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A Continuum of Ideas

The University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation recognizes the value of precedent in contemporary urban settings.

By Kim A. O'Connell

In 2003, when ten architecture and urban studies students from the University of Maryland traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, their surroundings could not, at first glance, have been more different from their home base in College Park. With an elegant campus just outside Washington, DC, notable for its red-brick Georgian architecture and central open mall, the University of Maryland is a safe suburban enclave, generally keeping both the banality of the surrounding sprawl and the ills of the inner city far away.

In Russia, the students were tasked with proposing a redevelopment plan for 22 acres of industrial land near the center of the 300-year-old city. Although St. Petersburg boasts some of the most stunning Baroque and Neoclassicist architecture in the world, much of the city remains underdeveloped and ill used. Recognizing this, the students proposed a dense, modestly designed, mixed-use development that fit the scale of the surrounding neighborhood and encouraged use by both pedestrians and automobiles. The panel of Russian architects who reviewed the plan, however, lamented what they saw as a lack of bold design, criticizing the students' work as "too traditional."

What the panelists failed to acknowledge was the proposal's real-world economic and aesthetic value, wrote Roger K. Lewis, FAIA, an architecture professor at the school since 1968, in his Washington Post column "Shaping the City.""The students' concept was not about making visionary edifices,"he noted, "but rather about making urban space suitable for St. Petersburg."As the students came to realize, St. Petersburg was not that different from College Park, or at least the larger urban area surrounding it, in being a complex setting with strong historical precedents to draw from and build on. In fact, although the University of Maryland's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation encompasses three very distinct programs, an overarching theme could be its recognition of the dynamic role that historical and morphological precedents play in contemporary planning and design.

"This is an interdisciplinary approach to architecture,"says Garth Rockcastle, FAIA, who has served as dean of the school since 2004 and has a professional specialty in adaptive reuse of historic buildings. "We have a good sense of how planning, architecture, real estate development and preservation work together. We recognize that it's inevitable in the culture."

Embodied Intelligence
In both the academy and practice, traditional neighborhood development is gaining currency and momentum. Despite this, most architecture schools remain "openly hostile"to New Urbanism, as New Urban News asserted in its January/February 2006 issue. In response, the newsletter announced its rankings of the top schools for producing New Urbanist practitioners, listing the University of Maryland third, behind the Universities of Miami and Notre Dame. The newsletter further acknowledged that New Urbanism is a multidisciplinary field affected by planning and urban studies, in addition to architecture. "New urban training and practice run counter to the sometimes rigid separation of disciplines in academia,"the report continued, noting that neither Miami nor Notre Dame had formal planning programs. Although not singled out by the newsletter, the rare fact that Maryland has integrated architecture, planning and preservation could affect how traditional development is taught and practiced. Several Maryland faculty members are either founding members of or active members in the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).

Yet Maryland embraces a more expansive notion of tradition than other like-minded programs. "Tradition in the physical world is embodied intelligence – things that stand and stand well,"Rockcastle says. "In some places that means Classical orders, but for me that is too much of a contractual definition. We have a broader definition. We embrace that which exists and try to understand why it is so."

In the architecture program, students can earn a Bachelor of Science degree, a Master of Architecture professional degree and a post-professional Master of Science in architecture for those who already possess a professional architecture degree. The school also offers a dual master of architecture and community planning, master's degrees in community planning and historic preservation and a doctorate in urban and regional planning and design. On average, the school has about 300 students in architecture, 75 in planning and 20 in preservation.

The concepts of urbanism and precedent are woven throughout the architecture curriculum. First-level courses focus on drawing and history and move into abstract composition and traditional garden plans, and then onto small-town urbanism and infill development. Upper-class studios deal with façade and characters, civic architecture and the city. Graduate courses include a comprehensive design studio, studies in urban design and regionalism and a graduate thesis. "It is common to ask students to look at precedents, and not just historical precedents, but morphological precedents,"says Steven W. Hurtt, AIA, who served as dean from 1990 to 2004, after serving for nearly two decades on the faculty of Notre Dame's architecture program. "It's a truly academic perspective. There is a continuity to those ideas that dates back to the founding of the school by John Hill in 1967. History and technology faculty are included in the architecture faculty – and unlike history professors teaching from an art history perspective, our teachers have a grounding in architecture."

"We maintain a healthy tension between the poles of Modernism and tradition,"says Brian P. Kelly, AIA, who directs the architecture program and has a bachelor's degree from Notre Dame and a master's from Cornell. "In the first-year studio, we warn undergraduates about the zeitgeist and encourage them to respond to and be critical about the zeitgeist. We tell them, 'You don't have to make a choice between the past and the present. You can revel in the continuum of ideas.'"

Teachable Moments
In northeast Washington, DC, the H Street corridor is an historic commercial strip that has undergone numerous changes over the past four decades. Riots in the late 1960s and subsequent "white flight"left the block economically depressed and underused. Yet the street retains remarkable architectural integrity, with its low-scale commercial buildings and ground-level storefronts. In fall 2004, students in Maryland's historic preservation studio prepared a comprehensive plan for preserving H Street's neighborhood character while encouraging economic reinvestment. To prepare the plan, the group also studied other cities, from Boston, MA, to Bozeman, MT, that had adopted conservation districts in similarly historic neighborhoods. Several University of Maryland faculty note that the school's proximity to Washington, DC – both its downtown and its far-ranging suburbs – provides a rich environment in which to present urban problems and encourage solutions. "Many schools save urbanism for the end of the program,"Kelly says. "What we do is weave in a set of urban problems from the earliest course. Say in a small-town urban environment, we ask students to document, analyze and extend the order of what's there. It's reiterative in the curriculum. We look at the great examples of history and encourage students to find ways to make connections, to look at the way architects have engaged with technological changes. By looking at critical points in the development of technology, you can look at the paths not taken as well."

The capital city also offers students a wealth of resources to draw upon, including national agencies and associations, as well as major libraries and the National Archives. The National Trust for Historic Preservation Library has been at Maryland since 1986, recently moving out of the architecture building into upgraded and expanded quarters in one of the university's two main libraries. The architecture school itself, a modern red-brick building with an open plan, provides design workstations for upperclassmen and graduate students, as well as classrooms and a lecture hall, an architecture library and 300,000-slide visual-resource collection, a computer lab, a woodworking and model-making shop and gallery space.

"My students can take courses in architecture and preservation, and that's one key strength,"says Alexander Chen, director of the planning program and a specialist in housing and community development. "Our mission lies in our commitment to the community. We're a neighborhood-based program. Our classes range from suburbia to DC infill development. We feel that it's important that our students learn about traditions and then adapt. It's a changing environment and the needs of the community change over time. We want students to have a grounding in the history of what they're doing and then learn to be adaptable."

Donald W. Linebaugh, who has directed the preservation program since 2004 and has a background in archaeology and American studies, echoes Chen's statement. "The program allows students to get a good generalist grounding [in preservation] and then have the flexibility to go into these related disciplines and draw on their strengths,"he says. "The other thing we offer is the interdisciplinary strength of the faculty, in that we have both full-time academic faculty and practitioners. We look at preservation broadly, and sometimes at architecture schools, if it's not about the buildings, it's not. In other programs set in American studies, it often swings the other way. I like to see us have a balance. We can really draw on those strengths and cross over between planning and architecture."

Faculty members routinely work outside the school, fostering what Professor Ralph Bennett, AIA, calls "teachable moments."Bennett, for example, is the president of Tacoma Park, MD-based Bennett Frank McCarthy Architects, Inc., and served on the community foundation for Kentlands, the famed New Urbanist community in Gaithersburg, MD. He now acts as the community architect for King Farm, a New Urbanist community in Rockville, MD. Professor Matthew Bell, AIA, preceded him in that position, and many other faculty members have extensive backgrounds in architecture and urban planning practice as well. Enriching the students' experiences further is the school's annual lecture series, which last fall welcomed noted architect and planner Léon Krier and John Torti, FAIA, of Torti Gallas and Partners, Inc.

In 2000, the University of Maryland's schools of architecture, public policy, agriculture and engineering cooperatively founded the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education, located on campus. The center conducts independent research on land use and the environment, transportation, housing and international development. Center staff and faculty also offer smart-growth study tours and workshops.

"Urban design takes a lot of concentration and care,"Bennett says, praising in particular his colleague Professor Karl Du Puy, AIA, an architect and urban designer who infused the program with a vibrant sense of urban history. "Under Karl Du Puy's tutelage, it was logical that Maryland would come to embrace urbanism. Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk [now dean of the University of Miami program] also joined us as a visiting critic in the early 1980s and Andrés Duany was a supporter. Interest in traditional design and urban design existed in the school long before those movements were named."

Hurtt believes the CNU approach is instructive in the classroom. "Every Congress, they move to a new set of issues,"he says. "Architects tend to be critical of the environment but not do anything about it. But these people are working hard to be critical and make changes to it. The ideas are more interested in the urban environment than some of the individual projects might represent. The intellectual dialogue is about neighborhood, community and urbanity.""What we teach about New Urbanism,"Kelly adds, "is not just a mirror of what one might consider the knee-jerk approach to traditional development…The New Urbanist scene is more complex and diverse than Kentlands and Seaside. The promise that is given to us by New Urbanism is that it does not have to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and that there can be a civic dimension to architecture."

Broadening Horizons
But the somewhat antiseptic quality of a new development, even one that is sensitively and traditionally designed, may not compare to the didactic quality of visiting older cities and historic sites, made ever more complex and challenging with time. Recognizing this, every summer, Maryland architecture students and faculty participate in study programs usually located in England, France and Turkey. Two programs also take place in Italy, one in Rome and the other in southern Italy, focusing on the ancient site of Stabiae. Last fall, for example, a Maryland contingent joined students from other universities to craft a master plan for archaeological sites along the Bay of Naples. One student said afterwards that it "was so exciting to be working on a real project….You don't have that kind of history [at home]."

These experiences allow students to discern the distinct culture of place, says William Bechhoefer, FAIA, who teaches courses in regionalism and multiculturalism and has led study tours abroad. "There's a typical Western arrogance that we have everything to teach everybody else and nothing to learn,"he says. "And I take exactly the opposite view. The cultures that I'm interested in have much, much longer histories than we do. They have some traditions from which we can learn architecturally. I would like to see the western-nonwestern dichotomy eliminated in favor of the notion of world architecture, a series of precedents we can learn from."

Bechhoefer encourages his students to discuss what different architectural vocabularies can signify to people, which often leads to a political discourse, something at which he would like to see both architecture students and architects become more adept. "One of the main things I'm interested in is the meaning of tradition,"Bechhoefer says. "To me, tradition is not the design. The meaning of tradition is not building in traditional forms – emphatically not. I bill myself as a modern architect with a memory. I'm interested in how tradition maintains continuity with what we're doing today and how tradition grows, expands and develops in sync with the modern world."

Looking ahead, the school will soon undergo a strategic planning process to better integrate the three programs, something several professors say is still strongly needed. Linebaugh, for one, hopes to incorporate more opportunities to teach preservation students about traditional building systems, materials and conservation, and Bennett would like to see planning become more engaged with building. Dean Rockcastle is initiating the process of including a real estate development program in the school, and he also urges the entire faculty to become accredited under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system. And there is always talk of whether landscape architecture, now in the college of agriculture, should move over as well.

Perhaps this dynamic quality, this dissatisfaction with the status quo, is fitting for an architecture program that views the built environment as an evolutionary panoply of traditions, culture and ideals – and also a very real world where people live and work. "We are a community of professionals who see things pretty much alike, yet at the same time we have individual identities,"says Bennett. "There are these boutique schools where individual originality trumps everything. But the journeyman architects are going to do the greatest volume of built work out there, and if we can improve the quality of their work, we are doing something much better for the world."TB

 

 

 
 

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