The Colgate Scene
November 2003

To build a better architect
Start with a liberal arts foundation

Michael Messinger '85 designed the expansion and renovation of the middle school and high school he attended in Pleasantville, N.Y. "I can't change the world, but perhaps I can change a little corner of it and make a difference in someone's life," he said. "A well-designed school can affect thousands of people." [Photo by Darryl Bautista]

Often, when award-winning architect Jeremiah Eck '67 examines a building's façade, he is reminded of lessons learned in a poetry class when he was an undergraduate.

"I never understood poetry at all, but in the moment the professor started to make connections, to put a structure around it, that's when I realized that poetry wasn't really different from anything else in our lives," Eck recalled. "We just had to train ourselves to use that language." The path to becoming an architect taken by Eck and dozens of other Colgate alumni was not the most common, which is a five-year bachelor's degree program. Instead, their path's beginnings are rooted in the liberal arts. Inspiration might be found in poetry, geology, physics, or art and art history, but despite not having a full-fledged architecture major, Colgate sends three or four students each year to graduate programs in architecture, and a search of the alumni database revealed nearly 130 alumni involved in some aspect of the profession.

According to a 2003 survey by the American Institute of Architects, 52 percent of architects in the United States hold the bachelor of architecture (B.Arch) degree, and only nine percent hold non-architecture undergraduate degrees. But 27 percent of U.S. architects have earned the master of architecture (M.Arch) degree and it is here where Associate Professor of Art History Robert McVaugh believes students with a liberal arts background begin to assert themselves and, ultimately, gain an advantage.

"The graduate schools tell us that, in many respects, the best thing we can do is to give them a thorough grounding in the liberal arts," said McVaugh, who directs Colgate's pre-architecture program. "When they get into the field of architecture they will develop the technical skills. What separates a fine architect from a less fine architect are the other things, the human knowledge, or rather, the humane knowledge that is best served by learning more about history, political science, by studying the Gilgamesh epics, by the cultural breadth we can provide at an institution like Colgate."

For several decades, Colgate's pre-architecture program was led by Professor of Fine Arts John Frederick Fitchen III. Fitchen was a trained architect, architectural historian, and author who taught at Colgate from 1934 until his retirement in 1971. (The Department of Art and Art History's Fitchen Award for Excellence is named in his honor.)

After Fitchen's retirement, the pre-architecture program languished for several years and many of the architecture courses he taught were discontinued. That began to change after the arrival of Eric Van Schaack to the department in 1977. Van Schaack, who retired in 1998, said he began thinking about reintroducing more architecture courses after Jim Durfee '79 expressed an interest in the profession.

Initially hoping to attend medical school, Durfee changed his mind about medicine after an internship in a hospital emergency room during a January term. Taking notice of his interest in mechanical engineering, physics, and fine art, Van Schaack inspired Durfee to pursue architecture and crafted a course of independent study to help set him on his way. Durfee switched his major to art and art history and went on to earn a masters degree at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.

"This was absolutely the right path for me and I probably wouldn't have found it without the breadth of experience a liberal arts education offers," said Durfee, the principal in charge of architectural design in the Rochester, N.Y. office of Bergman Associates. "For the student who is unsure of the direction they want to take professionally, a liberal arts education is invaluable."

Fred Kaulbach '83 outside of Philadelphia's Lloyd Hall, a multi-use public facility along the Schuylkyll River that he designed with his wife, architect Lisa Armstrong. "That was one of our greatest projects," he said. "I enjoy returning to see how it's being used. It's exciting to design a public building that you can go back to and visit anytime." [Photo by George Miller]

"It struck me that it would be possible for us to have an architectural program at Colgate. The first step was to secure an affiliation with an established program," said Van Schaack.

In the late 1970s, Colgate established an affiliation with the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City, which was created through an alliance between Columbia University and Cooper Union. Students from Colgate would attend IAUS for at least one year and earn credits that would prepare them for graduate studies in architecture. Lilla Smith '82 said the mixture of liberal arts at Colgate and studies at IAUS worked for her. Although she had thought of becoming an architect since the age of 12, when it was time to choose a college Smith realized that a B.Arch. program wasn't right for her.

"I looked at other schools. Cornell, for example, offers the bachelor's degree program, but that means deciding at age 17 to enter a full, five-year architectural program," Smith said. "I looked at that and felt it wasn't going to give me a diversity of experiences and expose me to other students with different interests."

An art and art history major, Smith worked for a New York City-based architecture firm for two years before earning an M.Arch. degree from Yale University in 1987. Since then she has worked at the firm Gwathmey, Siegel and Associates, where she is currently a senior associate. Most of the architects at the firm, she said, come from a liberal arts background.

"I think a strong background in history is very important. You can learn from what has gone on before, what precedents there are for a particular approach, what solutions have been tried," said Smith, whose projects include several private residences, the Center for the Arts at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the as-yet-unfunded expansion of the New York Public Library. "I don't think there is as much invention as many people think. Instead, I think we're always refining what has been done before."

Like Smith, Fred Kaulbach '83, a project architect at the Philadelphia office of the architecture firm Kling, became interested in architecture while in high school, but wasn't ready to commit to a five-year B.Arch. program.

"I chose to go to a liberal arts school because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do," said Kaulbach. "Colgate gave me four years to make up my mind and develop a background that would eventually help me get into architecture school."

Kaulbach believes that although graduates of B.Arch. programs are more common in the profession than liberal arts graduates, it's not necessarily the shortest route because so many B.Arch. graduates end up earning advanced degrees.

"Ultimately, it all pans out to about the same, but I think you receive a much richer education at a liberal arts college that actually helps you go farther after finishing seven years of education," he said.

Kaulbach earned an M.Arch. degree at the University of Pennsylvania and founded a firm, Armstrong Kaulbach Architects, with his wife before moving to Kling, where he specializes in designing "high-performance" and "green" buildings, which are structures that use higher quality construction materials and technology that make the buildings more energy efficient, friendlier to the environment, and less costly to run during their lifetime.

"Europe leads the way in building skins that are intelligent, that potentially store energy, help ventilate the building, and that bring in outside light so less energy is used lighting rooms," he said.

Kaulbach and his colleagues are designing a high-performance building for the new Food and Drug Administration campus outside of Washington, D.C. The campus, he explained, is meant to be a showcase for the FDA, but halfway through the design process the agency asked that the building be made more environmentally friendly. The means toward that end include rooftop gardens, increased use of solar shading, and drawing in fresh air through underground tunnels for cooling and reducing humidity, all of which will lower air conditioning costs and energy use.

These days Kaulbach is especially pleased with Lloyd Hall, a project he designed with his wife, architect Lisa Armstrong, before he joined Kling. Nicknamed "The Un-Boat House, Lloyd Hall is a multi-use public facility on the banks of the Schuylkyll River in Philadelphia.

"That is one of our greatest projects; it actually incorporates many green building concepts," he said. "I enjoy returning to see how it's being used. It's exciting to design a public building that you can go back to and visit anytime."

Lilla Smith '82 with a model of her design of the New York Public Library's proposed Mid-Manhattan Library project, which was selected by the National Academy of Design's 117th annual exhibition, "An Invitational Exhibition." Smith chose Colgate over schools with undergraduate architecture programs because of "the diversity of experiences" available at a liberal arts college. [Photo by Darryl Bautista]

Essentials of design
Unfortunately, the IAUS folded in 1984, forcing Van Schaack to search for another architecture program to affiliate with. Soon after the closing of the IAUS, Colgate formed an affiliation with the architecture program at Washington University in St. Louis and the pre-architecture program at the University of Copenhagen.

The affiliation with Washington University is a "3:4 program," McVaugh explained, where students who qualify for acceptance at Washington complete three years at Colgate and agree to spend their fourth year in Washington's B.Arch. program. At the completion of the program, the student has earned a B.A. from Colgate and a B.Arch. from Washington, but at the cost of compressing four years of liberal arts studies into three years, he said.

The standard path for many Colgate pre-architecture students, said McVaugh, is to complete their coursework at Colgate, secure internships and attend summer enrichment programs such as Harvard University Graduate School of Design's Career Discovery program.

Eck actually served as director of Career Discovery from 1984 to 1999, a period during which the program grew to include between 250 to 300 students from around the world who spend six weeks in the summer studying architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design.

"Career Discovery's expressed purpose was to introduce people who were interested in those professions to what it might be like to be a student and, eventually, a professional in one of those disciplines," said Eck, who still lectures for the program. "It was a great program even for those who decided against entering one of these fields because they didn't waste a lot of time or tuition at school finding out if they had made the right decision."

A history major with a longtime interest in fine art and architecture, Eck didn't consider a career as an architect until he was a first-year student at Columbia University School of Law.

"Once I got into law school I found out that, in the end, I really didn't like to read and write that much," Eck recalled. "I like to draw. I like visuals, so I kept going over to the architecture school at Columbia and fell back in love with something I should have done in the first place."

Eck attended law school thanks to a scholarship from an international fellowship program and, fortunately, was able to transfer the scholarship to Columbia's architecture school, where he completed his M.Arch. in 1972. He's also gotten over his aversion to writing, having published his first book, The Distinctive Home: A Vision of Timeless Design (Taunton Press) this past year.

"It's not an architectural tome, nor is it a coffee table book," said Eck, principal of his firm, Jeremiah Eck Architects Inc in Boston. "It's meant for the million or so people who build houses in this country each year but don't use architects or designers."

Eck was motivated to write the book because, while he may think of poetry when he looks at a building, all too often what he sees is anything but poetic.

"There is a tendency in architecture to emphasize the new and different, as opposed to what's good," he said. "More than half of the single-family homes in this country have been built since 1970, and most of them lack that spiritual quality that houses should have."

Based on his experiences, Eck believes it's possible to build an affordable home that looks distinctive and aesthetically pleasing if four "essential" features are included: how a home occupies its site; how the floor plan maximizes efficiency and comfort for living; how the exterior is balanced and blends naturally with the site (or neighborhood); and how selected exterior and interior details such as trim, stair railings, or mantels transmit an enduring sense of quality, care, and thought.

"It's a common misperception that hiring an architect is prohibitively expensive," Eck said. "A home is a major investment. Would you invest thousands of dollars in the stock market without doing research? But people will go out and buy houses from developers with little or no idea where the house came from, what's inside it, or how it is built."

Architect-author Jeremiah Eck '67 believes that too many American homes are built lacking the "spiritual quality that homes should have . . . A home is a major investment . . . But people will go out and buy houses from developers with little or no idea where the house came from, what's inside it, or how it is built." [Photo by Josh Reynolds]

Transcending science into art
Like Eck, Michael Messinger '85 didn't think about an architecture career until after graduation, but a course on modern architecture he took during his senior year proved to be prophetic.

"I had always liked to build things, but I had never known an architect and I didn't have a concept of what they did," said Messinger, who majored in geology. "The course I took was the seed that allowed me to connect some of the things I always enjoyed, such as building, artistic creation, empirical science, visual aesthetics, and special cognition, and to find a profession that allowed me to put those talents to work."

Currently an administrative architect at Columbia University, Messinger earned his M.Arch. at the University of Colorado. Before returning to the east coast, he worked on several major projects in Colorado, including a concourse at Denver's new airport, the baseball stadium Coors Field, and several public schools. Since leaving Colorado, Messinger has been able to touch scores of lives in his hometown of Pleasantville, N.Y. by designing expansion and renovation projects at the middle school and high school he attended, and a new senior center that includes affordable housing for the elderly.

Messinger admits his major source of satisfaction from his work is the idea that he can change lives.

"I can't change the world, but perhaps I can change a little corner of it and make a difference in someone's life," he said. "If I can get the acoustics right in a classroom, it allows a kid to concentrate better. That might affect a hundred kids a year, multiplied by however many years the building is used. A well-designed school can affect thousands of people."

Messinger designed the projects in Pleasantville while working at a local architecture firm and is now laboring to establish one of his own.

"Architecture requires many different skills," Messinger said. "It is scientific and methodical in many ways, but the best architecture transcends science into art."

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