Experiential education is at the core of the Northeastern University difference. And in architecture and allied fields, it couldn’t be more important. So, at the School of Architecture, we link the classroom, the design studio, the cultural contexts of Boston and Berlin, with the professional world beyond our walls to prepare students for a world of constant change.
The goal of the School of Architecture’s curriculum is to enable students to embrace that change, and to acquire the necessary skills to participate in design discourse, while also gaining a fuller understanding of how architecture and design can have the greatest impact.
The Architecture Curriculum
Before one can solve a problem, one must understand what it is. The first year curriculum starts with teaching representation and history. Fundamental Representation is the first studio course, and it addresses manual (hand) drawing and digital drawing skills. But the context in which these skills are taught is equally important. Every project is placed in perspective with a lecture on an important architect or spatial type, and grounded in the specifics of Boston’s rich cultural history.
Students learn from the beginning that representation is directly tied to communication, and that communication demands clarity. The freshman studio courses are accompanied by a two-semester course in world architectural history.
The second semester moves on to Fundamental Design, and adds student design choices to rising expectations in modeling and spatial description. A mixture of storyboarding, animation, diagramming, and other techniques build on the first semester skills. By the end of the first year, students will have been exposed to a wide variety of manual and digital skills, including several software programs and communication media.
The second year begins the integration of technology with design instruction, with structures courses coordinated with the two sophomore studios. The goal in the studios is to broadly develop architectural design knowledge in terms of spatial concepts, programmatic analysis, and building systems (circulation, structure, enclosure). At the same time, in line with Northeastern’s pedagogical approach, the sophomore studios introduce analytical modes of interpreting the city and studio projects ask the student to engage with, and intervene in, rich urban contexts.
The Fall term consists of two design problems, both in constrained urban sites. The first is an infill project in a row-house context, combined with a specific urban analysis exercise. The second project is a Boston branch library on a corner site, accompanied by a programmatic analysis of canonical libraries. The spring term is a single project, an urban elementary school in Boston. There are a series of supplementary exercises throughout the semester: a precedent analysis, two urban analyses, and a detailed study of a classroom module.
The third and fourth year curricula incorporate co-op jobs and study abroad, as well as on-campus design studios. This is where the difference between Northeastern’s architecture studio curriculum and those of other schools begin to differ. Students begin with study abroad, a required semester in Berlin. During this term abroad students are exposed to rich architectural history, but also to the challenges facing contemporary global cities as they manage growth and heritage.
Upon return, students take a short one-half summer course in advanced architectural communication to build up skills before leaving the university for six months on a paid, full-time, co-op job. When they return from that job, they take another unique design studio– Architecture, Infrastructure & the City, which addresses the unique problems and challenges that cities face when trying to update areas of post-war concrete architecture and urbanism. The studio is a laboratory for how these sometimes architecturally important buildings can be better integrated into a future for the city that looks very different from the ones envisioned in the 1960s.
After a second co-op position, students return to Northeastern for the fifth year, and the final two semesters of the undergraduate degree. The first of these two critical semesters is spent in our unique Housing and Aggregation Studio. The focus of the Housing and Aggregation Studio is to design multi-family housing in an urban neighborhood in Metro-Boston and the surrounding post-industrial cities. An overall objective of the studio is to make “smart growth” proposals for the redevelopment of urban infill sites in metropolitan areas. Given the multiple scales of the architectural issues in housing, the studio will require fine-grain architectural design resolution as well as a coherent rationale at the broader urban design scale. Solutions are meant to be both innovative and realistic in terms of building and zoning regulations and the logic of real estate market. What makes Northeastern’s approach special here is that we help students to focus their creative energies on the actual choices faced in market-driven multi-unit housing in American cities. This means understanding the specifics of unit types, parking requirements, systems, urban design, facades, materials, and open space. Housing is a very complex problem, and we work hard to make sure that our students understand its possibilities as well as its complexities.
The final undergraduate studio is about synthesizing all of the technology, systems, and design skills that a student has gained over five years. The Comprehensive Design Studio is taught in conjunction wit the Integrated Building Systems course and both are centered on creating a layered and complex piece of architecture in an urban setting.
Many professional curricula guide students through a sequence of studios that prepare them for a mode of practice not evident in the multiple demands and areas of expertise of present and future practices in architecture. Approaches to the topics of energy, material, sustainability, construction, urbanism and formalism while intimately connected in a building’s performance in actuality are too often disparate realms of instruction in American architecture schools. Routinely they are taught, theorized, and practiced by separate entities that in many cases operate in exclusive realms, often as stipulated by the National Architectural Accrediting Board and old pedagogical habits. American architecture is too often driven by autonomous formal ambitions, personal self-expression, rhetorical exuberance, urban aspirations, construction strategies, or by attention to the thermodynamic actuality of architecture; but one often at the expense of the other. Given the complexities and contingencies of contemporary practice, a more integrated approach is necessary, and the Comprehensive Design Studio is an effort to provide one.
Students who graduate from our B.S. Architecture program have the option of continuing in the one-year graduate program. This one-year professional Master of Architecture program is where the most unique aspects of the Northeastern curricular approach reveal themselves.
The graduate degree studio is focused on rethinking the market-driven building types that dominate our urban environment. Each semester we investigate a series of building types, common construction systems, and/or typical site conditions, considering their economic, programmatic, social/cultural, and morphological/spatial logics as a strategy for finding fertile territory for architectural innovation. The central thesis of the studio is that a better mousetrap can be designed for categories of buildings that, because of their ubiquity, have not typically been the focus of intense design thinking.
To avoid naïve solutions and generate meaningful architectural knowledge, students engage in rigorous research about the prevailing rules-of-thumb, the underlying logic of the types, and their architectural and cultural history. Only after mastery of these subjects has been achieved will students engage in design speculation to imagine new types and hybrids.
In the fall semester, students focus on the research and design for a prototype of a specific building type selected from a list provided by the instructors. Working in groups of two, students begin by investigating specific examples of the type, after which they launch into the production of a “pattern book” summarizing the issues into a more abstract set of design criteria. Finally, students develop a prototypical design which improves upon, critiques, intervenes on, or otherwise fully engages the architectural and extra-architectural forces upon which their building type is based.
In the spring semester students deploy a specific instance of their prototype on a chosen urban site, loaded with compositional and social challenges. Students are expected to customize and/or hybridize their type to develop an architectural project based on concepts developed during the fall semester and specific issues provoked by the project site.
The result of this kind of graduate work is an ongoing compilation of ideas, innovations, and problem-solving techniques that will serve as a repository of useful research, and make academic work in architecture more useful to current and future generations of architects, urban designers, critics, and all manner of actors in the built environment– both public and private.