Location: Bowdoin / McKeen Center / Activity / 2008 / Feature Story: Architecture Course Promotes Civic Engagement

Feature Story: Architecture Course Promotes Civic Engagement

Story posted December 09, 2008


Few of the students enrolled in Wiebke’s Theodore’s architecture courses will become architects—and she’s fine with it.

That’s because Theodore, a visiting assistant professor of visual arts, doesn't see herself as teaching a profession.

“I’m not interested in making 18 mini-architects. But I do hope at the end of the course we’re going to have engaged citizens who understand the value of good design,” says Theodore.

All of Theodore’s classes include a community-based component, which provides the students with an opportunity to apply what they have learned in the class to projects, as well as help local organizations.

The community-based component gets students “engaged in gaining confidence as visual thinkers to make change happen,” says Theodore.

Students survey siteMost recently, students in Theodore’s architecture courses have completed projects for Brunswick Park and Gardens, a group of residents who hope to develop a large garden as part of the Brunswick Naval Air Station redevelopment, and the Brunswick Housing Authority (BHA).

Last fall, students in Architectural Design I worked with Brunswick Park and Gardens to design garden structures for the garden proposal. The students talked to members of the organization and visited the site before creating their own designs for the garden structure. During the process, students had the opportunity to present their plans on three occasions, increasing the collaborative nature of the process and reflecting the atmosphere of a real architecture studio.

“They look at examples that relate to what they are doing. It’s a very different kind of class,” says Theodore.

According to Theodore, this project not only benefited the students who had the opportunity to work with a real site that is currently being examined for redevelopment, but the organization as well. Non-profits often do not have adequate resources to engage in the pre-design process, which is where the architecture class makes a real difference.

“The pre-design part is short-changed the most by non-profits because they don’t have the money. They don’t have the luxury to dream,” Theodore says.

At the end of the semester, students share their site plans and designs at the "Celebrating Campus-Community Connections" Symposium, which gives Brunswick residents an opportunity to see possible ideas for redevelopment.

Cole Merrick's design Cole Merrick ’11, a student in the architecture class, is still involved with the Brunswick Park and Gardens. Merrick’s design for the building was inspired by nature, based on the structural aspects of a leaf. Merrick’s involvement with an organization after the end of a project is not uncommon. Many students continue developing their designs as part of an independent study after the course ends.

Students in Theodore’s Architectural Design II course have also had the opportunity to apply their architecture skills to a community project for the Brunswick Housing Authority. The organization’s executive director, John Hodge, approached Theodore about creating a project on housing with an architecture class.

“The BHA over the last several years has enjoyed a working relationship with Bowdoin College and so this was another opportunity to expand that relationship in a manner which was mutually beneficial,” Hodge says.

Students took on the challenge of the pre-design process for four units of affordable housing at the BHA site on Hambleton Avenue. Sustainability was a top priority for students involved in the project.

Students share designs According to Hodge, student involvement with the pre-design “provided a wonderfully fresh perspective on how best to use this site for four homes and the styles of homes that could be built given the limited space available. While we in the end may not use any of their designs (then again, we may) they have provided another viewpoint which is vital in the work we do, as we do not want to become complacent or begin to think we have all the answers.”

For the students in the class it was an opportunity to learn first-hand about the challenges of building affordable housing, as well as housing needs in the local community. It is also a partnership that Theodore says she would like to expand upon, citing other universities that have undertaken housing projects from the planning and fundraising stages to the construction phase.

In the past, Theodore's students have also worked on other community-based projects including designs for: a house for an existing foundation in Sebasco, a bike rack shelter for GoMaine and the Bowdoin Communal Bike Club, a sculpture garden entry and small community building for Brunswick Parks and Recreation, new uses for the old Brunswick High School for the Brunswick City Council, housing for Noble Street as part of the Downtown Brunswick Revitalization Plan, and a structure in honor of Bill Boothby for the Coastal Studies Center.

Anna Karass '08 was a reporting fellow for the McKeen Center for the Common Good in the summer of 2008.

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"I'm not interested in making 18 mini-architects. But I do hope at the end of the course we're going to have engaged citizens who understand the value of good design"
— Visiting Assistant Professor Wiebke Theodore