The first thing that every student who walks through the doors notices is how hot it is. It’s one of the first days in Oxford that truly feels like spring. But the warm, humid air gets trapped in the studio, making it feel more like summer inside.
The first-year architecture studio is located on the top floor of Alumni Hall. It’s a large room with high ceilings and a soft evening glow flooding through the windows. The floor is a maze of desks cluttered with sketches, half-built models and supplies. Posters of past projects — building photos, floor plans and color schemes — are tacked up onto the walls.
Paige Cardwell sits with a tiny gray fan perched in the corner of her desk, which pushes the slightest breeze in her direction.
It’s 8 p.m., and there are about 20 people in the studio, which is what Paige calls a typical Sunday night.
“Unless we have a project due the next day. Then this whole place is filled,” she said.
The week before their last project was due, Paige pulled two all-nighters. She thinks she only spent 12 hours in her actual home. That Sunday night at midnight, every desk in the studio had a student working at it. It wasn’t until around 5 a.m. that people began to finish and trickle out.
The students don’t get much time to breathe between projects. Tonight, Paige and the other first-years are starting their next one. It begins with a prompt, site guidelines and a list of requirements typed up on a sheet of paper.
For this project, they need to create a civic artist center for two artists that can serve as both a living space and a work space. The building needs to have two small apartments, a work space for each artist, a shared library and communal study place, two staircases connecting the spaces, an outdoor space, a gallery space that can fit at least 10 pieces of work, an elevator to accommodate the artists’ work (if the gallery isn’t on the first floor), a small private office for the gallery and a storage space.
It all starts with a drawing.
This is Paige’s first year at Miami after attending St. Charles Community College for two years, a school near her hometown in Missouri that she could attend for free. She’s considered a first-year student in Miami’s four-year architecture curriculum, but a junior by her age and number of credit hours.
She grew up in an artistic household. She remembers making her first painting alongside her mom and aunt when she was six or seven years old. Her dad used to work on the engineering side of architecture designing cement plants, and as a kid, Paige was curious about what he did.
Throughout high school, she planned on being a pre-med major and then going to dental school, but she still drew all the time. During her senior year of high school, her schedule was packed with art classes, which made her reevaluate her plans.
“I was like, ‘I’m not going to have fun doing pre-med; sounds like I need to go back to like my roots and, like, what I wanted to do, which was architecture,’” Paige said.
To be admitted to Miami’s architecture program, students have to submit a portfolio after their initial acceptance into the university.
Paige submitted some of her photography, a watercolor painting and a charcoal drawing that she did in one of her high school art classes. Some students applying to the program have a more limited artistic background, but rather than looking strictly at ability, faculty want to see potential.
That’s what senior architecture Evan Warder was able to display in his application, despite his less extensive high school art curriculum.
“They’re not looking for the quality of art, they’re looking for a creative seed,” Warder said. “So someone like me, coming in with almost no art background, or a minor art background compared to most people … I was able to show some form of creative ideas.”
Evan considers his background to be more math- and science-oriented. When he was in eighth grade, he began thinking about what he wanted to do in the future.
He wondered if architecture was the answer.
During his summer breaks in high school, Evan attended architecture summer camps at various universities — the University of Tennessee, the University of Illinois and Miami — to feel it out and see if it was something he might like doing. He started giving architecture tours around Chicago as his high school job. By that point, he was fairly certain that architecture was what he wanted to do.“The more people told me I should go into engineering and not architecture, the more I felt I needed to go into architecture.”
“The more people told me I should go into engineering and not architecture, the more I felt I needed to go into architecture, as the design problems were completely open-ended,” Evan said. “I knew there was no right or wrong solution. And so having that opportunity to find an open-ended solution of my own was really what I was interested in.”
It was a little different for junior architecture major Blake Kem, whose mom pretty much told him to go into architecture. Her father was a draftsman who eventually became a lead engineer for a design firm.
Blake’s mom has always been enamored by architecture. She would take Blake to houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and other notable buildings when they traveled.
Along the way, she nudged her son to pursue architecture as a career.
“It was her way of offsetting the, I think the lack of art in her life,” Blake said. “She’s a human resources representative, so I think she always thought it would have been something she should have gone into.”
By 8:30 p.m., there is no longer light shining through the windows in Alumni Hall.
Paige’s drawing table — a slanted surface with a ruler suspended by strings on either side that can glide up and down along the surface — takes up most of her desk. A cup holding pens, pencils and a pair of scissors sits next to a lamp with a roll of masking tape hanging off it.
Under her desk, she has a filing cabinet that stores supplies and snacks, both of which are crucial for long nights in the studio.
A folded-up piece of tracing paper lies abandoned in the corner of her drawing table. That was her first sketch, where she’d tried incorporating a rooftop space that she ended up not liking.
She pores over her current sketch, dragging her pencil along the straight edge to draw perfect horizontal lines.
With her pencil and ruler, she marks a series of straight lines on the tracing paper, designating the different rooms the assignment requires, as well as the windows, staircases and doors. Every so often, she swears under her breath before erasing the line she just drew, sweeping away the shavings with a long brush.
Paige crumples up one of her sketches into a ball and drops it into the nearest trash can. She grabs the roll of tracing paper and tears off a new sheet for sketch number five, then reaches for the masking tape to secure the sheet to the surface.
According to Paige, the drawing process takes a long time. Sometimes, she keeps thinking of new concepts and wants to rethink her design. Other times, she finds herself second-guessing what she’s doing.
“You just have to think of the way that people move throughout the building, because if you can’t functionally move within it … people just feel awkward within it,” Paige said.
But the next step — making models — takes even longer than drawing does.
Students cut all of the pieces they need out of wood using X-Acto knives or tools in the woodshop — larger panels for the walls and floors, smaller pieces for stairs and interior structures and thin rods to frame windows. Then they assemble their model, gluing everything together. It’s a process that takes a steady hand and a lot of patience.
Paige likes to think of herself and her classmates as adult Lego builders.
Her first-year class of architecture and interior design majors started out a bit larger than most, with 90 students entering the program, rather than the more typical group of around 60 that Evan and Blake remember from years past.
As students drop the major, the first-year class has since decreased to about 80 students. Blake’s cohort has gone from 60 to around 45 since his first year.
As with any major, some students find that it’s not for them after a semester or two. This might be more understandable with the rigor and time commitment architecture majors put towards their projects, but regardless of the reason, it’s noticeable when they do leave.
“For most people, you wouldn’t notice that in the major,” Evan said. “But since we’re all in one building, you notice who’s not around anymore.”
Spending long hours in the same building with the same people makes the students feel like family. During busy weeks, Paige spends more time in Alumni Hall than her own home.
On late nights in the studio, there’s food, music playing and people dancing to try and stay awake. No matter how late the night gets, students almost always have company.
Paige sits with Reba, Caroline and Cole. They all became close friends last semester, but tonight they’re working in silence, other than the occasional question about the assignment or comment about how much they all hate drawing stairs.
Across the room, another group’s chatter about Chipotle orders carries over to Paige.
“That’s distracting,” she mutters, glancing up from her sketch and in the general direction of the most recent loud outburst.
Next to her, Cole hums softly to whatever is playing in his earbuds, oblivious to the noise.
Macey, another one of their friends, walks over to Paige’s desk, a routine occurrence since her desk moved to the other side of the room at the beginning of the semester.
Tonight, she’s announcing that she cut herself with an X-Acto knife, sticking out her bandaged index finger as proof. Another girl is with her, carrying a first-aid kit that they borrowed from an upper-level studio.
“They always have more bandages than us,” Macey said. “Probably because they never cut themselves, since they don’t have to cut things out by hand.”
For first-year and sophomore architecture students, their hands are their most important tools.
This means sketching floor plans with a pencil and paper and building models by cutting out and assembling pieces manually. It’s more time-intensive than using a computer to render their work, but hand-drawing ideas will always have a place in the design process.
“The idea is that in order to understand the significance of what you’re creating and the size of it, you need to be able to connect your hand to your brain, and the computer is sometimes a block on that,” Evan said. “It’s hard to translate your ideas quickly onto the computer. So you always use hand drawing as a way to quickly produce ideas.”
The first two years of the architecture curriculum is fairly structured, including foundational classes such as Graphics, which teaches concepts like drawing techniques and color theory. These courses supplement work in the studio course — students’ main design course, in which they sketch plans and make models.
A sophomore architecture major’s year begins with having to build something for their desk. Some opt for practical shelving units for storage. Others make something decorative that sits above their desk, like a trellis. Some installments even have lights.
At the end of first semester sophomore year, students design a nature center for Hueston Woods. At the end of second semester, they design a library in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati, accounting for details such as where different types of books will be shelved and the design of the bathrooms.
It isn’t until the end of their sophomore year that they transition to digital work. From then on, students use a variety of different programs to make designs and renderings, including SketchUp, Rhino, AutoCAD and the Adobe Suite.
To cut pieces for site models, students use a computer numeric control (CNC) tool, which carves out the shapes they’ve designed using a drill bit.
But the help of programs just means professors expect that much more from their students.
“When you get into your third and fourth year, design becomes much more theoretical and so does your research, which is supplemented with higher-level technical knowledge,” Evan said.
Some classes are more theoretical, such as Architecture in Society, while others get technical, teaching students about how buildings or structures function.
While the first- and second-year studios typically consist of the same projects year to year, juniors and seniors pick their studio courses based on a lottery system. Professors pitch the design ideas and projects of their studio course, then students rank the classes based on their interests and are ultimately placed in one.
This semester, Blake is in the Solar Decathlon Studio, which is a national collegiate competition led by the U.S. Department of Energy. The objective is to design a net-zero energy building, or a building with no net energy consumption.
Blake and his classmates have been working on this project since the beginning of the semester, and brought their design to Colorado in April to compete against over 40 other teams from 38 institutions nationwide.
Blake appreciates the more technical side of architecture — the side with less open-ended questions and more right-or-wrong answers — but he still prefers the more artistic aspects.
Evan is in an interdisciplinary studio, which incorporates both architecture and interior design. His class was assigned to evaluate a site in Cincinnati that was formerly the Terrace Plaza Hotel, a famous landmark from the ’40s, but is now vacant.
The class of 30 has been broken into six teams of five, each proposing a different use for the building based on what would fit the space and the needs of the people in the area. Evan’s group’s proposal incorporates social housing with public spaces that people working downtown could utilize, such as cafeterias and gyms.
At the end of the semester, his group will give a presentation explaining the existing structure of the building, their proposal, the design of the public spaces and apartments and how the building would be branded and promoted.
“Getting to know all the way down to the details, more about lighting and furniture and providing functional spaces, was really what I was looking for,” Evan said.
With three years left at Miami, Paige is still unsure about the details of her post-undergrad life. Right now, she wants to work at an architecture firm for a few years, but what comes after that is still just a list of possibilities — finding work outside the country, getting a job that focuses on helping other people, starting her own business.
Evan is set on getting his architecture license. Though it’s not required to work as an architect, being licensed opens up job opportunities. After graduating in May, he will attend either the University of Michigan or Tulane University in New Orleans. He’s been working on the application process since fall semester.
The bulk of the application is a student’s portfolio. While Miami’s undergraduate program seeks out potential, graduate schools look for a representation of skills, point of view and an overall fit for the program. This often means revisiting past projects and editing them so they meet a certain standard.
“Something from your sophomore year is not going to be up to the level you want it to be,” Evan said. “Nothing from your first year will make it because that’s just not enough design. So, you go back and you rework things.”
Blake also hopes to go to graduate school and receive his license, but as a junior, hasn’t begun the application process beyond considering which schools he might want to apply to.
“I think I’ve got a good amount of time until I have to begin to apply. So I haven’t put a whole bunch of thought into it quite yet. That’ll come in the summer.”
At 2 a.m., there’s still around 20 people in the studio.
After several trials, Paige finally has a floor plan that she’s happy with and ready to show her professor for feedback tomorrow in class.
Or, at this point, later today in class.
She packs up her bag and clicks her desk lamp off. She pushes open the studio doors to escape into the cool air, relieved that she might actually get some sleep tonight.