Learning the art of architecture from alumni
In an industrial room in St. Olaf College’s art center, 12 architecture students groan and cheer over the fate of a marshmallow.
Their assignment is to work as a team to build the largest structure possible out of spaghetti, string, and tape. The catch? It also has had to hold the weight of a marshmallow.
In this atmosphere of camaraderie and friendly competition, music plays and professors join in on the fun, while wins are celebrated and the losses good-naturedly taken as lessons learned. Students learn to build structures — and along the way, they build community. Welcome to Architectural Drawing and Design I.
This year, the Interim course was taught by five alumni: Kurt Gough ’88, Nathan Knutson ’89, Mark Larson ’88, Paul Neseth ’83, and Chris Strom ’95. All are practicing architects who have achieved remarkable success in their field.
Neseth went to graduate school at Harvard University and Strom at the University of California, Berkeley, while Knutson’s firm was the 2012 recipient of the Architecture Firm Award, the highest honor the American Institute of Architects can bestow. The professionals agreed to each oversee four days of instruction this January in a collaborative effort to keep architecture thriving at St. Olaf.
“This course was critical to a significant number of Oles who became architects. It is particular to St. Olaf, and I think we all felt it was something that needed to be continued,” Knutson says.
The course had previously been led by Steve Edwins ’65, who taught architectural drawing and design at St. Olaf for more than 25 years. His architecture firm, SMSQ, led the 2007 redesign of Boe Chapel. Edwins retired in 2012 and passed away in December 2014.
This year’s instructors are determined that his legacy and the legacy of architecture at St. Olaf live on. The five men agreed to work together to build a curriculum at their alma mater after Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History Wendell Arneson reached out to them about continuing the course.
The class they put together is rigorous, requiring students to meet for six hours a day and keep up with a deluge of assignments, including simulations of redesigning the offices in Skoglund Athletic Center, remodeling the demolished French House, and a design-build project. The students aren’t complaining, though.
“Honestly, this class really solidified my future in architecture. Any doubts that I had about a career in architecture were greatly diminished or completely erased. It is one of the best classes I have ever taken, and I’m sure I’ll look back on it as a pivotal moment in my architecture career,” says Joe Kyle ’18.
The instructors worked together to make the course as cohesive as possible, while each bringing a different emphasis to the table.
“We inherently bring different experiences and points of view about the profession, but hope to integrate these for the students into a well-rounded introduction to the field,” Larson says.
Students say that approach was invaluable.
“Yes, they’re all architects — but each of them has an interest in a specific aspect of architecture, which allows for multiple perspectives and insights into the course and makes the classes engaging. They managed to put the schedule together in a way that made it feel very smooth even though we had a different professor almost every day,” Nouf AL-Masrafi ’19 says.
The liberal arts advantage
Re-entering the world of St. Olaf education has “brought back great memories of our own St. Olaf architecture instructors — Mac Gimse, Steve Edwins, and Ed Sovik,” Larson says. Arneson and Gimse have stopped by the course this January, watching their former students teach and offering opinions and insights to the newest generation of students.
“I wrote a lot of recommendations for that bunch,” Gimse says. “Their pool of knowledge of their profession and their mastery of their craft is so important for current Oles to witness. This course is the real thing.”
All of the instructors feel the liberal arts education of St. Olaf prepared them for their outstanding success in their field. While Strom and Neseth were art majors and Gough double majored in art and theater, Larson majored in economics and Knutson in philosophy.
“All of us took design classes in the Art Department to prepare for further study in architecture, but it was really the total liberal arts education that paved the way for us,” says Strom. “Architects need to be generalists, meaning we need to know a little bit about a whole lot of things, depending on the project.”
Neseth agrees, adding that the St. Olaf emphasis on vocation and engagement was instrumental in shaping his career.
“I think the St. Olaf education, while not providing much related to the technical aspects of architecture, instills a sense that our work should be meaningful,” he says. “I acquired most of my skills elsewhere, but it’s the St. Olaf sense of purpose that makes me look for ways to do ‘A’ architecture for those who don’t ordinarily receive the services of an architect.”
The team has been active in the St. Olaf community before — all five were guest architects for this course in past years. In addition, Strom led the design team on St. Olaf’s Tostrud Center in 2002, while Larson was one of the architects that worked on the 2001 renovation of the Center for Art and Dance and Gough’s sculpture hangs in the lobby of Kelsey Theater. Now the students will add to that legacy with the wooden structure they built in the Center for Art and Dance first floor stairwell next to the Link. Passing on the torch is important to the instructors.
“Working with students is one of the most optimistic things I can imagine doing,” says Neseth.
Regardless of the fate of marshmallows and spaghetti towers, it is clear this community and its passion for education and engagement will stand the test of time.