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Archi Students Wonder, ‘Is it Worth It?’ As Student Exhibitions Go Virtual

Like art schools, a big part of architecture school is getting real-world experience holding exhibitions. At these school-run shows, architecture students present their years of work and inquiry, often with the promise that critics will give them feedback and firms will take note of their skills. This year, COVID-19 prevented these theses exhibitions from taking place. 

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SCI-Arc’s Undergraduate Thesis Weekend, for outgoing students of the five-year B.Arch curriculum, is an exhibition that takes place in an exhibition space on the Arts District school’s campus. This year, the exhibition was moved online to various livestream and static platforms. 

For some, like B.Arch outgoing student Nancy Ai, whose project Mama Mat re-envisioned the experience of a maternity ward, they felt like they missed out on some of the important interpersonal experiences that Thesis Weekend usually provides, but that there were some benefits of having the weekend online.

“The traditional values of having face to face interaction with the jurors and actually touching models and pointing on drawings —  that whole performance of the thesis — unfortunately wasn't there, and it's a bit disappointing to say the least,” said Ai over the phone a few weeks after presenting her thesis. “The thing that was good about online was that we streamed through Twitch, so more people were able to see it and access it without needing to fly somewhere. So in that way, it was more accessible to the public, which I think architecture lacks because it's usually really exclusive.” 

But ultimately, Ai felt that the online presentation fell flat. Models, she explains, are a big part of the experience, and she had already planned out and designed her 3-foot by 3-foot model, and purchased materials, when the faculty had a meeting and decided COVID-19 would make it impossible to give the students the resources to build their models. 

Click through below to see work from this year's virtual UCLA Architecture and Urban Design annual RUMBLE thesis show.

Yushan Men, A Forest in the City: Mass Timber Infill Urbanism with Neil Denari | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Yushan Men, A Forest in the City: Mass Timber Infill Urbanism with Neil Denari | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Battery City by Ali Hakami, Dipinti Kapoor, and Zhishan Liu, IDEAS Technology Studio with Guvenc Ozel and Benjamin Ennemoser | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Battery City by Ali Hakami, Dipinti Kapoor, and Zhishan Liu, IDEAS Technology Studio with Guvenc Ozel and Benjamin Ennemoser | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Christina Rodriguez and Phoebe Webster, Terminal Terrain with Narineh Mirzaeian | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Christina Rodriguez and Phoebe Webster, Terminal Terrain with Narineh Mirzaeian | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Jacob Sertich, Workhouse III: Latent Futures with Hitoshi Abe | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Jacob Sertich, Workhouse III: Latent Futures with Hitoshi Abe | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Alden Kramer, Andrew Frastaci, Michael Stroud, and Eunice Han, Image Beyond Facts: An Architectural Survey and its Momentous Outcomes with Georgina Huljich | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Alden Kramer, Andrew Frastaci, Michael Stroud, and Eunice Han, Image Beyond Facts: An Architectural Survey and its Momentous Outcomes with Georgina Huljich | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Xinran Ge, Chinmayi Suri, and Xue Zhao, IDEAS Urban Strategy Studio with Jeffrey Inaba, Gillian Shaffer, and David Jimenez Iniesta | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Xinran Ge, Chinmayi Suri, and Xue Zhao, IDEAS Urban Strategy Studio with Jeffrey Inaba, Gillian Shaffer, and David Jimenez Iniesta | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design

“But, it was really disappointing and it was such a lack of a finale,” Ai said. “I was talking to my friend after the thesis happened, and we [said] it was just blank. It didn't feel satisfying. Because it wasn't it didn't feel like it was over.

Similar to SCI-Arc’s Undergraduate Thesis Weekend, the UCLA Architecture and Urban Design’s annual RUMBLE thesis show is typically a raucous affair, where the school transforms the building and invites the public to see the students’ projects over two days. Panel discussions are had, and big names in architecture look over the new crop of graduates’ work. This year’s RUMBLE had to move to various online venues — public portions were streamed live on YouTube, and private critiques took place in conference calls over the teleconferencing app Zoom.

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Heather Roberge, chair of the UCLA Architecture and Urban Design department (which is a department in the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture), says that there were definitely frustrations in moving RUMBLE online, namely that the live environment provides a looser, more open stage for students, and that it’s a lot harder to involve the general public via web platforms.

Learning from home with M.Arch. student, Artin Sahakian | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Learning from home with M.Arch. student, Artin Sahakian | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design

“[Final thesis exhibitions are] important because it rehearses the activities of engaging the public with your work,” Roberge said. “Students are introducing strangers to the project that they’re working on, and hearing perspectives from public audiences. RUMBLE is this moment of hearing from people who are constituencies about how they receive and understand the work they produce. One of the sad things about a virtual environment is that that kind of informal feedback and reactions of the public are not so easily accessible.”

But there are ways to spice up the presentations. SCI-Arc took an interesting approach to presenting, building a dedicated website to display the students’ proposals and research. Despite the disappointment, there were some positive byproducts of hosting the event online. For one, SCI-Arc touted 55,000 visitors to its various livestreams. And UCLA was able to print and distribute an exhibition guide that viewers and critics could read along as the students presented their work.

And, Roberge said, every year there are some out-of-town critics who aren’t able to come and offer their challenges to the students’ work, but this year, most could tune in from home.

“We invited about 120 to 130 outside critics who all joined us in various Zoom conference calls where students presented their work, and received feedback from people in Europe, New York, and in Asia,” Roberge said. “We had people everywhere who were participating, which was something unique that we typically can’t do, because we don’t have the budgets to bring in so many people.”

Discussion with Chair Heather Roberge, Associate Professor Michael Osman, Sunil Bald, Karel Klein, John McMorrough and Enrique Walker | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design
Discussion with Chair Heather Roberge, Associate Professor Michael Osman, Sunil Bald, Karel Klein, John McMorrough and Enrique Walker | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design

Though architecture schools are expensive (SCI-Arc tuition is over $46,000 a year, with an additional $26,000 in estimated expenses, which means students often spend nearly $400,000 for their five-year program), and the thesis exhibitions are a big incentive for that, the schools are making their case that this temporary move to online programming is worth it. 

Ai said that the students did form a petition and ask for some refund of their tuition. “But the board never replied,” she said.

We reached out to SCI-Arc’s communications department but did not receive a response.

“During this time of uncertainty, they are just as driven, imaginative, and resilient,” SCI-Arc undergraduate program chair, Tom Wiscombe, said in a statement on SCI-Arc’s website. “Although they've had to deal with the transition to remote learning and personal hardships, they have been able to keep their community intact and continue forward online. It's amazing to watch."

Top Image: Marina Archangeli, Between Architecture: Section and Elevation with Katy Barkan | Courtesy of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design

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