There are quite possibly as many definitions of architecture, and ways of practicing as an architect, as there are individuals and institutions in the field. Although sometimes hard to explain to your friends and family, this condition of uncertainty is what makes architecture a discipline and profession that will likely sustain your investment and enthusiasm, as well as society’s unforeseeable demands and desires, throughout your long career.
What you should expect from an architectural education is that it provide a clear position with conviction, and prepare you for the multiple formats of practice, both current and future, that inevitably erupt in a dynamic culture of professional offices and public commission. While working alongside and directing diverse project teams in challenging situations and varied locales, your life in architecture will be characterized by generating seemingly endless alternatives and making deliberate choices, engaging in passionate disagreement, and coming together with unexpected delight.
At the UIC School of Architecture, we broadly maintain that the purpose of architecture (distinct from “building,” narrowly construed) is not primarily to answer, respond, or serve, but to anticipate, provoke, and challenge. Architecture projects the stage for how people, objects, events, and environments can be connected or held apart, and it does so through a range of design media: drawing and writing, images and codes, structures and plans, and products and polemics, as well as the formal arrangements of matter and energy. Rather than simply confirm existing identities, architecture at its most effective allows us to become something else by fabricating alternative models of interaction. Through its specific historical and contemporary techniques and forms of knowledge, architecture is one of the most powerful disciplines of world-making available.
This is one reason we have uniquely positioned the UIC School of Architecture as a “boutique public school.” We do not believe in a “one-size-fits-all” model of education, and aim to expand the opportunity for student choice among the landscape of architecture programs. This enables access to a form of education that might otherwise be foreclosed to a broad range of students, either by the restrictive admission policies or financial burden that sometimes accompanies private universities. We take pride in being a program that allows choice and expects commitment, a school that is open to anyone, but not for everybody.
The school aims to demonstrate ways of thinking and working that give students the confidence to confront the unknown and contribute to the development of a project in its largest sense. We are energized by being a young school (having graduated our first class the same summer that Chicago’s streets echoed with the anticipatory call “the whole world is watching”) with an already rich history, providing an intimate environment (studio student-faculty ratios of twelve to one) with an international reach (40 percet of our faculty born and educated abroad). As a generalist form of professional education, we understand architecture as a cultural practice, having more in common with film, art, fashion, and literature than it does with other professional specializations such as medicine, engineering, or business.
Moreover, we promote and teach architecture as a discipline, not a medium. It is less about what gets done (there are multiple formal and informal practices that are perfectly capable of delivering “buildings” or shelter) than the manner in which something is done. In the first and last instance, the significance of architecture is assessed by other architecture, and if you want to do architecture well, you have to be open to becoming its obsessed fan. We are a school of such bizarre enthusiasts and cockeyed optimists.
Over recent years, the school has developed a reputation as a “school of architecture’s school of architecture,” and one can observe genres of work (as well as high-demand faculty) that frequently migrate to other programs. For us, the success of a program is not just the number of its graduates who enter high-profile design offices and gain admittance to competitive graduate schools (as ours do), but that sees its success as producing graduates who also enter the field of teaching. This obligation to educating not simply students, but indeed young practicing graduates and emerging educators, is a particular focus and strength of the school.
Though primarily concerned with maintaining the energy and relevance of our graduates in twenty-to-fifty-year time frames, this obligation has a collateral benefit for practice in general. The work that has been coming out of large offices both in Chicago and internationally over the last fifteen years, and has been realized all around the globe, directly relies on projects that were done in studios like those conducted by Doug Garofalo and Greg Lynn at UIC in the early 1990s. While thirty years ago the production in the school and that in the office would have been seen to be “out of sync,” offices today are reaping the rewards of those experimental “paperless” studios. This is one real example of the way in which schools like UIC position themselves to lay the groundwork for the future of practice, and why the principals of firms who regularly employ our students have been extremely supportive of the anticipatory role that the school cultivates. We welcome you to visit the school and see if your future lies here as well.
-R. E. Somol