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October 11, 2001

Architectural studies prepares students for master's

After 34 years on the faculty of Pitt's history of art and architecture department, and many visits to architecture schools around the country, Fil Hearn says he still hasn't heard of a baccalaureate program quite like the one Pitt offers in architectural studies.

"It's definitely a pre-professional program, aimed at preparing students for three-year master's of architecture degrees at other universities," says Hearn, who this fall is completing his 20th year as director.

While 29 percent of the program's 300 graduates have gone on to graduate studies in architecture, others have parlayed their Pitt degrees into jobs as developers, contractors and interior designers.

Pitt does not offer a graduate degree in architecture for two reasons, according to Hearn: Architecture schools are expensive and space-intensive (typically, each student requires his or her own drawing table and studio space) and, prior to the mid-1980s, Carnegie Mellon offered a master's in architecture — a program that CMU has since discontinued.

Pitt's B.A. in architectural studies appeals to students who don't want to spend five years in a traditional, professional architecture program but who do want a basic education in architectural history and studio arts before entering a three-year graduate program.

Denny Campbell was one of four Pitt architectural studies graduates to enroll in the Virginia Tech architecture school's graduate program in 1993. Asked whether Pitt grads felt better-prepared than classmates from other universities, Campbell said with a laugh: "Oh, absolutely! The other students in our studio [the architecture school equivalent of an entering class] included people from Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia — all excellent schools — who had majored in subjects like history and English. They just didn't have the foundation that we [Pitt students] had in architecture and studio arts."

Campbell currently is an intern at Gerald Lee Morasco Architects, on Pittsburgh's South Side.

John Guerts, a principal at Ross Bianco Architects and a 1989 Pitt architectural studies graduate, said attending Pitt's four-year program prior to three years of grad school slowed his career progress, initially, because he was competing for jobs against graduates of five-year professional programs.

"But if you have the luxury, as I did, of attending Pitt's program and then going on to graduate school, it's a good investment in the long run," Guerts said. "In my business life, working with people who graduated from traditional five-year programs, I've found my liberal arts education to be a great advantage. In my opinion, architecture schools are woefully inadequate in giving their students even a basic education in subjects like art history, for example."

According to Hearn, Pitt's architectural studies program often attracts students who are "right lobe-dominant" — i.e., with stronger visual and perceptual skills, as opposed to verbal skills associated with the left lobe of the brain.

"In general, academic programs in universities are weighted heavily toward rewarding left-lobe skills such as critical writing," Hearn said. "Students who are right-lobe dominant are often made to feel mediocre or inferior.

"We've had a number of students coming to our program, having dropped out of another major, and succeeding here wonderfully because they finally found a program that rewards their talents."

Rather than insisting that students in his history of architecture courses write papers, for example, Hearn gives them the option of building models of well-known architectural treasures. "Making a model of a cathedral requires as much research as writing a paper," Hearn notes. "It also requires fairly sophisticated analytical skills. But they are not the same analytical skills that help one to write a brilliant critical essay."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 4

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