architecture

The undergraduate architecture program at Penn is as much about building community as it is designing structures.

The undergraduate architecture program at Penn is as much about building community as it is designing structures.

In the Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall, students spend four and a half hours in studio twice a week working on design projects and receiving feedback on their work. These projects are not always directly related to tangible buildings, and many of them entail taking an inspirational study and using that to create an analog of a structure.

“The biggest misperception about the major is that people expect you to be always building buildings,” College junior Carrie Lee said.

College senior Antoni Gierczak attributes this to Penn’s conceptual focus on the study of architecture.

“Usually in the studio you’re designing things in a vacuum,” Gierczak said. “And the things you design aren’t necessarily practical.”

This year, as part of the senior project, students get to apply their skills to a real-life context by working alongside one of the winners of last year’s President’s Engagement Prize, 2015 College graduate Shadrack Frimpong. The class is developing architectural proposals for the women’s health clinic and school for girls that Frimpong is building with his Engagement Prize in his native village in Ghana.

Graduate study is required to become a licensed architect. Unlike a five-year professional program, Penn’s four-year undergraduate architecture program is liberal arts based, and most students go on to graduate school afterward to earn their licenses.

College freshman Maria Diavolova, an aspiring architecture major, had to decide between these two tracks.

“I chose Penn’s program because I’m also interested in the social components of architecture and how you can impact cultures and society through it,” she said.

In fact, many juniors and seniors currently in the major either double major or minor in other fields such as urban studies or environmental studies to receive a more well-rounded education than what a pre-professional program would offer.

“You can see how what these people study influences their design in class,” Gierczak said. “I think design is one of those things that everything you do in your life shapes you as a designer.”

The work itself is demanding and many students go into the studio sequence without a clear understanding of the workload.

“I think we had around 60 people in freshmen studio, and now we’re down to 13,” College senior Emily Siegel said. “A lot of people are just shocked by the reality of the major.”

Despite the challenging nature of the program, the students have formed a tight-knit community. College senior Thuy Le is president of ARCH Tank, a student-run group that organizes BYOs and social events for the major and creates mentorship chains resembling the “big little” lineages in Greek life.

“We try to create a community in architecture, and we kind of bond over our weird sleeping schedules and the hardships of the major,” Le said.

Because architecture is a small major at Penn — the Class of 2016 has only 13 students, plus an exchange student — many students are either unaware of the program or do not have an accurate understanding of it.

“Architecture is very much like a cult, and people don’t necessarily know what’s going on or how the process works,” Lee said. “But architecture is for the people, and I want everyone to know more about it and become more invested in it.”

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