A student’s perspective on a unique co-operative work-study program

I am enrolled in Northeastern’s five-year B.Arch program, which includes two semester-long co-ops and a study abroad in Berlin. I now work at a 15 person urban design firm in New York, helping to put presentations together, prepare diagrammatic drawings in AutoCAD, and research precedent projects for the firm’s reference. I also make “vignettes” or Adobe Photoshop collages of a proposed space or city plan, which help to sell ideas to the client. Although I am well prepared, I now know what sorts of skills I need to develop to be a leader in architecture, and Northeastern University’s program is largely on the right track. Because students are part of the professional work force so early in their schooling (after only four semesters), the focus of the program is rightfully broad.

Architecture school teaches you how to communicate. We organize our ideas into diagrams and concise presentations. In my first semester, my professor taught through “operations.” Our first project was to design an exterior patio space outside Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center on Harvard’s campus. We learned that space could “fold” or “wrap” or “braid” or “overlap” or “stretch.” We learned how to organize space with this tool, but more important to me, we learned how to develop a concept and design within it. In later semesters, we would learn that ideas should be contextually and programmatically driven.

In the summer after my first year, I was lucky to get an internship with an architecture firm specializing in custom residential homes on Cape Cod. Here, projects did not start with a formal concept, but by pulling out a compass. We looked at solar patterns, organized the programmatic pieces, considered scale and proportion and thought a lot about how the family would move through and use the house. In school, some of our projects started with a site, in which case we would analyze circulation, adjacencies, use and density around the location, while other projects started with a spatial idea. In school, I learned to design diagrammatically, reasonably arranging all of the pieces. I think this is a great way to learn to design because it requires a synthesis and organization of the requirements, but I experienced a more personal and less rigid approach.

I’m ready for beauty to really be part of the discussion during a critique. I understand how to organize space rationally, so now I want to learn about scale, proportion, composition and texture — how to make loved spaces. This is where design and art can overlap, when my own “eye” will be exercised. In our fourth semester we designed elevations for our project, a visual and performing arts school. This was the most personal and challenging thing to do because it couldn’t really be reasoned out — it was up to our own compositional judgment. Reason is sensible, but breaking rules might be more interesting.

Having watched the principals from both my last internship and my present co-op, I have noticed that the skill they use most is communication. They both walk around the office and point at employees’ screens and then sketch quick, clear drawings. Besides discussing a design with fellow designers, principals also must sell the idea to a client. They switch out of “arch-speak” to talk not about the “concept,” as I do in school now, but of the “experience” or the “value” or “character” of the project. Presentation is a huge part of our curriculum at Northeastern, and while we do learn to condense our ideas into a short presentation, we learn to speak only in architectural jargon. While this makes a young student feel like a real architect, I am suspect that he or she learns to design for architects and not for people. We don’t talk about how great an experience will be, but we describe how cubes interlock or break apart or how complex our longitudinal section is.

Northeastern’s program does not have traditional foundation coursework, not even hand-drawing exercises in our studios. My sketching talents are self-taught or residual. But to Northeastern’s defense, I find that in my firm, all of the designers under 30 years old are not really expected to draw by hand. Our value is in computer drafting or 3D Modeling. I think this is why Northeastern urges us to work through model and diagram instead of exploring ideas through perspective drawing. Vignettes and renderings are used not as a design development tool, but as a presentation tool.

Besides the curriculum, architecture school is really what you’d expect. We have late night “struggles in Ruggles”, busily working below the Subway tracks of Boston’s Ruggles station. Most students’ issues with the program, voiced in studio and during our bi-semester “town meetings” where architecture students, teachers and administrators assemble, are related to funding. Our studio does not have plotters or any 3D printing machines, but we are lucky to have our own desks. The strongest part of Northeastern’s program is its fantastic faculty made up of both full-time and adjunct professors who practice in some of Boston’s coolest firms. Our professors are very engaged in Northeastern’s community as well as Boston’s architectural scene, contributing to both through research and lecture.

Our program is growing. Fewer students are dropping out after the first year and new, more flexible degree programs are underway, including a new “Urban Landscape” program, which will dovetail and break away from the B.Arch program throughout our five year coursework. It is a very exciting environment that is paying attention to changes in the profession and is responsive enough to develop appropriate programs.

Mostly, I have to say, I’m really proud to be an architecture student. Even if I don’t decide to be a practicing architect, I think my new skills could apply to any job I choose. Research, synthesis, brainstorming, reasoning and presentation could apply to almost any task. However, the most interesting skill I have now is consciousness or being aware of every aspect of a project. Nothing is merely “residual” or accidental, but is always part of a planned, consistent design.

Harley Hutker is a student in Northeastern’s Architecture program and doing her internship at HKS Architects in New York City.