When you think about the Olympics you probably think about that torch, the five rings and, of course, sports.
But if you’re an architect — and especially if you’re an architecture student in CUA’s fourth-year design studio — you’re thinking about Olympic venue locations, transportation hubs, traffic flows, housing, multi-use stadiums and an adequate number of restrooms.
The seniors in Architecture Design III typically create the plans for a large-scale project such as community housing or a sports arena, but this year Assistant Professor Carlos Barrios wanted to go a step further. After all, he says, these designers are just a few credits short of graduating. The level of difficulty and complexity rises exponentially in a fourth-year studio, which is what made Barrios think of the Olympics. He decided the students’ task would be to develop a hypothetical bid for Washington, D.C., to host the 2020 Olympics. The project would involve designing buildings and additional transportation systems throughout a two-mile swath of the city — with an eye for how these structures could continue to be used five, 20, 30 or 50 years after the Olympiad has come and gone.
In architecture, students find their work to be a series of trials and errors. And suggestions. And daily modifications. At no time is this evolution more apparent than during the semester’s quarterly reviews, when students gather before their instructors and peers to explain their designs and present almost everything about their concept, including location, size, shape and relationship to other proposed or pre-existing buildings.
Today’s review focuses on “node” locations, which is architecture-speak for “big intersections.” The class gathers in a meeting space surrounded by white walls from which hang dozens of the students’ blueprints. The large sheets of paper flutter slightly as students breeze by, tacking up additional sketches and setting up 3-D scale models. Now two students stand before the rest of the class, explaining why their small group has chosen to design the area in the style of the District of Columbia’s original designer, Pierre L’Enfant, with his penchant for diagonal, tree-lined boulevards and traffic circles.
“If you decide L’Enfant is the right way to go, then you have to present your case and provide evidence to support it,” Barrios tells the pair.
“You want to answer questions in your presentation rather than raising questions,” says Assistant Professor Luis Eduardo Boza, who is visiting the class. “The first thing I was thinking was, ‘I wonder why they think L’Enfant is the way to go?’ ”
Professors perform a crucial split-personality role within the studios: They must act both as client and consultant. “I’m a client because I ask questions and expect results,” Barrios notes. “I’m a consultant because I give them advice on how to get those results.”
Others from the two students’ small group rise and move toward the front wall, pinning up a close-up of a major intersection showing the pattern of traffic. Another tacks up the light-rail plans they’ve designed to coordinate with the node.
“So many intersecting roads,” Boza observes of a particular spot meant to serve as a recreational park. “How many parents are going to take their kids there?” asks Boza, the client.
“Rethink the park: It has to be off-limits to cars,” says Barrios, the consultant. “Why not turn that area into a residential area?”
“Ohhhh,” one of the students says softly, affirming the epiphany.
This space inside the Edward M. Crough Center for Architectural Studies seems, at first, an unlikely classroom. The Crough Center is the transformed building that once served as the university’s gymnasium, a fact that accounts for the vaulted ceiling that expands 40 feet overhead. White walls divide the interior, separating workstations from review stations. The walls rise only a third of the way to the ceiling, giving the interior an open, industrial-warehouse feel. A hum of activity fills the school: On the other side of a divide, students gather around a computer screen studying an architectural model. You won’t find the typical blackboard-and-chairs classroom here. In fact, as students come and go, preparing their projects, the setting smacks more of an architectural firm than an educational building.
The professors aim to put their students at the cutting edge of the field. Elective classes such as Green Architecture and Environmental Control Systems prepare them for a world that is increasingly interested in “green,” or environmentally sensitive, design. The school’s curriculum and philosophy encourage students to be stewards of the communities in which they build. That’s why another specification of the Olympic design is to incorporate the new facilities in a way that would contribute to and sustain the D.C. community.
This emphasis on stewardship has become a central theme within CUA’s School of Architecture and Planning in the past year. The school’s lecture series last spring, its Summer Institute for Architecture and the CUA-hosted Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture conference in October all investigated the theme of stewardship. In August, the school even adopted a new mission statement on stewardship. The statement outlines the school’s purpose of training architects as "enlightened stewards and engaged citizens" at a time of increasing concern about architecture’s influence on the environment and quality of life.
Barrios’ class has spent a good deal of time discussing these concerns as they relate to the Olympics. Although hosting the games is often a huge boon for a city, designers may be tempted to create large venues that are centrally located, which usually means displacing residents. Another common pitfall is building arenas that serve little purpose beyond the two weeks of international competition; on how many occasions after that will a city need to make use of multiple arenas that each seat 100,000 fans?
And so Barrios’ students set about designing buildings that would serve the community long after the Olympic flame has been extinguished. The swimming pool complex would one day be a city recreational center. One of the stadiums could be converted into a library; another, into a school.
Graduating senior Ian Dowling calls this process “future proofing,” his term for safeguarding the new structures against obsolescence. His classmate, Michelangelo Zaragoza, agrees: “The idea is to maintain the urban fabric, not make some artificial implant.”
Two hours into this three-hour review, Barrios holds a permanent marker to one of the blueprints, rethinking some students’ potential thoroughfare.
“I thought it could better the community to have an Olympic venue in a low-income area. Help revitalize it,” one of the design’s creators explains, hoping to clarify why they placed the node where they did.
“But what if [the city] says ‘No way’?” Barrios presses the undergraduate. As always, he is training his students for the day when they must stand as professional architects and sell their pitch to a client. “What are the selling points other than ‘It’s going to be great’? It’s about stewardship. Why is this going to be great for the community? Part of [a successful pitch] is the way you frame your argument.”
On the last day of the semester, a panel of faculty oversees a final review, offering the students feedback on the entire project and their individual contributions. As the earlier reviews have prepared them to do, students must defend their work to the judges — and be ready to answer all the “whys” that arise.
And what of Barrios? On judgment day, is he client or consultant?
“I’m a teacher at that point,” Barrios says with a laugh. “So I grade.”
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