What happened in my first year at Cornell Architecture School?

It was in the summer of 2015. 

I received one of the most memorable “cold calls” from a student who just finished her first-year program at my alma mater, Cornell Architecture School. The student, Lucy Yu introduced herself and asked if my office was hiring that summer. With work deadlines looming, many phone calls making while trying to find the phone underneath the stack of papers…I was not in the mood to speak about the hiring decisions with anyone…let alone a student.

However, with her easy going and convincing way of suggesting the short coffee meeting made me curious…curious about her, her work, mostly about her experience being the FIRST YEAR student at Cornell Architecture program which I fondly (?) remember as a “military training” when I was a student years ago.

As you can guess by now, that was how Lucy came to work for our office that summer.

This is her story about being a first-year architecture student at Cornell Architecture. – Onah Jung

What I was thinking…fretting in my high school

Unlike many of peers who have grandiose, and frankly, very inspiring stories about how and why they ended up at architecture school, my story hinges upon complete naiveté. 

In high school, I discovered Hanno Rauterberg’s book in which he interviews the most influential starchitects alive today. Maybe it was how they talked about solving intangible problems or the versatility the field commands, or simply their inflated ego, but it was all very inspiring. Unlike what many would think, the book made a convincing argument that good architecture is more than aesthetics. Instead, it is about adding cultural value, bringing together communities, and creating something for the future. 

“I liked this sense of idealism fused with pragmatism, and after a year spent fretting over my terrible SAT scores and a summer putting together a rather eclectic portfolio, I crossed my fingers and mailed my application to Cornell’s School of Architecture“.

“If you want to read the tear jerking, glorified version as to why I chose Cornell, call admissions”

 For the slightly more truthful version, I didn’t know what I was doing, and liked what I read on CollegeConfidential.

My NEW life begins with dragons, no sleep, and many black outfits

Apparently my finger crossing paid off because I left Toronto for Ithaca this past September, ready to design skyscrapers, monuments, museums, you name it. One of the first things I noticed was that within the general Cornell population,

architecture majors (“architects”) were known for 4 things: they were obsessed with dragons, they never, ever slept, they wore a lot of black, and they were always in studio“.

Cornell Architecture Art Planning Logo

The centerpiece of the architectural education is “Studio”, both a class that is mandatory every semester, and a proper noun describing the hallowed plate of Milstein Hall, the home base of all things architecture related. Whether this was drawing plans, sections, and elevations, model making, critiques, or late night debauchery, the open plan of the studio meant that everyone could see and hear what others were doing. For better or worse, there was a sense of camaraderie between all the architects, strengthened by numerous ludicrous and borderline masochistic traditions. Try Googling “Dragon Day”. 

Cornell Dragon Day

As for the academics, the curriculum is largely decided for you as a freshman, but as you go up the pecking order, more and more electives become available. For example, I recently took Studio, History, Structural Concepts, Digital Media, and Computer Science this past semester, with all but the last being required, a huge breadth evident nonetheless. Expecting my first studio assignment to be something along the lines of designing a building, I was instead assigned to research and analyze in detail, the European Mole. Everyone had a different animal; eventually we created “tools” based off our analysis. For the mole, my tool was a digging machine that mimicked the mole. Through a series of iterations and refinements, this served as inspiration for my final – a “place for observation and contemplation”. In a similar way, in second semester studio I studied the characteristics of the whaling station and Le Corbusier’s Villa Baizeau in order to design a family memorial and cemetery. 

I am more than an architecture student

We were trained in CAD, the Adobe favorites, photography, wood and metal shop, and so many more tangible skills, but perhaps more importantly, practical skills like a refined attention to detail, time management, thinking on your feet (read: Creative BS) – skills that are relevant in all aspects of life. 

“And as first year has taught me, architects don’t just do architecture. They’re writers, business people, artists, politicians, negotiators, and thinkers”

The amount of talent I’ve had the privilege of working with and against is something that continues to astound me.  I am constantly inspired by the caliber of work around me, allowing me to improve my own craft. 

Architecture School Rankings for 2020 Put Cornell on Top

Final Thoughts

I don’t know that I want to be an architect in your traditional sense, but I was told recently that there is no architect in your traditional sense. I’m glad because I think I’ve found a passion for all things beautiful, and a calling in architecture school. 

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