Back to News

Embracing the New Normal: The School of Architecture’s Immersive Learning Experiences in the City of Boston

BOSTON: Kate Kennen, lecturer in the College of Arts, Media and Design, teaches a landscaping class outside on Centennial Common. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

While the fall semester at Northeastern University has required flexibility, adjustments, and resilience – from both students and faculty alike – the College of Arts, Media and Design has continued to push creative boundaries and embrace the opportunity to turn the City of Boston into a laboratory. These outdoor experiential opportunities have underscored that traditional buildings or classrooms are not requirements for effective learning. In the School of Architecture, over the past few months, faculty have been embracing and engaging with the Boston area to provide hands-on experiences for their students, who have the opportunity to attend socially distanced field trips in-person, or through Zoom. Faculty have been challenging their students to step outside and look at, absorb, and truly consider their environments—through sketching, photography, and written reflections. In many cases, these immersive learning experiences have added entirely new dimensions to the classes that would not have been possible before the pandemic. We caught up with our School of Architecture faculty behind these innovations; learn more about how they are embracing the college experience’s “new normal” in positive and productive ways.

Michelle Laboy, Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture brought students in her ARCH 5230 – Structural Systems course to the Leventritt Vine and Shrub Garden at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, an outdoor museum of trees and plants. They discussed the integration of the structure into the landscape strategy, and sketched the free body diagrams of main primary frames. This class also met at the Harbor Islands Pavilion (designed by the firm Utile, whose founding principal is Associate Professor Tim Love) by Boston’s waterfront to examine the complex concrete shell and steel structure. Professor Laboy, who provided an introduction of the architecture and its history in the Greenway project, was joined by Chris Coakley, Engineer at SGH and Adjunct Lecturer in the School of Architecture (also teaching a section of ARCH 5230), who gave the students an explanation of the structure, the connections, and a few insights into the challenging construction process. For her course ARCH 3170 – Architecture, Infrastructure, and the City, Professor Laboy and a group of students biked the length of the Southwest Corridor, a linear urban park,  from Forest Hills to Ruggles (MBTA stations), a path right next to Northeastern’s campus. The group stopped at a few key locations to talk about the conditions found on the site, the construction of the park, and the history and current state of transportation in Roxbury.

Field Trip to the Greenway with Professor Laboy.
Bike Ride Through Southwest Corridor with Professor Laboy. Screenshot from Zoom Recording.

Amanda Reeser Lawrence, Associate Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator in the School of Architecture, took her students in ARCH 2345: Contemporary Architecture to visit the the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to study first-hand the contemporary architectural additions to both museums within their urban contexts. Students not in Boston worked with Professor Lawrence to develop an alternate list of contemporary architectural buildings that were accessible to them, in locations that included Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan.

Field Trip to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) with Professor Reeser Lawrence.

In his course ARCH 1000 – Architecture at Northeastern, Dan Adams, Associate Professor and Director of the School of Architecture, has been focusing on students’ observational drawing and sketching practices as a means to explore the landscape in safe and meaningful ways. The series of observational sketches below are from the first week’s assignment, in which students were asked to watch the film Social Life of Small Urban Spaces and then observe how people use and misuse plaza spaces on campus.

Students were tasked with creating a systematic approach to sketching these observations. This assignment also helped students consider both successes and failures of urban environments in response the pandemic. Another ARCH 1000 adventure Professor Adams led was a field trip to look at urban ecology of the Emerald Necklace and Charlesgate.

Emerald Necklace Field Trip.

Lucy Maulsby, Associate Professor and Undergradute Program Coordinator in the School of Architecture, is taking her class ARCH 2330 – Architecture and the City in the 19th Century on a series of field trips this semester, using Boston as a point of departure for talking about the course’s larger themes. Recently, the class visited four sites associated with the city’s late eighteenth and early nineteenth century history: Boston Common; Charles Bulfinch, Massachusetts State House, 1795-97; Richard Upjohn, Abiel Smith School, 46 Joy Street, 1834¬35; Alexander Parris, Quincy Market, 1824–1826.  Each of these buildings and sites served as an opportunity to discuss a wide range of topics, including land use, building materials, architectural style, race and segregation, political representation, commercial activities, and international trade. Students who are remote also had the option to visit sites in or near their location – Philadelphia, Dedham, MA, Binghamton, NY, and Hong Kong.

Field Trip Led Downtown by Professor Maulsby.

Other faculty members in the School of Architecture leading these types of immersive, hands-on learning experiences are Nick Brown, Associate Teaching Professor; Jay Cephas, Assistant Professor; Kate Kennen, Lecturer;  and Ang Li, Assistant Professor.