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Architecture course lets students hear first-hand from experts

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


Abbas Aminmansour
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Architecture professor Abbas Aminmansour has designed a course on integrated design and construction of buildings that brings guest lecturers from the Chicago offices of international architecture and engineering firms.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill.— At the end of the semester, students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign enrolled in a course coordinated by architecture professor Abbas Aminmansour take with them knowledge that can’t be found in any textbook.

That’s because what they learn in Aminmansour’s course on integrated design and construction of buildings comes straight from the sources: principals, presidents, project managers and other key practitioners from some of the world’s leading architecture and engineering firms.

Aminmansour designed the course in partnership with the U. of I. School of Architecture’s Tang Committee, a group of alumni organized to honor the teaching and research of the late Stephen Tang, a U. of I. alumnus and faculty member from 1960-1974. In advance of each course offering, Aminmansour works with members of the committee to coordinate the weekly visits by guest lecturers and plan the curriculum, which does not focus on a single project, from beginning to end, as many design-studio courses do. Instead, students have a ringside seat from which to take note of current, state-of-the-art practices and observe the challenges and problem-solving taking place on a number of existing or ongoing, real-world construction projects. Featured projects range in scale from small, residential construction to monumental commercial developments.

The design and construction of a building does not take place in isolation, Aminmansour said, but rather, involves a number of professionals – from architects and structural engineers to mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers as well as contractors – working in concert.

“The design and construction process needs to be coordinated … integrated,” he said, “and through this course, students get a view of that interaction.”

For the most part, the course’s pool of experts – from the Chicago offices of such international companies as Bovis Lend Lease; Geottsch Partners; John Buck Co.; LR Development Co.; Perkins + Will; and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and Seattle’s Magnusson Klemencic Associates – come to the campus to share their expertise.

In early November, however, students in the class also will board a bus for Chicago. There, they will get an up-close perspective on the challenges involved in designing and building the latest addition to the Windy City’s skyline: The Trump International Hotel and Tower. Designed by SOM and under construction by BLL, the high-rise condo-hotel, when completed in a few years, is expected to be the tallest residential building and tallest all-concrete building in the United States. Aminmansour said the U. of I. students will tour the construction site with representatives from SOM and BLL.

“It’s a wonderful course that puts all the pieces together,” said Kelly Saunders, a graduate student from Washington, D.C. Saunders, a lawyer pursing a second career in architecture, said she appreciates the speakers’ “behind-the-scenes back stories about what it takes to design a project.”
And, she added, “the projects are incredibly interesting,” particularly for her and other classmates who are in the final year of their master’s degree program and working on a two-semester integrated building design project.

“These are people who are experts in areas relevant to problems we’re grappling with,” she said. And, of course, “for many of us, it’s a great opportunity to meet practitioners and professionals to establish networks with when looking for work.” 

One of the most popular lecturers since the course was first offered in 2003 has been a lawyer with Stein, Ray and Harris, a Chicago firm specializing in contract law and construction litigation.

“He talks about what are the responsibilities of architects, engineers and contractors, what a contract should look like, and what to do when something goes wrong,” Aminmansour said. “He also shows students actual, blind cases.”

The guest lawyer is amazed by the students’ interest, he added. “He’s asked me, ‘Why would they want to sit around and listen to a lawyer talk for three hours – with no PowerPoint (presentation)?’ ” Aminmansour said.

“But after his first presentation, one student came up to me and said, “I want to double-major in law.’ ”

The U. of I. professor said it’s not uncommon for an architecture school to incorporate occasional visits by professionals into the curricula, “but to have people of this caliber every week, that’s unusual. I’m not aware of any place else with a course with this level of depth and breadth. It’s a unique course in the sense of the quality of the speakers and their level of expertise.

“These are people who have changed skylines all over the world,” Aminmansour said.

Many of the visiting lecturers are from companies that are part of the Chicago High Rise Committee, which Aminmansour describes as “some of the very best people in building design and construction – an elite group.”

“Companies such as SOM, have designed some of the most significant buildings in the world. It’s more than just a regional thing – Chicago is a world center for architecture and engineering,” he said.

Just getting people with such cachet to agree to travel to the campus to share their knowledge with architects-in-training is one thing. But the cupola on the curriculum-building is that the guest lecturers’ participation is completely voluntary, Aminmansour said.

“The benefits in terms of innovative and technical knowledge-sharing are invaluable, but there’s also the financial (bonus). It’s like getting a $400,000 grant each year. If we were to pay for it, we couldn’t do it. We are very fortunate.”