Upon entering the graduate program at Lawrence Technological University to continue my educational career I was not sure what to expect, yet I was aware that perusing a graduate level degree would be the most rigorous challenge I had faced yet. Graduate level studies have taught me to think more critically, which has subsequently caused me to become an improved designer. Throughout my studies I have developed skills in communication, teamwork, writing, reading, research, and analytical thinking. Due to the advancement of these skills I am more adequately prepared for the architectural world of practice. As I enter the field I am aware that I will continue learning through experience, this is an opportunity that I am excited to embrace. As my educational career comes to an end I am confident that I will be capable of applying the lessons I have learned throughout the course of my unique graduate experience.
My graduate level career commenced with Masters Class Studio in the summer of 2011. Masters Class was a collaborative design studio that would challenge my abilities to design through teamwork. The challenge began on the first day of class when we were promptly divided into teams of seven. I immediately recognized that this studio would be drastically different in comparison to studios I had taken before. During the semester students would be challenged to exercise skills pertaining to collaborative design, research, and teamwork. New challenges surfaced because the projects were not necessarily architectural design projects; instead each assignment involved substantial research and strong understanding of associated ecological systems. The traditional design strategies I had developed through previous experience were required to be altered so that the entire team could contribute to the design process as opposed to individual efforts. The final design solution would be evaluated as an overall team grade, which meant that each member of the team acquired responsibilities to ensure the success of the entire team. Success as a team was greatly hinged upon how well we communicated with one another. Responsibilities for setting meeting dates and deadlines were part of the course requirements because the class met every other week; this meant that most of the work on the projects would be done outside the traditional classroom setting.
The overlying scope of the Summer Masters Class Studio included a strong focus on the opportunities that could potentially exist within the ecological networks of the Great Lakes region. The reason for the increased urgency towards intervention in the region was based on the fact that the Great Lakes contains 20% of the world’s fresh water and will inevitably become a substantial asset moving towards the future. The Third Coasting project that we worked on pursued an architecture that would respond to and participate in the ecology of this Great Lake region and its attendant urban systems. The studio included an extensive amount of research leading up to the final design project. During the research phase of the project our team began to understand one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Knowing our own strengths allowed us to become more prepared for the actual design portions of the project which would follow. The research was broken down into a few phases. First we completed precedent studies on projects that were designed to manage ecological systems such as zoos, damns, aquariums, and vivarium’s. Our research culminated in a fifty page book that documented the studies for later reference. Teams were also required to participate in a three day travel exercise where we began exploring design opportunities that exist within the great lakes region. Upon completing our travels we then completed the research phase of the class by creating maps. The maps expressed relationships that were realized while on our team travel exercise, we mapped information such as fish population, native and non-native species, and recreational zones.
Another crucial portion of my graduate level education included the two online Advanced Design Studios. Both design studios increased the demand on communication skills as they were held in the online format. Learning was done primarily through video technology such as Wimba, and Google chat. Presentations and classwork was loaded to cloud based folders on dropbox which made sharing information and drawings convenient. Desk critiques and classes were not held in a typical manner alternatively you were asked to upload work and discuss the content through video conference. Students were encouraged to join desk critiques regularly to offer additional critique which enriched the online learning experience. The unique format of the studios made it possible for students living in all geographical areas of the country to share ideas and information in a succinct manner.
I was given the opportunity to select which studios were best suited for my design interests based on the studio briefs we were provided by the professors. The two design studios I chose to participate in were directly related to one another which allowed for the development of my skills throughout the entire year as opposed to studying two different architectural themes each semester. The focus of both design studios was centered on the exploration of mixed-use design and its potential to enhance the existing urban fabric. I approached each of the two mixed-use design projects with a similar strategy, which involved looking at the projects as an opportunity to master plan. I began my design process by creating diagrammatic maps that portrayed an understanding of the existing conditions of the site and its surroundings. Studies for both design projects included figure ground diagrams, pedestrian/vehicular circulation maps, site views, and zoning maps. Mapping the context also allowed me to view the project in a more broad scale which exposed potential relationships that could exist between elements that existed beyond the traditional boundaries of a site.
Upon completing contextual studies and mapping I proceeded to create a variety of sketches exploring different site strategies. As I was sketching site strategies I began to reference the contextual map studies that I had previously created. Site strategies were visually communicated through quick hand sketching on onion skin overlay. This method allowed me to create many alternatives in a very short amount of time. Through the creation of many loose site strategies I was able to develop my design thoroughly before committing to a final design. Once the site diagramming was analyzed and reiterated I was able to begin to extrude site components and create crude massing models. Massing models became a great tool for planning mixed-use developments because the volumes could be created very easily and represented the varying programmatic functions within the project. Digital massing models also allowed for manipulation of scale and positioning of the program.
In Advanced Design Studio One I was provided with a site in Birmingham Michigan. The site lacked a strong identity as well as connectivity to the local surroundings. The adjacent park and neighborhood were completely disconnected from the site hindering any potential development. Connectivity was promoted in the project primarily through two ways. First, connectivity was enhanced by creating a ground floor that was more open for public activity. Secondly, through introduction of strategic pockets of public space where movement was allowed despite structure existing on the levels above. Connectivity to the adjacent park and neighborhood was also enhanced by providing more friendly streetscapes and allowing diagonal movement through the site. Most of the street level plan consisted of retail which would effectively activate the adjacent public spaces that were incorporated into the design. The central plaza adjacent to the retail provides ample public seating and landscaped area which softens the space giving it a more human friendly scale. The entire plaza was also given an alternative pavement pattern allowing for pedestrians to immediately notice the significant change in spatial quality. The pavement pattern extends out beyond the site boundaries inviting the park users into the development.
Advanced Design Studio Two differed from the last because I was given the opportunity to select my own site. I began collecting information on five sites located within the DDA boundaries of Ann Arbor. After organizing a brief summary on each of the sites I decided to select a site that contained a variety of properties that were underutilized and had the potential of being combined into one cohesive master planning project. Included on the sites were the downtown public library, Blake transit center, and two adjoining surface parking lots. Through combining these entities I was provided with a fantastic opportunity to create a mixed-use project that would incorporate a new library, transit center, downtown living, leasable office space, underground parking, and retail.
Combining the multitude of various programmatic elements became an interesting challenge. I began approaching site design by diagraming pedestrian movement through the city. As I was researching pedestrian movement I encountered city documents that proposed a pedestrian link through the center of the selected sites. Working off this idea I created a new axis that was pivoted away from the typical grid of the city. The new axis would play a large role in designing the built form and associated public spaces. The project also respected the surrounding elements such as Liberty Plaza to the northeast which became the entry point for the new site design. As pedestrians make their way through the site and approach the building an interesting public promenade becomes apparent. The raised public level provides recreation areas, dining areas, and quite reading nooks for the redeveloped library. Creating a raised promenade also allowed for enhanced connectivity in the development through second floor crosswalks that would connect the redesigned Blake Transit Center to the library. Through the incorporation of the transit center and additional public space the mixed-use development would become a primary destination for downtown residents.
The Master’s program proved to be challenging, however, with those challenges comes a stronger understanding of architecture. I have learned through experience that architecture requires a great deal of rigorous research, not only in the preliminary phase of a design project but throughout all phases. An architect must be willing to look deeper and draw from their research base to strengthen the project. This philosophy was consistent for all of the graduate level courses including elective classes and core classes which required strong skills in reading, writing, and research. Although my focus for the graduate program was mainly mixed‐use design accompanied with urban planning, I have managed to improve many other skills that are crucial in both the professional world and academia. These skills include better skill in communication, teamwork, and graphical communication and representation. My experience with the graduate program was unique because many of the courses were held online, this created new challenges that became opportunities for improvement.