Submitted on Monday, 8/27/2012, at 4:35 PM

By William Sweet

Architectural studies, the latest addition to the list of majors 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 be drawing on multiple disciplines, including art history, environmental studies, performance studies, history, economics and more.


“There is no other major in the nation remotely like this one,” the Amherst College Architectural Studies Advisory Committee wrote in its proposal this spring. In May, the faculty approved participation in the Five College Architectural Studies major, a proposal first endorsed by the Five College deans in 2009 and subsequently signed by faculty at Hampshire College and Mount Holyoke College. (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 on to the field of architecture, and more than 25 since the year 2000 have become architects, architectural historians, urban planners, architecture critics and more. But as a liberal arts institution, the school has not offered architecture as a specific field of study.

This program isn’t intended to mimic technical study in architecture offered at professional and graduate schools, said 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.”

Faculty approved a program that differs from pre-professional architecture programs, offering the opportunity for interdisciplinary study throughout the Five Colleges. 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 said: “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 with his or her major advisor that may include, for example, sustainable design; urban planning; forms of visual and spatial perception and representation; and architectural history, theory and criticism.

The effort to establish this major dates back more than a dozen years, when Gilpin and other colleagues noticed how students interested in pursuing architectural studies in a liberal arts setting were coming up against obstacles.

“We discovered an extraordinary number of faculty affiliated with the field of architecture throughout the Valley who were not gathered in a more formalized way for the students,” she said. At Amherst, students have studied topics involving architecture as art history majors, European studies majors or interdisciplinary majors, for example. Throughout the Five Colleges, students’ approaches “varied radically,” she said. “Some students whose thesis research focused on an aspect of the built environment majored in history, economics, English or political science.”

There are more than 50 faculty members in the Five Colleges who teach some aspect of the design and history/theory of the built environment. At Amherst, students were formerly unaware of the range of linked resources available in coursework or faculty and were often unable to get into studio courses at the other colleges, because of limited space and high enrollment. With a Five College major now in place, Amherst students who are architectural studies majors will receive priority access to these courses, as well as consistent guidance from faculty advisors on their individualized paths of study.

Each participating institution tailors requirements of the program differently. At Amherst, a student wishing to pursue this major will first meet with a member of the Architectural Studies Advisory Committee, which includes Gilpin and Professors Carol Clark (history of art and American studies), Nicola Courtright (history of art), Ronald Rosbottom (French and European studies), Kevin Sweeney (American studies and history) and Thom Long (Five College assistant professor of architectural studies). The student’s resulting proposal will be vetted both by this committee and by a Five College review committee. Each student will be required to take four foundational courses and five intermediate courses and complete a two-semester senior thesis project. Courses offered this year at Amherst that count toward the major include, but are by no means limited to, “Drawing,” “Material Culture of American Homes,” “Reinventing Tokyo,” “Making Memorials,” “American Art and Architecture,” “The Senses in Motion,” “Cathedral, Crown and City: Gothic Art” and “Space,” along with many other courses offered at Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith and UMass. Students interested in the major can visit its Web page for more.

“This major is the result of more than 12 years of work on the part of so many faculty and administrators at Amherst and in the Five Colleges,” Gilpin said. “We are all so grateful and absolutely delighted for our students that this major now exists.”

The professor’s own work is a lesson in how architecture can harmonize with a liberal arts education.

“I’m not an architect, but I’ve worked for the last 25 years or so with architects in my work as a scholar and maker of movement performance,” she said. “As a dramaturg or conceptual author for William Forsythe and the Frankfurt Ballet and a number of other international performance companies, I’ve worked regularly with architects as well as with electronic artists, dancers, composers, computer programmers and filmmakers to design new productions.” At Harvard, where she earned her Ph.D. in comparative literature, she taught with instructors at the university’s Graduate School of Design, examining architectural ideas and sites through the lens of critical and cultural theory, in addition to taking theoretical concepts and experimenting with strategies for how to manifest them in three dimensions. Gilpin has since co-taught architectural design studios with architects at the Southern California Institute of Architecture and, more recently, at MIT.

“I love co-teaching with architects, because no matter what theoretical problem we confront, in the end, they need the building to stand up, and I want it to move,” she said. “So we have to generate a conceptual and compositional system together that hopefully enables intelligent, responsive forms of stasis and dynamism to be designed simultaneously.”

As the director of the Institute for New Dramaturgy in Amsterdam and in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, Gilpin organized and taught multidisciplinary summer workshops with filmmakers, theater directors, choreographers and architects to expose students and professionals in architecture and the theater arts to different ways of imagining the body in space by examining modes of human perception and movement in the process of generating corporeal and built possibilities.

“This work resonated for me in another form last spring, when a surprising number of neuroscience majors took my Mellon Colloquium ‘The Senses in Motion,’” Gilpin said. “I discovered that neuroscientists have recently begun to develop research projects, together with architects, about how to design the most effective and supportive environments for people with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, among others.”

“This sort of integrated multidisciplinary research,” she said, “is one of the kinds I hope we can now foster more coherently with our new major in Architectural studies.”