Students explore career paths through Chicago Studio’s blend of design theory and professional practice
As the detailed drawings and tiny structures covering workspaces in Burchard and Cowgill Halls attest, budding architects hone their craft by making things in miniature. In the innovative Chicago Studio program, select College of Architecture and Urban Studies students make models of potential career paths they can explore on a smaller scale before graduation.
For almost 20 years, the midwestern metropolis with a storied history in American design has housed a Virginia Tech program where students experience the real challenges of professional practice in a complex urban setting.
Current director Chip von Weise, founder of the design firm von Weise Associates, describes the core of the program as “A practicum combining rigorous conceptual thinking with experiences that push students’ communication skills.” During their 16 weeks in Chicago, students experience a robust academic education that typically concludes with brief internships at well-established firms.
Potential workplaces range from small to large, and from those with a boutique emphasis to others with a broad, international clientele. Industry partners include powerhouse firms like Booth Hansen, HOK, JGMA, Perkins and Will, and SOM, which has participated in the program since the beginning.
And although COVID-19 has certainly prompted a reexamination of protocols, von Weise and his colleagues are excited to welcome Virginia Tech students to the Chicago Studio this fall. He says the program will mirror the university’s on-campus health and safety guidelines as closely as possible, with students and teaching personnel maintaining social distancing during instruction and replacing some face-to-face interaction with remote presentations.
Instead of the program’s typical internship, this year students will be assigned a senior partner and mid-level mentor at each participating firm. These partners and mentors will meet with students every week to discuss and critique projects.
These flexible approaches aren’t new to the program. In fact, innovation and resiliency have been its key elements for almost two decades.
In 2002, the year of the program’s founding, then-associate professor Kathryn Clarke Albright (current associate dean for academic affairs in CAUS) saw a unique opportunity for collaboration and experiential learning in the Chicago architecture community. Since its inception, the Chicago Studio has grown into a valuable fixture in the city’s architectural and design landscape.
Understanding scale is an important part of students’ assessment of their suitability for a specific job. By blending real work tasks and detailed projects with actual client needs, students can observe what success as an architect looks like and what it will require of them.
“We learn the art of design through making,” said Chicago Studio alumna Emma Lineberry about her recent experience in the program.
Lineberry and fellow architecture alumna Aneela Jain, who both graduated in May 2020, said the program’s greatest benefit is its introduction to real professional life. “It allows us to work with engineers and many other specialists who will be involved in actual projects,” Jain explained, “and it shows students all the different options an architect has in the workforce.”
A recent project in which two parallel teams worked to design a mixed multiuse, multifamily housing facility for a developer demonstrates a typical student experience.
The project required consultation with a zoning attorney, a variety of engineering disciplines, and local officials, including an alderman. As a result, the students tackled coordination and collaboration challenges they can expect to experience in the future.
According to von Weise, architectural instruction typically splits professional work into either the development of an intellectual concept into a design, or into a technical exercise where a vision is transferred into physical form for a specific client.
“The two skills are not separate,” von Weise said, “and this lack of integration does both students and the profession a disservice.”
The program seeks to address this perceived disconnect by pushing students intellectually while they receive intensive mentoring and pragmatic feedback. As Lineberry explained, “We learn to apply the principles we learn in lectures through opportunities for actual practice.”
Before they begin their semester in Chicago, students complete a prerequisite spring seminar in Blacksburg. While in residence, they experience a carefully designed curriculum based on three components: the design studio, a building design technology seminar, and a professional practice seminar.
These components blend the elements of a rigorous conceptual education with a focused and intense practical apprenticeship.
Coursework incorporates the history and theory of architecture, combined with instruction in professional values, competencies, and design thinking. It also introduces new technologies and materials. The practice portion introduces students to the complications of ethical practice and environmental challenges, as they learn how to work within the culture of a firm that must operate successfully as a business.
The semester ends with a final review presentation featuring a large jury made of consultants and Hokie alumni, where student designs are given a chance to both shine and receive professional critiques.
Von Weise emphasizes that the immersion is not superficial. Students spend a full workday with their firms while living upstairs from their studio space. They also can build connections within an extensive network of more than 200 elite industry partners and a strong local Hokie alumni system. The resulting experience provides students with valuable knowledge of a scale and type hard to find in rural Virginia, and which may be hard to come by even in larger cities.
As the program has grown and evolved, it has become clear that the relationship benefits all those involved. Where students typically contribute freshness and new ideas, architecture firms offer exposure to workplace realities and an avenue into the plethora of career options available to students.
–Written by L. Maria Ingram