Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sci-Arc, warts and all

As I mentioned in this post, long ago, I have mixed feelings about the graduate school I attended, the Southern California Institute of Architecture (sci-arc). Recently, someone, having read that post, asked me about sci-arc, why I had mixed feelings, and what I thought about him going there. Specifically, he asked whether I felt my education there had prepared me to become an architect. Here is my response:
The one thing I can say for sure is that grad school (all grad schools, I think, not just ones for architecture) is what you make of it. And that applies double to sci-arc.

Let me tell you a little about myself and why I decided to go to sci-arc. I went to the University of Virginia for undergrad (in architecture). It was a wonderful program but it was very traditional. It was also before computers became so ubiquitous, so while I had been working in an office (in Boston) for 2 years on CAD, I knew very little beyond that. UVA required us to do pretty much everything by hand and we were discouraged from doing much on the computer.

I applied all over the place for grad school, not really sure what I wanted. In the end, I decided on sci-arc because it was just so different than what I had been doing up until then. It was kind of free form, very hands-on, there was a lot of emphasis on cutting edge design and theory. I hardly knew anyone there (unlike, say Michigan, where I would have been in class with several people I had gone to undergrad with). And I was excited about the idea of living and working in a new environment (both sci-arc and Los Angeles).

For all those reasons, Sci-arc was great for me. It really expanded my horizons. But it was also very frustrating at times. For one thing, I just could not drink the Maya Kool-aid. [Note: Maya is a computer program for 3-D modeling. It is very sophisticated and, while it was originally developed to do CGI for movies, it has been co-opted by architects. It was bought not too long ago by Autodesk, the makers of AutoCAD.]

I don't know if that is still the trend of the moment (I'm sure between Greg Lynn [photo above of blob exhibit by Lynn] and Hernan Diaz-Alonso all the good ideas have been done) but it was big while I was there. While I did some work with it, as Hernan said when I was his student, I was the skeptic. And sometimes I got really annoyed because I felt that the ideas I was excited about were being ignored in favor of ooh-ing and ah-ing over the latest amorphous blob being called a building. Like I said, things could have changed but that the case when I got there in 2001.

Fortunately, as I said, sci-arc is what you make of it. I spent my last semester working on my thesis (with Jay Vanos as my advisor) and that was a wonderful experience. I made friends with people who shared my ideas, and I went to a lot of buildings and art gallerys. I found my niche, and I liked that.

The emphasis on sci-arc being what you make of it goes both ways, though, because I know a lot of people who weren't self-directed and they just floundered. They wasted their money, in my opinion.

Regarding your question about preparing you for the real world: I'm not really one of those people who thinks that the purpose of grad school is to teach someone to pass their Architecture Registration Exams (ARE). There are plenty of guide books and AIA classes that can tell you how to do that (and in the end it all boils down to one thing: STUDY. A lot. More than you can believe).

As I said, too, I worked at a firm between college and grad school. And it wasn't a well-known design firm, it was a pretty nuts and bolts kind of place. So I already knew how to do window details and a finish schedule. You don't need grad school to learn that.

To be sure, there are some great classes at sci-arc for learning the real-world stuff. Jay's Design Development class, for one, which everyone has to take. I took it, and I think I ended up more as the unofficial TA than anything else, but I still think it's a great class.

So, did sci-arc prepare me for life as an architect? Sure, but not in the way you probably think. It prepared me by making me go out and figure out what I liked and didn't, by exposing me to new ideas, and making me define what architecture meant for me. Architecture is a big world. I don't know if you read archinect, but if you don't, you should. They have a new series now about alternative careers for architects. And there are lots of them. I also learned that I don't really like living in LA, but that's another topic.

There's my take. Its not as simple as "yes, you should go to sci-arc" or "no, don't." I don't know you or your personality, and I'm just one person with a blog, after all. You should think about contacting some other students and sci-arc alum and getting their take. You can try Bill Simonian, too. He has a new website (arcounsel, which I previously wrote about here) and he's just an all around great guy to talk to.
Anyone else want to weigh in?

Other posts on this topic: More Thoughts on Sci-Arc, Blobs


  1. Enjoying your blog -- I am applying to arch grad school coming from an engineering undergrad, and calvino's invisible cities was actually one of the books that inspired me to do it, so I was interested to see you wrote about him.

    I visited SCI ARC earlier this year, and although I was impressed, I had mixed feelings as well. Do you think it was more isolating than a traditional school would have been? Did you come out too immersed in architecture or is that a good thing?

    I've noticed both UCLA and SCI ARC showcase a lot of amorphous blobs; any thoughts on why that is so popular? Is that just the technology?

  2. Hi, Melissa.
    Thanks for visiting and thatnls especially for the questions. Sorry for the delay in responding, but I'll go ahead and answer them in a blog post.


  3. I visited SCI ARC earlier this year, and although I was impressed

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