The City As a Sketchpad

Design School Classroom Projects Can Both Educate Students And Help Solve Urban Problems

The walkway to the Science Center.

A canal in East Cambridge.

Boston's multi-million dollar central artery project.

A highway weaving through ancient Cairo.

All were creative solutions to vexing urban problems, and all were inspired by student projects at Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

The projects--which range from simple sketches to complex models--were made in so-called studio classes. In studio classes, Design School students spend one semester solving a pressing city problem, and submit their work for a grade.

Those familiar with the studio program agree it provides a unique chance for aspiring architects and urban designers to face the challenges they will meet as professionals.

"It is almost like the city is a laboratory for the students," says J. Roger Boothe, a 1977 Design School graduate who is now director of urban design for Cambridge. "When you look at a studio you get a feeling for what the problems are."

It is "a medieval, old-fashioned apprentice system," says J. Antonio Gomez-Ibanez, a professor of urban planning and public policy.

Professors are quick to note that the studio program is a learning experience first, and that any real world considerations must always come second.

"There is no intention to influence public action," says Carl F. Steinitz, Wiley professor of landscape architechture.

"The intent is to inform," he says.

In fact, while project developers have been known to fund studio projects, Design School faculty bristle at the notion that their students are playing the role of paid consultants.

"It is not as though we are like the law school where students are apprenticed to the courts and doing real work," Steinitz says. "We are exposing options but not doing real work."

"It is important to present the results of a studio as the result of a pediological example," adds Francois C.D. Vigier, Norton professor of regional planning.