The towering architecture of Chicago seems far removed from the rolling mountains of Blacksburg, Va., but through the College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ Chicago Studio program, the windy city has become an extension of Virginia Tech’s main campus.
Chicago is the third-largest city in the United States. It’s also home to some of the most celebrated architecture in the world and numerous top-tier architecture and design firms, making it a valuable destination for architecture and design students to link academia and practice.
So how do you build an urban campus with no additional facilities?
Chicago Studio operates through a network of industry connections. Unlike virtual campuses that exist only online, this campus is made up of real — albeit borrowed — space in Chicago’s civic institutions and top design firms. The program adds top practitioners’ expertise through guest lectures and critiques.
Associate Professor Kathryn Albright created the program in 2002. Three years later, the National Council of Architectural Review Boards recognized Chicago Studio for creative integration of practice and education. In 2011, Chicago Studio Program Director Andrew Balster redesigned the curriculum, expanding the semester from a split between Blacksburg and Chicago to an entire semester in the city.
For 16 fourth-year students, a semester at Chicago Studio provides an intensive look at an urban environment and exposure to professional life. Students complete a 10-week studio project followed by a five-week internship in a design firm. They explore historic architecture and contemporary innovations in Chicago and other Midwest cities. They also experience Chicago’s art and design culture, attending exhibitions and events at museums and institutions. Local firms regularly host receptions and lectures to provide learning and networking opportunities, and each student is paired with a professional mentor, a relationship that may last well into the future.
Chicago Studio engages students more deeply than a traditional travel program, as illustrated by their studio projects. Unlike most academic projects, students are not given specific buildings or concepts to design. They are sent into communities, where leaders in practice, government officials, and community members help identify local design challenges and develop solutions.
"One thing I didn’t expect was how engaged one becomes in the work," said Joanna Cofer, a senior majoring in architecture from Hampton, Va. "Living in and being immersed in the environment ... then helping construct developed a real connection and desire to solve the local challenges through our design."
She said she appreciated the challenge of working in a community and hearing all the different voices.
"As a student, the experience was invaluable to me because it allowed me to experience the ‘real’: real problems, real stakeholders, real voices. The process has had a large effect on the methods and means in which I approach design," Cofer said.
Past projects include a strategic plan to improve urban water, material, and social waste issues and make city living more economically and environmentally sustainable. Students also worked on a vision plan for Chicago’s Uptown Entertainment District with the goal to promote and preserve the culture, community, and livability of the area.
"I have been involved in Chicago Studio for three years now, and one thing that is really great is the students are very engaged in real problems of the sites, neighborhoods, and Chicago. The students look at where the people live and work in these areas. They look at what the businesses are like and try to understand the economy, social and cultural pressures, and politics of the city. They also get to have a direct dialogue with anyone from neighbors to city officials so they can understand how all issue are interrelated in development," said Brian Lee, a design partner at Chicago’s Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP.
The studio projects focus on collaboration, with students from architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, and urban planning forming mixed teams. This allows them to learn how multiple design disciplines work with planning, community, and government officials to address projects within a city.
“The value of the Chicago Studio is not the end product but the process, which really uses the city as a partner in the development of the work. The students thrive on challenges to discover design solutions with integrity,” said Randy Guillot, a design principal at CannonDesign.
The College of Architecture and Urban Studies has a rich history of travel and educational opportunities outside of Blacksburg, Va. Two notable examples are the Center for European Studies and Architecture in Riva San-Vitale, Switzerland, which serves as a home base for a variety of study abroad programs, and the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center, which offers undergraduate and graduate opportunities in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design.
The following partners help make Chicago Studio successful:
Partners and host-firms
City of Chicago