Architecture Students Draw Lessons From Book of Life

<i> Whiteson is a Los Angeles architecture critic. </i>

Practical Applications of Architecture 101: Class focuses on the comfort and concerns of people who actually live , play or work in various buildings.

Students at Burbank’s Woodbury University won’t find Practical Applications of Architecture 101 listed in the course catalogue, but Don Conway says the curriculum was designed with human and social needs in mind.

“Most design schools that teach architecture treat it either as a fine art or a sort of quasi-engineering,” said Conway, director of the five-year program at Woodbury leading to a bachelor of architecture degree.

“In the typical approach to teaching design, the users of architecture are all too often the forgotten ones.”


Woodbury, Conway said, concentrates on architecture as an applied social science. According to the school catalogue, “Self-expression, while encouraged, is viewed as subordinate to the larger human issues with which architecture deals.”

The curriculum combines applied social science with a strong base in business practice and computer-aided design (CAD) technology. The university’s well-equipped computer labs, which, according to Conway, are the most up-to-date in the United States on an undergraduate level, familiarize students from the first year on with the powerful new tool of three-dimensional software design programs.

Computer-Illiterate Architects

“Most architecture schools give a perfunctory course in CAD technology at the end of their course,” Conway said. “In addition, few schools teach architects how to run their own offices as an efficient business proposition. The result is that many architects are not only computer-illiterate, they also fail to make a decent living.”

Conway admitted that his 4-year-old architecture program, with 170 students, is “still feeling its way.” Woodbury University as a whole has had to overcome a longstanding reputation as a glorified secretarial school.

The school was founded in 1884 by F.C. Woodbury as a college of business administration. The private nonprofit institution added a division of “professional arts” in 1931, a few years before the college moved into the Wilshire Boulevard building it occupied for 50 years, before relocating to Burbank last year.

Now occupying the 22.4-acre former campus of the Cabrini School for Girls on Glenoaks Boulevard, Woodbury University includes the San Fernando Valley’s first and only fully accredited architecture school.

“Our move to Burbank is highly significant for us in several ways,” Conway said. “We now have a spacious campus with plenty of spare room to expand, and we see our design school as a major resource for the valley itself.”

In the year that it has occupied its new campus buildings, the Woodbury architecture program has already established strong links with the valley chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Minority Outreach Grant

Awarded a minority outreach grant by the Washington-based headquarters of the AIA, Woodbury is collaborating with the local chapter.

“With the aid of the SFV/AIA, we help minority students who might not otherwise imagine that an architecture degree is within their grasp make the grade,” Conway said. “This is a vital service to the community if architecture is not to be forever a profession open only to the privileged.”

Woodbury also grants loans and scholarships to help its less-affluent students pay the school’s $6,000 annual tuition fee.

“We have high hopes of Woodbury,” said Mark Smith, president of the SFV/AIA. “The valley has many special architectural challenges that need to be confronted by academics and practicing professionals working together. As the valley evolves from a collection of dormitory suburbs into a more self-focused constellation of cities, local designers need to be able to call upon the resources of our own institutions.”

Woodbury has also been involved in joint studies with other Los Angeles area architecture schools of such social problems as housing the homeless.

A 1986 joint study on temporary shelter for homeless families in suburbs linked Woodbury with the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning and the Santa Monica-based Southern California Institute of Architecture. And it showed the different design approaches favored by the three schools.

Radical Responses

Whereas the UCLA architecture and planning students tended to be concerned with the visual fit of the temporary shelter with its suburban street, and the SCI team was engaged in a search for aesthetically radical responses to the problem, Woodbury students explored the emotional and physical needs of the families that would use the shelter.

“The Woodbury approach was unlike the others,” UCLA Prof. Jackie Leavitt observed at the time. “They had a more immediately humane response to the program than students from the other two schools.

“My feeling is that we all had a lot to learn from one another’s very different mind-sets.”

The Woodbury architectural mind-set has not been easy to encourage, Conway said. Students and faculty take a while to come to terms with the notion of architecture as an applied social science.

“It’s still a struggle to implant and implement our design philosophy,” he said. “Since only three of our faculty are full-time--the remainder are practicing professionals--the old idea of architecture as fine art first dies hard.

“I guess we all know that the quickest way to make a mark as an architectural superstar is to be a radical design hotshot. The responsibility to social concerns is a much slower, if more honorable, career path.”

Conway said Woodbury’s advantage as a very new architecture school was its freedom from “cultural baggage.” Woodbury--"small, private and expensive"--has had a chance to redefine the notion of user-responsive design, he said.

As an instance of the social sensitivity of the Woodbury approach, Conway points to a recent project, by third-year student Carolyn Glassier, to design an expansion of the Bette Ripp Women’s Center on downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

“We were all deeply impressed by her real understanding of the clientele which the Women’s Center serves,” center Executive Director Maurice Martinez wrote. “Her compassion and understanding are reflected in the plan, including her use of space, light and form.”

The Women’s Center plans to adopt Glassier’s scheme as a basis for its expansion and will use the design in starting a capital campaign for the project.

“You can’t get more socially applied than that,” Conway said, with pride.