its beginning, CHICAGO STUDIO was organized as a three-week traveling program — with three weeks in Chicago, followed by three weeks back on campus in Blacksburg, Va. The program was a major success, winning the 2005 National Council of Architectural Registration Boards Prize for “Creative Integration of Architectural Education and Practice in the Academy.”

In 2011, the program evolved further when Andrew Balster became the director of the program, leaving a teaching position in Blacksburg and returning home to Chicago where he had worked as a Senior Designer at SOM. Under the support of Albright, the redesigned CHICAGO STUDIO became a full-year residency program to provide an enduring presence for Virginia Tech in Chicago, and position the program to be even more engaged in the city. Every semester, 16 students come to Chicago for 15 weeks and collaborate with government leaders and professionals on design solutions for city neighborhoods.

CHICAGO STUDIO has become one of the most successful and sought after travel programs that Virginia Tech offers, bringing major visibility to the university with its broad professional and civic network. The effort is getting noticed — in 2012 Balster was honored by Public Interest Design 100 for CHICAGO STUDIO, as a leader “working at the intersection of design and service”.

CHICAGO STUDIO creates a network of individuals with expertise, resources and connections. This extensive group of minds comes together with the students to talk about Chicago’s built environment, ranging from long-term visions to what can be implemented tomorrow. Architects, planners and designers from all over Chicago, often competitors, are talking together.

Collectively, these professionals come together to help the students with their design ideas — to strengthen them, focus them, direct them and articulate the vision. The design community is making real contributions to the education of Virginia Tech’s students, and the student work has become a mechanism to engage with the Mayor’s Office and local aldermen.

In a city rich with architectural legacy, the students prompt new discussions with creative ideas and discoveries, drawing eager participation from civic leaders, politicians, real-estate developers and industry professionals. Each semester works in different neighborhoods and partners with local community groups, architects, designers, real-estate developers and political members to collaborate on architectural concepts and community building projects.

Over more than a decade, the network has grown to create a real dialogue with the city of Chicago and local stakeholders. The collaboration has worked on architectural solutions for many Chicago neighborhoods including Bridgeport, Bronzeville, the Chicago River, Chinatown, Edgewater, The Loop, Pilsen, River North, South Loop, Streeterville, Uptown, and Wrigleyville.

The studio’s current work in Chinatown and Uptown are examples of how the network is expanding. In March 2013, the collaborative (SOM Partners and the Director of CHICAGO STUDIO) met with the Director of the Department of Housing and Economic Development for the City of Chicago (DHED) and the Senior Planner from CMAP (Chicago Metropolitan Agency of Planning) to discuss the creation of a Chinatown masterplan. What followed was a series of independent studies with Virginia Tech students to define overarching design principles, and a workshop with the University of Utah to develop the urban framework and vision plan. 

For over a year, CHICAGO STUDIO has also explored projects in Uptown. It has built a great relationship with the Alderman and community advocacy groups there who have offered significant help with access to information, sites and contacts. This past summer at City Hall, the collaborative (which consisted of CannonDesign Senior Principals, a Senior Consultant at GZA GeoEnvironmental, the Director of Special Projects from the Alderman’s Office and the Director of CHICAGO STUDIO) presented the studio’s design strategies for 21st Century neighborhoods to the Chief Sustainability Officer at the Mayor’s Office.

Projects in Chinatown and Uptown are the focus of the fall 2013 semester. Virginia Tech students along with the CHICAGO STUDIO network are exploring architectural and urban solutions. It’s not the student’s work, it’s not the critic’s work, it’s not the professional’s work; it is the collaboration’s work. The approach takes problems and makes them design challenges, and then create design solutions for Chicago’s communities.

SOM is a critical and proud partner of CHICAGO STUDIO, but this movement is bigger than any one office or university. At its core, this program takes a simple approach that any city, university or discipline can replicate, and we hope that they do. It is a problem-solving strategy, but it’s also an interesting design education strategy. Design in practice is not isolated but incredibly integrated and diverse. Conceptual and theoretical projects are an important part of the development of young designers. But the scale of contemporary problems points to the need for dramatic collaborations, reaching beyond our typical methods. CHICAGO STUDIO is making Chicago a better place through the collaboration of passionate students and established leaders. This collaboration engages the city — from the Mayor to local Chicagoans — to confront real issues that design can help solve.

Andrew Balster is the Director of CHICAGO STUDIO, an educational design studio in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. The program embraces a dynamic environment, with fields of interest ranging from architecture to landscape urbanism. Before joining Virginia Tech, he was a Senior Designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in Chicago for multiple national and international projects. He received a BScArch from the University of Minnesota and an MScAAD and MArch w/distinction from the University of Edinburgh.

Philip Enquist is a partner in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP in charge of Urban Design & Planning. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council.

Edward Keegan heads communications for SOM Chicago, a firm that has been at the forefront of the architectural profession for more than 75 years. A Chicago architect, Keegan previously ran his own independent practice for almost a decade and a half, complementing its design work by writing, broadcasting, curating, and teaching about architecture.