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Universities are schooling future architects to consider community and history as they design

Philadelphia area architecture schools have moved in recent years to train students to consider the “whats” and “whys” of the discipline, rather than just the “hows.”

Crystal Edwards (left), principal of the Willian D. Kelley School in Philadelphia's Brewerytown neighborhood, and Jefferson University architecture student Emily Potenza are working together to rethink how the school property is used.
Crystal Edwards (left), principal of the Willian D. Kelley School in Philadelphia's Brewerytown neighborhood, and Jefferson University architecture student Emily Potenza are working together to rethink how the school property is used.Read morePaul Jablow

In her mind’s eye, principal Crystal Edwards sees a very different William D. Kelley School.

There’s a full cafeteria instead of one that doubles as a gym. A community garden sprouts on what is now a bare concrete expanse at the North Philadelphia school that serves kindergarten through eighth grade.

The school entrance has been moved to the center of the aging building, with a spacious foyer. Space has been added and reconfigured to enable the school community to interact with the community at large.

The vision is not a figment of Edwards’ imagination. It’s a plan drawn up over the last few months by architecture students at Thomas Jefferson University.

Under the direction of adjunct professor Max Zahniser, students have been looking for ways architecture can meet community needs by working closely with neighborhood residents rather than imposing a design on them just because it seems to make sense on a drawing board.

It’s just one example of how area architecture schools have moved in recent years to train students who can consider the “whats” and “whys” of the discipline, rather than just the “hows.”

A few examples:

  1. At the University of Pennsylvania, a screenwriter was hired to help students improve their presentation of ideas.

  2. At Temple, a collaboration of the schools of architecture and public health is helping students learn the design of public health facilities.

  3. At Drexel, “sustainability” is no longer an elective but woven through the curriculum.

  4. At Jefferson, a master’s in historic preservation program launched in 2019 has proven popular, attracting about 20 students already.

‘Living systems’

Schools of architecture “tend to over-focus on technical and mechanical issues,” says Zahniser, who has been teaching at Jefferson for a decade while maintaining a full-time career involving green building consultation, entrepreneurship, and nonprofits dedicated to sustainability and social justice.

“I’m getting them to think about living systems,” he says.

His “lab” currently is the Sharswood area in North Philadelphia, a low-income neighborhood feeling the mixed effects of gentrification.

“It’s a community that’s been exploited and abused,” Zahniser says, so his students are working closely with community residents to assess their needs.

In addition to the Kelley School, design projects include a community town hall, envisioned on a now-vacant lot at 27th Street and Girard Avenue, and an expansion of North Philly Peace Park in the 2200 block of West Jefferson Street.

“They all know how to draw,” Zahniser says. “Here they have to aim their creativity at understanding ecology, power structures, and business models.”

While the neighborhood is quite different from where most of his students grew up, he adds, “they all end up falling in love with the place.

“Some have moved there after graduation.”

Reuse and rebuild

The description of Penn’s graduate course on history and theory taught by lecturer Joan Ockman is an indication of the range of current architecture programs: “How do architecture, urbanism, and the environment reflect the dominant social, economic and political changes of the 20th and 21st centuries?”

On the practical level, this approach leads to adapting buildings for new uses, rather than tearing them down and building something new. And it has meant accommodating new living arrangements.

Winka Dubbeldam, chair of the architecture department, says the students have to deal with race, gender, diversity, and climate change, as well as the simple fact that cities are reaching maximum density and architects are thinking of extensions of existing buildings rather than new buildings.

» READ MORE: A win for historic preservation, but at a cost to a West Philadelphia neighborhood

Jefferson professor Suzanne Singletary, a historic preservation specialist who launched that program in 2019, has had students designing possible new uses for the vacant NBC10 building on City Avenue.

At Drexel, associate professor Rachel Schade says students came up with a design for a co-living house on Christian Street in South Philadelphia, starting with such basic amenities as a large common kitchen and getting down to “something as mundane as where bikes are kept.”

Students are also exploring how architectural design can contribute to sustainable communities, including features such as food banks, green spaces, local employment opportunities, and disability access.

And she adds that “the topic of gentrification is more frequently discussed.”

Throwing students into the fire

Being an architect was the last thing on Emily Potenza’s mind when she was a student at the Arts Academy of Benjamin Rush High School in Northeast Philadelphia.

“I never thought I’d end up here,” says Potenza, a theater major in high school and now a fifth-year graduate student in the architecture school at Jefferson. “It wasn’t something I grew up with.”

She started as an interior design major but had always had an interest in art and psychology. When she found herself in a studio that included architecture students, “it shined a light on what I really wanted to do.”

“They were, like, ‘Come on over to the dark side,’ ” she recalls.

The program, though more difficult, intrigued her. She wound up working on projects like designing an alternative incarceration center quite different from ordinary jails.

In Zahniser’s class, she was in the group doing the Kelley redesign, which Zahniser hopes can eventually become reality through foundation support.

Leaders at the architectural schools say that interaction among architects and students is increasing, to the benefit of both.

“They want to throw their students into the fire,” Potenza says. “It has to be a passion.”

And she’s exhilarated by working with community members on the redesign. “They’re fighting for these kids’ lives,” she says.

Emphasizing collaboration

In some ways, schools of architecture began preparing for COVID-19 before there was COVID-19.

“We’ve had to learn and teach online,” says Barbara Klinkhammer, dean of the architecture school at Jefferson.

While in-person contact is important for entering students, she says, fourth- and fifth-year students are comfortable with virtual learning, and “some of it will remain in the future.”

In fact, it has helped foster interaction with students in different disciplines and from different geographical areas.

In one case, a Jefferson professor unable to leave Malawi, where he was doing field work, is teaching his course from there.

» READ MORE: How the smartphone explains Philly’s most profound urban design changes this decade

Leaders of architecture schools also say they are placing increasing emphasis on cooperation, particularly with people of different disciplines, government officials, and community members.

“We’re teaching students to collaborate,” says Rashida Ng, department chair of architecture and design at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture. “They’re not working in isolation.

“How do you communicate with someone who isn’t in your discipline?” she asks. “We have our own jargon. We’re as guilty as everyone.”

There is also increasing interest in broadening the demographics of the field.

Klinkhammer is concerned about the small representation of women: Only 22% of licensed American Institute of Architects members are female, according to the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. Many women with degrees in architecture gravitate instead to fields such as government or city planning or to the nonprofit sector, she says.

She adds that “architecture education used to have a strong focus on Western culture, which is now changing.”

At Penn, Dubbeldam says that students are spending time studying cityscapes in downtown Cairo, Istanbul, and Mexico City, as well as those in the United States.

And, she says, they are doing it in a studio that looks quite different from the past, with 3-D printers and robotic devices.

But connections with the past are always there.

“You need to know history,” she says, “to be avant-garde.”