Back to School: Stepping into the World of Architecture

I often wonder how an architect looks at the world. Is it similar to the way an artist might notice textures? Or how a musician can single out an instrument? While the rest of us hurry our way through city streets, eager to get from one building to another, are architects walking with their heads tilted up, dreaming up ways to shape our surroundings?

These sorts of questions are what lead me to professor Larry Speck’s Architecture 308, an undergraduate course made up of students ranging from freshmen to seniors across all kinds of majors. Speck—an architect who’s designed places like the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport—has been teaching the class for 35 years. He describes it as an overview of how architecture interacts with and shapes society.

“You’re around architecture every day,” Speck tells me. “It has an unconscious impact on our behavior, our lifestyle, attitudes, and mood.”

When I arrive at the classroom in the UTC on a Thursday afternoon in March, I take a seat between a student who diligently titles each page of his notes and another who’s scrambling to finish some kind of math homework. At five feet, two inches tall and 24 years old, I still blend in with the roughly 500 students in the room.

Looking around, I realize I’ve been here before. Years ago, I took accounting in this auditorium, learning to run a fake virtual lemonade stand that my “business partners” and I very expertly ran into the ground. But today I am no entrepreneur. I’m here to learn how to think like an architect.

The topic of today’s class is “geography, topography, and ecology,” a lecture about how architecture physically interacts with the environment. When a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey strikes, Speck points out that we are quick to call it an act of God. But with careful planning, there are ways to prevent cities from being destroyed. I learn about detention ponds, which are excavated areas installed near bodies of water to protect against flooding, and impervious cover, which is any type of man-made surface that doesn’t absorb rainfall, including patios, driveways, and sidewalks.

[Watch: Lawrence Speck explains the history and meaning of UT’s friezes]

Before we leave, Speck asks the class to take out index cards and mark their names. At the end of every lecture, he poses a question to the room that asks students to apply the day’s lesson to their actual lives.

“On a scale of one to 10, when you’re buying a house 10 years from now, how important will these preventative details be?” he asks us. He later tells me nearly 80 percent of the class marked nine or higher.

“I would say I’m a 9 or 10,” reads one student’s card. “I remember moving into a house two days before Hurricane Harvey and it not flooding because my dad chose a neighborhood outside of the 500 year flood plain.”

Another card reads: “Before I took this class, I fell somewhere between a 1 and 5. I enjoyed the environment superficially, but wouldn’t commit to respecting it in architecture.”It’s a perfect example of what Speck hopes his students take away from class.

When I ask him what I wonder most—if an architect sees the world differently than the average person—he says for the most part, yes. Though he spends most of his class trying to minimize that difference.

“We need to see the world like others do,” Speck says. “It’s important our architecture students study alongside a film major and engineer—those are the people they ought to care about how they perceive architecture. It’s a tool for everybody.”

To help his students better understand what he means, Speck says he often recites an anecdote about the difference between living in a sleepy town like Lockhart, Texas, and living in a crowded city like Brooklyn, New York. “In Lockhart, you’re probably living in a bungalow house with pecan trees out front and a great porch where you lounge, neighbors strolling by with their dog, and birds chirping melodically,” he says. “The way you build relationships with people and your attitude are going to be shaped by that place.”

But in Brooklyn, he says, “you’re in one of those warehouse buildings with 12 other hipsters. There’s graffiti everywhere, it smells a little funky, and there’s an anonymity. Maybe you thrive on the energy of the city, but there’s no vegetation—you’d be a totally different person living there.”

After class, I come to understand our world-builders a little more. They look at a building, a city, a place, and think of the how and the why of it. When I embark on my trek from the UTC back to the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center, I pay no attention to the swarm of students around me and focus on the landscape.

As I descend upon the Speedway hill, I question whether the PCL is giving the studious kids inside enough natural light. I pass Jester Hall, and notice how its numerous narrow windows make it resemble a prison, albeit one that contains some 2,000 rowdy college students. I look at my freshman dormitory area Brackenridge-Roberts-Prather, and take note of the friezes (sculpted or painted decorations) that line the building tops. I wonder, in the four years I spent walking these paths daily, how did this campus, in all its architectural glory, shape me?

Illustration by Peter Arkle


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