Design Week – Connecting Education and Practice

By Kurt Culbertson, FASLA, and Lake Douglas, FASLA

Design Workshop Partner, Mike Albert, reviews student presentations during Design Week at Oklahoma State University. / Image: Design Workshop
From the practitioner’s perspective

In 1998, I had the opportunity to participate in Design Week at my alma mater, Louisiana State University. Design Week, an LSU invention, was conceived as a one-week vertical studio engaging first year students through graduate students in a team project under the leadership of a practicing professional.  As conceived, the professional would assign the student a site and problem for which they had prepared a design. The students then have the opportunity to compare their efforts to that of the practitioner.

While I loved the concept of Design Week, it struck me that a lot of time was being spent by the students on a theoretical exercise.  Couldn’t all of this energy be put to a useful outcome for the public good as well as a learning exercise? I found a sixty-acre site on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River which was a gravel storage facility for barges that had traveled south to Louisiana right across the street from the state capitol complex in Baton Rouge. The property owner graciously agreed to let the student utilize their property as the subject of the study and the students set to work preparing a master plan for mixed use development of the site.  As a result of the student’s work, the property was developed much as the students envisioned.

To simulate the practice environment, a jury was assembled of the city/parish planning director, a state senator, and the property owner. Even the university chancellor dropped by the observe the progress of the work. The teams were judged on three categories: the quality of their design, the quality of their team work, and the quality of their presentation. Awards were given in of these categories and for best overall effort.

The project was a tremendous success and an idea was born. From that beginning at LSU, Design Workshop took the show own the road. We have now conducted Design Weeks at fifteen universities. Projects have ranged from campus planning in North Carolina to brownfield redevelopment near Gary, Indiana, to regional planning for the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. One of our objectives has been to break down academic silos and we have been successful in engaging planning and real estate students in the effort. Our latest effort engaged 220 students in the one-week exercise. Despite several invitations, we have not been able to convince architecture faculty to participate in the program – a telling indicator of an unwillingness to collaborate. This multi-disciplinary model simulates professional practice. Students at Clemson, for example, planned a new town center for Hilton Head while students in the university’s real estate program developed financial pro formas to demonstrate the feasibility of the project.

Through the Design Week process, students learn that success is measured by more than just the quality of their design work. Successful teams have demonstrated great teamwork and strong leaders have emerged. Design Week, like private practice, is an ensemble exercise. Students are given the task of making high quality presentations to the assembled jury. They are coached to storyboard their presentations, rehearse, and dress for success.

Design Week has its limits. Some have criticized the effort because in a quick one-week effort, solutions can be shallow as time of inquiry is limited. Faculty have reacted differently to the effort. Some embrace the effort and activity participate, others have been threatened by this private sector intrusion on their turf.

The benefits, however, are substantial. Students learn that if they “begin with the end in mind,” develop clear work plans, schedules, and assignments, they can accomplish far more in a week than they ever thought possible. Intermediate design reviews ensure rapid cycling of ideas. There is a strict midnight rule for all workdays, and students are surprised to learn that they can get their work done without sleepless nights!  Leadership can come from surprising people and not always the oldest or most experienced student. Departments experience a great deal of team building as first year students work side by side with their more senior classmates, developing mentor/mentee relationships in the process. As in practice, there are winners and losers. The projects, if well-orchestrated, provide visibility for the department and profession to the broader university and community.

Students visit a Design Workshop project site for a hands-on learning approach. / Image: Design Workshop

Because we have our staff participate in Design Week at their alma mater, it is a great way for them to give back to their university. Most importantly, we have found Design Week to be a great way for practitioners to stay connected to the academy, learn how to teach, and to be energized by talented, enthusiastic future landscape architects.

Kurt Culbertson, FASLA, is Chairman, CEO at Design Workshop. He leads the field in evidence-based design and the application of performance measurement to landscape architecture, urban design and planning projects. Design Workshop has hosted Design Week at 13 universities, and was honored with the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) 2012 Landscape Architecture Medal of Excellence for this pro-bono effort.

From the educator’s perspective

Design Week is an annual tradition at LSU’s Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture. At the beginning of the semester (usually the spring semester), landscape architecture students of all levels participate in the weeklong seminars and workshops, led by an alum of the school who brings a project for a 3-5 day student/faculty charrette. Students are divided into teams (vertically, so that all levels – undergrad and grad – populate each team) to address a topic/problem/site introduced by the visiting professional. In the past, projects have been both speculative (or a competition), real (from the alum’s office), or purely fun (tailgating) and have been sites far distant from the campus (China) or local (in Baton Rouge) or on campus. Usually, the project involves issues that are relevant to professional projects.

Lewis May, FASLA, works with the third-place winners on their design, “Venice Shopping Area” during LSU’s 2015 Design Week. / Image: LSU College of Art & Design

Discussion about the Design Week leader begins in faculty meetings in the fall (for Design Week at the start of spring semester). Usually the program head has had some conversation with various alumni/ae possibilities to identify a willing participant (it involves a multi-day commitment which can be difficult for those in practice) and what the project might be. The alumnus/a identified might be someone with whom the program has a long-standing relationship or someone with whom the program would like to create a relationship; the development potential, publicity possibilities, and opportunity to showcase an alum should not be ignored. Logistics are worked out between program head and professional regarding travel expenses, accommodations, honorarium (important to offer, as an acknowledgement of the value of professional time, but it may well be turned back to the program). Ideally the alumnus/a has visibility and professional profile that will excite/energize students.

The first activity of the event is a lecture/presentation by the professional, usually about the professional’s practice/office work and an introduction to the project. At this kick-off meeting, the program chair distributes information regarding team members (representatives of all levels are on each team), faculty advisors, and spaces for teams to work. A project brief, accompanying base maps and any relevant additional info are distributed to the teams. The teams then adjourn to their spaces to begin work.

Because the event happens at the beginning of the semester, Design Week is loosely structured to accommodate students’ other (non-LA) academic responsibilities; participation is “mandatory,” but this is obviously hard to enforce.  Nevertheless, those who participate and are visibly engaged as team members are usually the students who perform well and see the value of the exercise.  Team work spaces are designated within studio spaces, team leaders are determined (each with a faculty mentor), issues/design priorities are identified among team members (faculty might participate here), and schedules for work/work products are developed by teams based on discussions of project program and design strategies.  The visiting professional, working with faculty, determines daily schedules, with a final presentation at the end of the charrette, after which awards are made based on faculty evaluation of the teams’ presentations.

LSU 2015 Design Week final presentations / Image: LSU College of Art & Design

The professional may schedule interim pin-ups, progress reports, crits, etc. (having daily production requirements is a good idea).  Faculty involvement will range from passive to active, depending on many factors.  Ways of being involved include scheduling times to work with the team and/or pass through the studio to advise, monitor progress, crit, etc.  Chances for student success increase with faculty engagement, and faculty should buy-into the concept and participation requirements of this activity at the beginning of the process; without this engagement from the start, chances for success are limited.  A final presentation time is scheduled, and each team has a time-limited opportunity (important to limit presentation times, ideally to around 10 minutes) to present its product(s).   It’s important too for each team member to take part in the presentation of the team’s product (this will enable younger students to begin to learn about how to make successful verbal presentations).

At the end of the presentations, faculty (and/or invited guests, e.g.  other alums and/or professionals from the community) vote on winners. Usually awards are books or gift certificates (or whatever might be a motivating prize). After awards (and photos for social media!), there could be a pizza party and/or other social event (with food) to allow socializing amongst students/professionals/guests/faculty/etc.

In the past 3 years, we’ve had a variety of projects:

2017, fall semester, was a project at the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion, at the request of the First Lady, to look at the Mansion grounds and make suggestions about issues related to flooding, official functions, various elements added over time that currently do not present a coherent experience. The First Lady hosted lunch for the students on the grounds, after which the students made their presentations in the Mansion’s state dining room. For more information, learn about the project from a student’s perspective.

Kinder Baumgardner, ASLA, critiques one of the student teams participating in LSU’s 2016 Design Week. / Image: LSU College of Art & Design

2016, spring semester, was directed By Kinder Baumgardner (BLA ’87), president, SWA/Houston. The subject was an industrial site in north Baton Rouge.  See more information on LSU’s 2016 Design Week.

2015, spring semester, was directed by Lewis May (BLA, MLA), of Page/Houston. The subject was a new city in China, an international competition that Page had won. See more information on LSU’s 2015 Design Week.

Altogether this event is a good way for several things to happen:

  • Connect with program/faculty/students with alumni
  • Expose students to an interesting project via a charrette experience
  • Integrate students within program from different levels
  • Non-graded project with prizes awarded
  • Publicity opportunities with visiting professional

Lake Douglas, PhD, FASLA, is Associate Dean of Research and Development in the College of Art & Design and Professor of landscape architecture at LSU’s Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture. He writing has been recognized with two ASLA Honor Awards, and five of his students have received ASLA Student Honor Awards. In 2016 he was elected to ASLA’s Council of Fellows and currently serves as ASLA’s Vice President, Education.

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