Finding Your "Original"-School of Architecture - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, March 18, 2013

Finding Your "Original"

The Sketchbook Project is Helping Freshman Hold On to Their Original Inspiration to be an Architect


March 18, 2013 -- In Fall 2012, the School of Architecture elected to create a new faculty position, Shop Liaison, who would work closely with the current Shop Director and expert craftsman, Scott Smith. The Shop Liaison position was designed to compliment the work that Smith does directly in the shop by providing advise and encouragement with shop projects in studio. August of 2012, Jim O’Toole was selected to be the first Shop Liaison; he currently holds the position this Spring semester.


When O’Toole and Smith first sought out to devise shop projects for the 2012 freshman class’s first semester, O’Toole reflected upon his own educational experiences while an architecture undergraduate. O’Toole decided to have one of the shop projects be The Sketchbook Project, a creative, self-reflective process that O’Toole had used with his students in other studios he had previously taught.

Sketchbook ExampleThe Sketchbook Project was first conceived when O’Toole was an undergraduate in architecture school and needed a way of rebelling from the norm.Throughout his educational career, O’Toole found his 40+ sketchbooks to be a medium to express architecture and his own identity. Sketching can arguably be the number one way that architects can communicate, so O’Toole made it his goal to use sketching and original expression to "ignite quick thoughts in the students to excel the shop projects".

The goal of the project was to take a sketchbook that the student used to document their shop project process and manipulate it in their own personal way. Many students took different approaches to the way they altered their sketchbooks. Some started without thinking, and others devised a plan that was continually changing throughout the process. Either way, The Sketchbook Project immediately intrigued several freshmen, including Gary Li and Ana Mernik.

Gary Li liked that the project was individual, fun, and inspiring, while Mernik found it a nice change from what they were doing in studio. Li states, "The sketchbook was meant to show what makes you passionate about architecture and drawing". When O'Toole first meets his students, he asks to see the portfolio they used to get into Carnegie Mellon, since these portfolios immediately demonstrate the passion each student has to pursue architecture. O’Toole describes these portfolios as un-inhibited, non-preconceived, amazing representations of each of their “originals”. A students’ original is the source of their inspiration, and when students lose sight of their original, it can cause a hard road for the next 4.5 years. O’Toole states, “Our admissions panel of faculty must really interpret “see” how this submission portfolio and essay of work can potentially grow them into wonderful creative original architects”.

Since architecture encompasses such a broad range of subjects, from sociology to structures, it is hard for students to find their way, especially when studio is nothing like any class they have had before. However, Carnegie Mellon is fortunate enough to have professors like O’Toole who make it their business to help students learn what it takes to be a great architect and still hold on to their original. “Jim O’Toole is known to solve the unsolvable”, Ana Mernik states. “He makes connections you don’t necessarily see, and little by little you start to believe in yourself.”

Though architectural education is partly teaching what is architecture, it should also be about how architecture moves you.  At a time when the definition of architecture is ever shifting, professors and students have to work even harder to reach a strong level of communication so that the knowledge of professors can reach students without altering who the students want to be. O’Toole states, "Our job as faculty is to not discourage them to be "wrong or right" but discover the master key to there original".

View current and past student work through our online gallery > Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture Gallery