ASLA Oregon LANDbytes MAY 2012 Feature:
Ducks Bridge Academic and Professional Practice
By Logan Bingle
When Fredrick Law Olmsted designed Central Park he had no formal design training. Olmsted and his design partner, Calvert Vaux developed their own techniques to represent and build landscapes, which Olmsted passed on to his apprentices. This apprenticeship system would become the education model for landscape architecture in the first half of the twentieth century. As landscape architecture became more regulated, the apprenticeship system was phased out in favor of academic institutions as the primary education system. The result has been that students often leave school lacking the skills that firms need.
However, the University of Oregon's Design Bridge Program is working to bring back an element of this apprenticeship system. The Design Bridge Program brings together interested students and professors on pro bono design build teams that work in the Eugene Springfield Area. This not only provides an alternative to the traditional academic education model but also allows students to experience the design process from concept to construction, build their skills as part of a multi-disciplinary team, promote sustainable practices and contribute to the community.
Design Bridge projects begin in the fall academic term. A core group of students work with the project client and a professor to develop the project concept and create a schematic design. In the winter term, the core group of students and their professor take the schematic design and create a construction document (CD) set for the project. Once the CD set is completed, the students take the plan through the city's permitting process and make alterations to meet code. They also begin collecting and organizing the resources and people to build the project. Finally, spring term is spent building. Throughout this process, the core group of students is assisted by an array of student volunteers who consult on specific pieces of the project. A landscape student volunteer might look into plants for a rain garden or paving options for a path. Student volunteers also contribute a great deal of time to the construction phase.
For Design Bridge students, the chance to build their projects offers an alternative to the traditional studio system. One benefit for some students is the chance to absorb design theory by actually doing rather than reading or attending a lecture. Danielle Bilot, a current landscape architecture Design Bridge student, said "I often only learn by doing and not just by conceptual exploration, as I am sure many people do. Muscle retention is one of the best ways for me to put something into memory." This support of alternative learning is very much in line with current trends in education as the lecture class as a teaching tool is called into question.
Another benefit of the Design Bridge Program is the way that it exposes students to the complete design process from concept to construction. This gives students a better sense of how projects become a reality and the challenges that projects face. Diana Molina, a former landscape architecture Design Bridge student, said one of the program's greatest contributions to her education was the ability to, "speak with some personal knowledge of the challenges of translating a design idea to tangible reality -- in short, you become a better designer because you have a better sense of what can be feasibly built with time, money and skills you have at hand." In this way, Design Bridge provides an important link between the abstraction of studio projects and the creation of realistic goals for a project.
Besides providing an alternative educational system, Design Bridge also prepares students by promoting interdisciplinary work. The student coordinator for next year, Hiroshi Kaneki, felt Design Bridge's biggest contribution to the educational process was helping students let go of their ego and work as part of a group. This is achieved by mixing landscape architecture, architecture and interior architecture students together and asking them to forget the separation between their fields and work towards a common goal. This prepares students for a world in which cross-disciplinary work is common and teamwork is a prerequisite.
The Design Bridge projects also offer students a chance to give back to the Eugene Springfield community and address some of the most pressing issues of the day. Hiroshi noted that Design Bridge has always taken an activism stance by promoting sustainability and working with organizations that would normally be unable to hire a designer. This year Design Bridge is working with the University of Oregon Sustainable Cities Initiative to build a rain garden demonstration project at a Springfield school. This charitable nature of Design Bridge has played an important part in attracting students to the program and generating excitement. Danielle Bilot said, "I heard that Design Bridge does work with groups that help out the community, but cannot afford professional help, which is exactly the type of organization I want to be associated with." This activist energy promises to keep Design Bridge going for a long time to come.
Looking to the future, Hiroshi noted several areas that could be improved. Continuity between academic years seemed to be a particular challenge because of the rapid participant turn over. One example was project documentation. Many projects had documentation of the finished project but rarely included data that would be helpful such as project budget and useful community resources. Hiroshi felt that documenting each project's budget would be particularly helpful to assist future Design Bridge members develop reasonable expectations for projects. In addition, Hiroshi wants to maintain a network of community contacts in Eugene and Springfield to assist future participants in finding potential donors and assistance.
Whether helping students in their academic or philanthropic endeavors, Design Bridge offers a rich experience for students at the University of Oregon. Design Bridge also prepares students for challenges outside of school by providing them with hands on learning and exposure to the complete design and construction process. In addition, Design Bridge helps students build their skills as team and community members. This promises to not only enrich the field of landscape architecture but a wide range of associated fields as well.