Indiana University's School of Art, Architecture + Design hopes to revolutionize architecture and design education in Indiana. This spring it announced a new undergraduate degree in Comprehensive Design and a new Master’s of Architecture program. Kelly Wilson heads the program, as director of IU Center for Art + Design (IUCA+D) in downtown Columbus, Indiana.
An hour’s drive from both Indianapolis and IU’s main campus in Bloomington, Columbus might seem an unlikely spot for a major design program. When Wilson initially considered becoming the first director of IUCA+D in 2011, even he had doubts. Educated at Auburn University in Alabama and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Wilson had built a career as an architect and artist, teaching in prestigious architecture programs on the East Coast.
During a campus visit, Wilson was awed by the built environment of Columbus. “I was shocked by the architecture; I felt the the astonishment everyone feels, because this sophisticated form of modern architecture sits cheek-by-jowl to the traditional, modest architecture of the Midwest.”
He was impressed by the dedication of John Burnett and Jack Hess, the leaders of the Community Education Coalition of Columbus who partnered with IU to found IUCA+D. They did so to establish design education opportunities there for IU students and to create a hub for arts and design in the community. Intrigued by Columbus’s potential, Wilson made the move.
Wilson identifies four key advantages for architecture and design students in Columbus. First, of course, is the city’s exceptional modern architecture. For Wilson, living among buildings by Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche, and Harry Weese provides the repeated exposure needed to unpack the complex ideas that make them great.
Secondly, he says students will benefit from Columbus’s strong backbone of fabrication and engineering fostered by Cummins Inc., the diesel engine maker headquartered there.
Then there’s the Columbus way, as its residents call it. Most modern masterpieces sprouted there because of public-private partnerships, not private patronage or government fiat.
And finally, Wilson sees it as a “scalable city” — a living urban laboratory. “Columbus is large enough to have all the institutions, aspirations, and conflicts of big city, but it’s small enough to be knowable in the time a student is here,” Wilson says, “And you can take that understanding to a bigger city. In Boston, I was never able to understand the whole shooting match. Here you can.”
Wilson relishes the challenges of building a new program from the ground up. “There’s no pre-existing structure to prevent outsized thinking and ambition,” he says. “It allows me to ask ‘What would be the most compelling way to put together the education of an architect? What is the architect?’ Our answer is that you’re an artist first, an architect second.” Wilson is dissatisfied with the “Visual Studies” element to most architectural programs. “Its purpose is often to teach the body of representational language that we use to explain, describe, and measure architecture. It’s analytical drawing, it’s essentially rational.”
Wilson emphasizes drawing as a fundamental practice that continues throughout an architect’s career. As a student at Harvard GSD, drawing —not merely architectural draughting— transformed his practice. “I talked my way into an undergraduate drawing class taught by painter Flora Natapoff.” After intensive drawing sessions, “I walked back to architecture school, and out of my sleeve would tumble all these solutions that I knew didn’t come by the process I’d been taught as an architect; that was Flora’ influence.
This is the core of Wilson’s vision, which give artistic and architectural training equal weight in the curriculum. “But we will write no pedagogy to link them together; we will let synthesis exist in the student, not in the curriculum. Then people will forge their own links and in so doing, they will find their voice,” he says. By this process, architecture students will become truly creative professionals rather than imitators of their teachers.
Wilson sees a flourishing arts community as essential to his plans. As director of IUCA+D, he has been laying groundwork with exhibitions featuring artists from his East Coast network, salon talks with local artists, and symposia, including a weekend-long workshop studying Harry Weese’s Midwestern modernism.
This fall, undergraduates can seek Comprehensive Design degrees, and the first cohort of 20 to 30 students will enter the Master’s of Architecture program in the fall of 2018. Marleen Newman, an architect who has taught design at IU for years, is already on board as associate director of IUCA+D. Columbus-based architect Louis Joyner, who has also taught at IU, is also on the team. Additional faculty positions will be added this year.
Wilson hopes to see the program grow large enough to have a self-sustaining studio culture. But the foundations he is laying are ambitious, he acknowledges, “It’s the folks coming after me in one or two generations that will be famed for having done something big. Recognizing my fate and making my peace with that, I need to build something that can grow, so that 20 years from now there might be 500 students.