Students Learn Architecture From Practicing Alumnus
July 09, 2018
Students from a variety of disciplines took part in Knox's Introduction to Architectural Design course, taught by an experienced architect who is also an alumnus.
Jim Harriman '82, a practicing architect who worked at John Banks Architects in the city of Chicago, instructed students on a variety of architectural topics. The course provided a comprehensive foundation for those interested in pursuing architecture in the future.
The architecture course is one of many steps that Knox has taken towards the 2018 strategic plan—in this case, increased experiential and immersion learning to create expanded opportunities.
Harriman's syllabus was ambitious. In ten weeks, students worked through topics that Harriman covered in three years at architecture school. They started with fundamental skills and building models from cardboard, but moved into drawing, learning the vocabulary of parts and pieces, the history of architecture, and plenty of theoretical information.
The final project had students working on teams to design a museum for Knox's campus. "I want to teach them a little bit about context because only rarely will you build a building that is on its own in the wilderness... here, I'm going to give them the site right out here between George Davis Hall, the old Auxiliary Gym and the face of Old Main."
Harriman initially came into Knox studying mathematics and physics, but was inspired to take art after having courses with Professor Rick Ortner. That background in art would serve him well in the architecture program at University of Illinois at Chicago, where he was already familiar with the lexicon of critiques and reviews.
Harriman's Knox education also made him an effective communicator with people from all walks of life—something he says is crucial to working with real clients.
"If your boss knows that all you're good for is drawing nice lines, then you're not necessarily going to get to talk to clients," he said. "You have to be able to cultivate that sort of thing...you kind of have to rise to [a client's] level of sophistication, education, so it doesn't hurt that you have read some of the same novels that they read, or, you know, seen the same movies."
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The learning curve for the architecture course was steep, and students moved quickly from one topic to the next. For many, it was their first time working with exacto blades to make cardboard models, or using CAD (Computer Aided Design) software to virtually create a structure.
Harriman empathized with this process, citing his own experience tackling the unknown and "learning how to learn."
"I can easily put myself in their shoes because I can remember doing a sculpture project [at Knox] that was based on a building... and I actually went over to the physical plant where all the guys who maintain buildings work," recalled Harriman. "I had to ask them for a little primer on how a house is built, or how a wall of a house is built."
Those lessons—combined with the flexibility of a liberal arts mindset—have continued to serve Harriman well. "[In school] a lot of the art was theoretical, big picture ideas but not like 'How do you build a house with a crawl space? How do you vent the crawl space?' But the more people I talked to the more I realized, everyone was in that boat."
For students, a course like this provided a rare opportunity. Cammie Stein '21 found it really valuable "that we're getting someone who's working in the field," pointing to the benefit of mentorship from someone who is still embedded in the professional space on a daily basis.
Professional obligations did require Harriman to commute twice a week from Chicago to teach the course, so time constraints placed some pressure on the format of the class. Still, he adapted to the schedule, finding ways to support students while giving them room to make mistakes and grow. Morgan Leslie '21 enjoyed that balance, noting that "It's good to have someone who can guide you without over-directing."
The architecture course offered a unique contribution in building a well-rounded student. Harriman sees this as one of the benefits of learning architecture, no matter where a student's career may lead: "Later in life if they are the client or what have you, or just walking through a city somewhere, they can appreciate what's going on to build the built environment."