Budding architects imagine a campus
for a bigger Norwich University © June 8, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

Students in a conceptual architecture course built a model of the Norwich University campus before figuring out how they might change it.

photo by Jordan Silverman, staffStudents in a conceptual architecture course built a model of the Norwich University campus before figuring out how they might change it to accommodate a larger student body.

As course curriculums go, it was beyond ambitious.

Take a 1,200-acre university campus, more than 60 buildings and 2,100 students, add a historic quad and armory, five athletic fields, a floodplain and a mountain. Toss in 193 years of college tradition plus technology and societal trends reshaping the academic world.

Then re-imagine it all in one semester.

That’s what 12 Norwich University architecture students signed up for in “Norwich 20/20,” a spring offering with a goal of envisioning the University as it approaches the 200th anniversary in 2019.

By stepping outside of the box, we see it really helping the school.

Sarah Mancuso,
architecture student

“It kind of started out a little daunting, but we like the challenge, and like to be engaged in something we see every day,” said Sarah Mancuso, a senior and architecture major from Peru, N.Y.

With an insider’s perspective on how the campus is used, she and classmates were in an ideal position to rethink Norwich’s buildings and landscape. “We were definitely no-holds-barred. We were going to press the envelope,” she said. “By stepping outside of the box, we see it really helping the school.”

The course emerged from a casual conversation between Norwich University President Richard Schneider and Dean Aron Temkin of the School of Architecture + Art. Professors Bryan Burke and Beverly Eichenlaub—both architects—eagerly cooked up a semester with a real-world structure: Imagine the University is your client and wants to expand to 3,000 students. How would you do it? What needs to change, expand and be rebuilt?

“I’d never worked on campus planning. I felt it was a really good opportunity to study something I hadn’t studied before,” said Lealoni Coathup-Wilmott, a 21-year-old junior from Irasburg, Vt. “I also thought maybe I could have an influence on the campus.”

For Syracuse, N.Y., senior Chris Berkley-Hitt, the course meant a chance to think big after designing many smaller buildings. “I've never really considered such a large area and how to approach it,” he said.

The course met during weekly “design studio” sessions that threw students into an intense maze of exploration. “We urged them to engage the future and uncertainty wholeheartedly, and be as creative as they can be,” Burke said.

Many found inspiration in noted Canadian scholar and designer Bruce Mau, who spoke at the University’s Todd Lecture Series in early February. He urged students to “question everything,” as Coathup-Wilmott put it.

The students did just that, examining everything that impacts academic life from housing, parking and open-space needs to societal trends in education and fitness, classroom use and online learning. They identified inviolate, “sacred spaces” important to students because of tradition—such as the Upper Parade Ground used by cadets—or because they comprise key visual landmarks or social spaces.

“It was overwhelming at first because of the amount of information you had to get and understand,” said Coathup-Wilmott.

The class spent a month building a 6- by 8-foot topographic model of the entire campus, which provided a critical visual foundation. Gradually, ideas started to coalesce and they broke into three-person teams and began to work toward goals.

“Everything really fell into place,” said Coathup-Wilmott, who found the course taught her how to break down a huge task into manageable parts and work in a team. “I feel really confident after this project.”

Ideas ran the gamut from rearranging the main campus access points and roads to parking garages, new admission and academic buildings, outdoor gathering spaces, student centers and dining halls. Many ideas were eye-openers. Katrina Aucoin radically rethought Norwich’s dormitory life.

“We know the civilian and Corps [of Cadets] housing needs are completely different,” she explained, noting the cadets tend to be younger and lead a more regimented military lifestyle. Aucoin envisioned three civilian “housing nodes” away from the campus center, designed somewhat like townhouses with suites of varying sizes. At an end-of-semester critique session before visiting building and landscape architects, the idea won praise for its unconventional idea of building dorms across the main highway that borders campus.

“You always have to balance what the client is looking for versus taking them somewhere they could never have imagined,” said Burke, suggesting it is a dynamic students will confront often in their careers.

The toughest test came in April when students presented their ideas to President Schneider and his cabinet.

“My hands were shaking,” admitted Berkley-Hitt, who plans to return for a fifth year to earn his Master of Architecture degree. “It was quite intense. But it felt like a great opportunity and privilege to present our ideas and work to the people who run the school.”

Mancuso called her presentation “scary” but exciting because administration was genuinely interested in the ideas. The course was a perfect ending to her college career as she heads off to a new job with an architectural firm.

“I couldn’t honestly compare it to anything. It’s been an amazing experience,” she said.