Zach Cooperband sat cross-legged and hunched over, chiseling intently at a plaster block in the 97-degree heat.
He spoke without hurry, describing his work in phrases outside the typical student lexicon.
“We’re working with blocks in a subtractive manner,” he said, holding the plaster steady with a dust-covered hand.
Cooperband, an architectural engineering freshman, said the exercise is part of a larger series, where students learn to experiment with forms and three-dimensional shapes.
“We try to invoke different feelings through form,” Cooperband said.
Cooperband explained different kinds of lines — just like different kinds of colors — create an emotional response.
“A jagged line, that’d be more stressed out,” he said.
Cooperband’s project, and others like it, are a hallmark of Cal Poly’s architecture department. Students often see them as they walk around campus: strange-looking structures attached to the architecture building, or constructs in Poly Canyon that look more like sculpture than something people could inhabit. These projects, though they may seem abstract, are part of easing architecture students into looking at larger and more complex sites, architecture lecturer Jermaine Washington said.
“You have to crawl before you can walk,” Washington said. “It’s a building-block process.”
Architecture freshmen go through a foundational studio series, where they learn how to understand and analyze a site. Washington described a site by comparing it to an artist’s canvas — it could be as small as a space under the stairs or up to a large plot of land, Washington said.
Architecture students are asked to consider “a conglomeration of sensibilities about the site,” Washington said.
This conglomeration could include things a layman might never think to consider, such as the smells in a site, Washington said. But architecture students also use a trained eye to consider fundamentals, such as the way light and wind affect a site throughout the day.
This sensory information can tell a student how a structure will be positioned on the site. For example, the wind on a site has a large effect on ventilation, Washington said.
Students have to start small before progressing to larger sites.
One of the best examples of this process is the paraSITE project, Washington said. Students are given a space on the architecture building, and asked to build something on their space.
Students are asked to study their site and find something unique about it. They then have to use their structure to enhance that trait.
Washington recalled one group of students, who found that airflow was important to their site. They hung a series of fishing lines and bells, with chimes that could be heard as they were moved by the wind.
Even before he worked on the paraSITE project, Cooperband remembers another building-block project, which he found particularly unusual. Students were asked to cut pages out of a book to create a hollow space, and then to attach new elements to the book. This project was designed to ease students into the paraSITE project.
“I had an arm that came into the side of the book, and then went away over, and then shot back,” Cooperband said. “The intent was to represent motion, like the pages turning. I had the arm going in the direction of the pages.”
Cooperband isn’t the only architecture student who has had some trouble wrapping his mind around an assignment. Washington said the abstract nature of their work is challenging for freshmen.
“It’s really a challenge for them, they’re used to a world with right and wrong answers,” Washington said.
When students are given projects that don’t have one right answer, “that kind of explodes their head,” Washington said.
The work architecture students do in their first year is often less focused on an end result and more about the process students go through, Washington said. Understanding their thought process helps students down the road.
But though the architecture department has a reputation for the abstract, Cal Poly’s ever-present practical approach to education sets the program apart, according to architecture senior Amy Wilson.
She considered attending University of California, Berkeley’s architecture program, but ultimately chose Cal Poly because of the engineering classes and practical education that Cal Poly offered, versus Berkeley’s greater emphasis on art and theory.
“That’s why we’re No. 1,” Wilson said.
Cooperband and the rest of his classmates had to work outside on that hot day because of the mess made by their plaster. As an architectural engineer, Cooperband won’t spend as much time working on artistic projects like these after finishing his studio series.
“As an architectural engineer, I’d say I’m not so much into the artsy side, like creative expression,” Cooperband said. “I’m more into the analysis. But I do enjoy this designing.”
Cooperband had to look into his past to remember a time when he had last been asked to work artistically in such a hands on way: elementary school arts and crafts.
“This is basically like arts and crafts,” he said, “but with an intent to learn basic properties and expand your architecture skills.”