In pursuit of a meaningful career as a scholar and critic of the built environment, I have spent the last few years of my life searching for a unique perspective on the cities we inhabit and the houses we dwell in. The road I have traveled has taken me to a great number of places, each with its own traditions and aspirations; its own local and global identities. The time paradox that exists in our world today, fueled by a consciousness of the past and an ambition for the future, has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration to me; it has driven me to invest in an international career, aimed at researching the temporal dynamic that exists within the built environment, while constructing strategies to unify heritage and new development in the midst of a growing global community.
The interdisciplinary nature of this career has required me to draw from a variety of fields, including communications, economics, political science, media studies and, not to forget, architectural history. When the time came for me to look for an internship, I naturally gravitated towards a job that would equip me with the widest variety of skills. Through our Department Chair Dr. Robin Williams’ network of professionals, I was able to secure an internship with the department of Planning, Building and Development, and Economic Development within the municipal government of the city of Roanoke, Virginia—a pivotal moment in my pursuit of a career in the field of built environment studies and international relations.
I was able to work closely with the city manager, assistant city managers, economic developers, the historic preservation officer and other community leaders of Roanoke in an effort to better understand the relationship between communities and the built environment. I specifically worked on two projects, one conducting research and writing a report on Roanoke’s rich history of commercial and artistic murals, and the other researching potential ways to incentivize surface parking lot owners to develop their land. Not only did I acquire valuable practical skills related to the functioning of government, but more importantly, I gained a greater insight in the dynamic which exists between government, advocacy groups, communities, and citizens—all in the name of improving the built environment.
As I approached the end of my internship—before I was scheduled to return to my home country, Belgium—I decided to plan a short trip to Washington, D.C. to visit a few graduate schools. Despite the trip’s brevity—a mere thirty hours—I still managed to work in visits to Georgetown’s, George Washington’s and Johns Hopkins’ campuses. Four hours after walking out of the GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs, I already found myself on a bus to Dulles International Airport, finally heading back to Belgium after having been away from home for over thirteen months. Little did I realize my time in Bruges would be spent quickly bouncing back and forth between friends and family, because I soon found myself on the road to Geneva, Switzerland, where I was scheduled to visit Europe’s oldest International Relations school, the Institut de Hautes Etudes Internationales et du Développement.
Sitting opposite a senior representative of the school, I was taught one of the most important lessons for the future: “Here at the institute we are not interested in churning out the next engineer, doctor or lawyer; rather, we embrace individuals with unique profiles; individuals with a unique take on the world and a plan to change that world for the better.” What I had been struggling with for years, finally became crystal clear: rather than going through life trying to find the ‘right job’, I should focus on cultivating my own individual being and honing my own unique abilities. Preparing myself to work for a variety of organizations, resolving urban issues in both the industrial world as well as conflict areas in the developing countries, I am in essence granting myself the most meaningful career one could ever have: that of serving the common good of the people dwelling this Earth.
Editor’s Note: Olivier Maene is a senior B.F.A. student in the architectural history program at SCAD.
The department’s Careers Survey for the calendar year July 2012 through June 2013 includes 104 positions listings, up from 99 listings in 2012 and 55 in 2011. The uptick was first noted six months and a solid gain is now evident. It is the first 12-month period with more than 100 listings since the July 2009-June 2010 period. Prior to the recession, the number of advertised positions historically ranged from about 160 to 200 per year. For more detail, click the Careers tab above.
Video recreates lost Savannah train station and benefits from Architectural History faculty and alumnus consultants
Architectural History professor Karl Schuler and Architectural History alumnus Ruben Acosta (M.F.A. 2010) provided valuable information, insight and feedback in the creation of a video that recreates Savannah’s lost Union Station, erected in 1902 and demolished in 1962. The video was the result of collaboration of Visual Effects, Sound Design, and Film and Television students enrolled in a course offered by SCAD Visual Effects professor Joe Pasquale in spring 2013. Information about the station was largely drawn from the M.F.A. thesis, “Savannah’s Union Station: Architecture and the Gateway in the South,” of Ruben Acosta, who was able to visit the class and offer direct feedback while in Savannah serving as the department’s inaugural alumni mentor.
When I decided almost ten years ago to go back to school for an M.A. degree, the Savannah College of Art and Design was first on my list of places I wanted to go. At the time, this was almost exclusively because of the school’s location. After nearly a decade of living in Nashville, Tennessee, I was utterly fed up with having to get in my car to do absolutely everything, and the idea of opening a new chapter in my life in a walkable, mixed-use, and beautiful city like Savannah was very appealing. I knew that the city had an innovative network of squares, but that was really about all I knew—and to be honest, while my first love was urban design, I was rather set on studying 3D digital design at SCAD because I thought it would be a good way to experiment with urban environments.
I could not have been more wrong about my suitability for SCAD’s digital design program, but when it came to the city of Savannah and SCAD in general I was so very right. After making a joyous switch over to the Architectural History program, I suddenly found myself not only in a great city, but also in a great program that was equipping me to discover and deeply explore that city. It is rather clichéd to say that the urban environment is the best classroom, but in Savannah’s case I think it is literally true; the city’s globally unique network of civic squares presents outdoor public living rooms that are perfect for teaching, debating, reading, and just about anything else.
When it came time to choose a topic for my M.A. thesis, I briefly entertained the notion of doing a project on postwar reconstruction in Dresden, Germany…before slapping myself in the face and realizing, in a near panic, that the best possible topic was not only right in front of my face, but also under my feet and all around me: Savannah itself! Specifically, the squares—and more specifically, the three squares that had been demolished decades ago, to the consternation and confusion of the city’s modern inhabitants. Everything I could ever need was all there, right at my fingertips: faculty experts, newspaper microfilm reels, civic records, the sites themselves, local civil society archives, old phone books, everything. Living not only with but also in my topic helped me to finish the document in a timely fashion, and I was happy to graduate, if sad to leave.
Little did I know that, even as I departed Georgia for a job in an architecture firm in Virginia, my life in the Savannah squares was not going to end anytime soon. First, I learned that my paper had won SCAD’s Graduate Thesis Document Award. Then, one of its chapters played an instrumental role in my being accepted to the Ph.D. program at Brown University’s History of Art and Architecture department. Soon after arriving at Brown, I began to present my recent and ongoing research at scholarly conferences, and it seemed that everywhere I went—from Ireland to Hawaii, from Beirut to Boston—fellow students and senior scholars were eager to hear about Savannah. And why shouldn’t they be? The city is amazing! Its unique and elegant layout is a rare manifestation of the Renaissance Ideal City tradition that dramatically embodies the rise and fall of its founders’ utopian dreams, creating a civic realm that has alternately been the site of progressive humanitarianism and cruel bigotry, of reformed egalitarian peace and bitter internecine war. As I learned when writing my thesis at SCAD, Savannah’s grid of squares had also been the site of some profound Depression-Era debates about the nature and value of modernity, highlighting the ongoing relevance of the Savannah Plan and its evolution in the twentieth century and beyond.
Image courtesy of the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan.
Ultimately, my thesis was broken into two parts for publication. The portion on the twentieth-century civic conflict over “Savannah’s Lost Squares” was released in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. The other portion, which was on the ideological origins and formal precedents of the network of squares, was published in an edited volume entitled Ordnance: War + Architecture & Space. Somewhat ironically, this second publication was profoundly enhanced by my move to Providence and Brown University, where a brilliant collection of original documents from colonial Georgia is housed in the John Carter Brown Library. Furthermore, while doing research at Brown for my dissertation on the architecture of utopian literature, I came across an ideal town plan [see figure] from a 1718 book by Leonhard Christoph Sturm that, to me at least, clearly resembles the 1733 Savannah grid and is a prime contender for the definitive influence. When I got a hold of the original book and saw that it had been dedicated to the commanding officer of James Edward Oglethorpe, the founder of Savannah, while Oglethorpe was serving in the military, I nearly lost it.
My only regret was that I could not celebrate these discoveries or publications in Savannah itself, face-to-face with the faculty of the Architectural History department, whose kind instruction and counsel were indispensable to my career and indeed to my intellectual development in general. Savannah is not only a great classroom, it is also a fantastic research topic. I am utterly sure that much remains to be discovered and explored in Savannah, and that countless pages of great architectural history could be written on its buildings, streets, and above all its squares. At risk of riddling this essay with urbanistic clichés, I must say that a part of my heart remains in Savannah due to its important role in transforming my life—and in fact, twenty-four parts of my heart remain in Savannah, one for each square, including those that have been lost and those that have been found again.
Editor’s Note: Nathaniel Walker (M.A. 2006) is currently completing his Ph.D. in architectural history in the History of Art and Architecture department at Brown University.
Last month I completed a seven week experience, called Explo at Yale. Explo, short for Exploration Summer Programs, hosts academic camps at three major universities in the northeast. At the Yale program high school students come from all over the world for a college-like experience, only there are no grades.
What was my role in all of this? I taught Architecture. Yes I, a historian in training, taught drafting and design. Why? Because architects and historians use the same language. Architects use drafting and design to create while historians use it to discover, understand, explain, or contextualize. Also as an aspiring professor teaching experience is a must. Now this whole experience was not sunshine and rainbows, especially having never taught before, but seven weeks later I feel empowered.
Primarily my course taught hand drafting and creative thinking. Students learned to use tools like t-squares and scales, identify and draw plans, as well as axons, and experience the architecture in the world around them.
Below the surface I challenged my students. They defined Architecture for themselves, and engaged in discussions about why. I brought my students into the world and made them vocalize the functions of spaces based on what they could see or how they felt. Even their final project was less typical, they created pavilions for public use sited in the New Haven Green. The students were paired together, each with a different sub-site on the Green, and designed in compliment to their partner.
I mentioned earlier that this experience was a struggle, and it was. I learned very quickly that the lesson plans I created before going to teach were far too complicated for high school students. Every day for three weeks I saw my daily lesson plans fail, but about the middle of week two I had distilled several important rules which helped me guide the students through a successful final project. Rule 1: One cannot teach more than three new concepts in a day. Rule 2: Draw and display visual examples, make sure there is a step by step handout, and verbally ask them to talk about the assignment. Rule 3: Help their creativity along by posting lots of visual examples. Rule 4: Design the assignments to build directly from one to the next.
I came to know each of these rule because every time a lesson failed I had to reflect on the reasons for failure, figure out what of the original lesson needed to be saved, and brainstorm, with an adviser, new formats for the lesson. Constant struggle motivated me to work harder and think outside my own proverbial box. At the conclusion of session one I had successfully guided the students through their final project and I had also completed a revised curriculum for session two.
Session two was by far the more successful session for teaching. I helped students discuss definitions architecture, learn to use their drawing tools, identifying drawing types, design in plan and axon their ideal architecture classroom, present and critique with their peers, observe and verbalize observations of architecture around them, and finally design in plan and axon a pavilion for public use. My students were not the only ones who learned a great deal.
I have one great take away from Explo, reflection. Many times in the past academic year the professors in our department engaged us as students about the questions which fuel the research and perspective of our papers. This practice did not make sense to me until the beginning of Explo’s second session…approximately four weeks ago.
At that moment having completely rewritten my curriculum a single question entered my head, do I have to teach them drafting? I realized at this moment that my curriculum, while sherking some traditional aspects of design, had not challenged my assumptions of the design process. The entire two months I spent writing my original curriculum I had not taken the time to reflect on the assumptions inherent in it. Reflection during research phases and writing phases are fundamental to historians so that they can effectively communicate a desired perspective, and this is exactly what my professors had attempted to teach.
While in the moment I felt rather slow, seeing as I had missed a fundamental lesson from the academic year, in retrospect I feel accomplished for learning the lesson of reflection and much more. I wrote two curricula, taught about sixty high school students how to draw, interpret and create architectural drawings, I learned to time manage a classroom, observe the behaviors of my students for signs of struggle or frustration, and received the opportunity to help inspire a love of architecture.
Would I recommend this opportunity? Absolutely. In fact I am considering re-applying to teach the course again next summer. It would be quite a challenge to teach an architecture course that revolved around neither drafting nor modeling.
Editor’s note: Meghan Nagle is currently an M.F.A. student in the Architectural History department at SCAD.