SCI-Arc, one of the few remaining schools whose undergraduate program culminates in a thesis project, asks students to locate their position within the discipline, theorize a problem around that position, create a project that tests their theory, and ultimately to present and defend that position to an audience of future peers and professionals. It’s a cathartic endeavor that is to some degree fraught with anxiety, as defining a position and speculating on the future of the discipline can be a rather daunting endeavor.
One of the unique aspects of being a student or a faculty member at SCI-Arc is that, due to the school’s relative autonomy with no oversight from a larger university bureaucracy, it can upgrade the curriculum quickly and adjust academic content and pedagogical approaches according to broader feedback mechanisms. The school is constantly adjusting the curriculum to ensure that it provides the students with the best education possible while maintaining currency in contemporary discourse.
This past semester (Fall 2016), in the final core studio of the undergraduate program (4A), SCI-Arc tested a pedagogical approach designed to better prepare students for the autonomy of thesis. Ultimately, the goal was to produce an ethos of curiosity and debate, culminating in leadership skills needed for architects working in an increasingly complex world. Rather than prepare a brief that specifies a disciplinary, formal, or social agenda, a syllabus was developed around a looser constellation of disciplinary topics such as precedent, tectonics, and representation.
The students were asked to construct an intellectual and aesthetic position, in relation to these topics, through a proposal for a house in Palm Springs. The instructors, led by Ramiro Diaz-Granados and including Dwayne Oyler, David Ruy, and Tom Wiscombe operated as coaches rather than trainers or authority figures. This approach combines the better elements from the two more common teaching models: algorithmic and heuristic. In the former learning is achieved through the repetition of predetermined techniques in relation to a specific disciplinary problem while the instructor provides discipline. In the latter students learn through trial and error and the instructor provides guidance. The 4A studio functions as a threshold between the two with the aim of assisting students to become more independent and helping them build confidence in the decision-making process required in any given project.
This curricular adjustment is part of a new, broader vision for SCI-Arc's Undergraduate Program. The vision is grounded in the increased value of thesis as a pedagogical and disciplinary vehicle for developing thought leaders. The curriculum is being reverse engineered starting with thesis, coordinated by Marcelyn Gow, and sequentially developing the core sequence to support it. An important part of this effort includes the integration of a liberal arts program, intended to both feed and shift the way students think about architecture. These courses are structured in rhetoric and debate formats, where students take positions and defend them live in class.
This provides a way for students to not merely absorb information, but to process and represent it through speaking and on-the-spot critical thinking. Included in this initiative is a series of Liberal Arts Master Classes taught by internationally known intellectual figures from outside architecture such as Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, and Sianne Ngai, along with the new SCI-Arc Cinema Series, where important films will be screened with original discussion and context provided by luminaries directly associated with the making of the films.
Together, SCI-Arc's doubling down on thesis as a model of education, and its liberal arts initiatives have the capacity to create young architects who are both experts in their field, but also broad critical thinkers adapted to the radically different role of the architect today. Architects who are technicians alone will not flourish in the 21st century; architects who can think laterally, understand different and sometimes conflicting points of view, and above all, communicate their vision powerfully, will be the architects who can effect change on the world.
SCI-Arc’s Bachelor of Architecture program accepts transfer students into first, second, and third year. The deadline to apply to transfer for fall 2017 is May 1st.
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