Amherst Magazine

Architectural Studies is Now a Major

By William Sweet

Architectural studies, the newest major available to Amherst students, is more than what its name implies. Students concentrating on architecture won’t just draw on drafting boards or in digital design studios; they will draw on multiple disciplines, including art history, environmental studies, performance studies, history and economics.

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“There is no other major in the nation remotely like this one,” the Amherst College Architectural Studies Advisory Committee wrote in its proposal last spring. The faculty approved participation in the Five College Architectural Studies major in May. (Also in May, Amherst faculty approved establishing two new Five College certificate programs, in queer and sexuality studies and sustainability studies.)

Amherst has a long history of graduates going into the field of architecture, and more than 25 alumni since the year 2000 have become architects, architectural historians, urban planners, architecture critics and such. But until now, the school has not offered architecture as a specific field of study.

This program isn’t intended to mimic technical training in architecture of the kind offered at professional and graduate schools, says Heidi Gilpin ’84, associate professor of German, chair of European studies and now chair of architectural studies: “This is neither an architectural history major nor a design major in the traditional sense.”

Instead, the intent of the program is to teach students to think critically about the built environment from a variety of perspectives. Graduate schools don’t want students already trained in architectural design, Gilpin says: “They want students who can write, who can imagine, conceptualize and creatively integrate issues involving a wide array of problems and disciplines.”

Each Amherst architectural studies major will create an individualized course of study that may include, for example, sustainable design; urban planning; forms of visual and spatial perception and representation; and architectural history, theory and criticism.

Courses offered this year at Amherst that count toward the major include everything from “Drawing” and “Space” to “Material Culture of American Homes” and “Making Memorials.”

Photo by Heidi Gilpin ’84