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School of Architecture poised to become a powerhouse

By JIM DURFEE - 9/16/2011

The opening of a new graduate program in architecture at Rochester Institute of Technology had been eagerly anticipated in the design community.
 
The university has created a powerful new force for change and sown a seed that should yield major benefits for Rochester. The new program's vision for becoming nationally ranked is particularly compelling, and recent trends would indicate RIT is uniquely positioned to achieve this.
 
It is RIT's intention to create a world-class program, one that will compete with Harvard and Yale universities for emerging talent. In its pursuit of top-10 national recognition, RIT is sure to attract the kind of valuable and creative people who can strengthen our community in a big way. Rochester has a powerful tradition of creativity and innovation. Our area has been home to a long list of world-renowned artists, inventors and innovators. Now more than ever, it is important that we continue to promote this spirit as one of our defining characteristics.
 
Shifting trends in architectural education indicate just how quickly RIT's new program may develop a following.
 
Each year, in association with its "Best Schools" survey, the architectural profession ranks graduate schools of architecture in the U.S. While this year's top schools included familiar names such as Harvard, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University, the top-ranked school was a bold newcomer to the party.
 
Astonishingly, University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning surpassed Harvard for the No. 1 position this year, without even making the top 20 last year. Suddenly emerging at the top seems an unlikely story for Michigan, but the academic strategy that caused this leap bodes well for RIT's new school.
 
At Michigan, a dramatic shift in approach to architecture education led to a substantial reformulation of the program, which had remained virtually unchanged for more than a century. The primary goal was to create a program that more realistically paralleled contemporary professional practice. Studio work was integrated into other required courses while more focused areas of study (history, structures, urban planning) were integrated into the design studios. The resulting program was found to be compelling and highly valued by students, practitioners and academics alike.
 
This kind of integrated approach is exactly what RIT's new program is based on. The curriculum differs from most existing graduate programs in that it is application-oriented rather than theory-oriented. This approach, combined with a foundational emphasis on sustainability, may allow the new program to gain quick recognition.
 
A collaboration between RIT's Golisano Institute for Sustainability and the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, the three-year Master of Architecture curriculum focuses on the study of sustainability, urbanism and integrated practice.
 
Dennis Andrejko, national vice president of the American Institute of Architects and former SUNY Buffalo faculty member, was named program chairman in July. He has been working tirelessly since his appointment to see the program launched in an energetic way. Andrejko is known for his focus on sustainability in architecture and energy-conscious design. He describes RIT's master's program as one that weaves together these areas of study into a strong educational backdrop of support for professional practice. Academic programs at other schools, particularly at the graduate level, have tended to favor formal exercises that lack a sense of reality. Andrejko's vision for sustainability is one fully infused with professional practice and everyday decision-making.
 
RIT administrators and faculty worked with the American Institute of Architects' Rochester chapter over several years to develop the program. Accordingly, it will have a decidedly regional emphasis, using our area, particularly its urban core, as a laboratory. To the architectural community it is certain to be a boon for recruiting rising young talent. It is also expected to energize design dialogue in a way only a disciplined academic endeavor can.
 
The program is founded upon the principle that architecture programs can no longer afford to teach anything other than sustainable architecture. As other schools retool their programs in response to this demand, RIT has adopted it as the foundation.
 
RIT has a proven track record in the areas of engineering, design and sustainability, and it is likely that people earning degrees from this new architecture program will be effective right out of the gate. RIT may be in the right place and time to present a compelling educational alternative for those seeking a top-level professional degree.
 
So what might this mean for Rochester? I can think of a few things, for starters:
 

Establishment of a think tank led by the program but including local architects, construction professionals, developers and other community stakeholders. This may provide a forum for addressing compelling issues of the day.
 
While based at RIT, the architecture program intends to make a major commitment to community outreach. Rochester has a remarkably well-preserved building stock in its urban core. Andrejko envisions using this for real-life lessons employing the know-how of local developers, business leaders and construction professionals. Toward this end, he envisions opening a "storefront" in downtown Rochester that can act as a home base for RIT's integrated approach to education.
 
I, for one, very much look forward to the ribbon cutting.

Jim Durfee is vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates. An architect and past president of American Institute of Architects-Rochester, he can be reached at (585) 232-5135 or at jdurfee@bergmannpc.com.
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