Architectural engineering students and visitors examine a large-scale relief map of "the Cal Poly campus of the future" at the 1949 Poly Royal. Architectural engineering students were a precursor to the architecture program, which was founded 50 years ago. | University Archives, California Polytechnic State University.

Suha Saya
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At first, there weren’t many architecture programs on the Central Coast for students to look at.

Cal Poly’s architecture program, starting off in the small town of San Luis Obispo, was nothing compared to urban-based architecture programs, former architecture faculty member Kenneth Schwartz said.

“Normally, architecture programs are all from schools, colleges and universities located in large urban areas,” he said. “We had to work at exposing our students — many of whom had never been to a big city at the time.”

Fifty years ago, six students graduated from the newly implemented five-year program and received bachelor’s of architecture degrees at Cal Poly for the very first time. Just 14 faculty members helped jumpstart the program.

Despite choosing to build a program in a small town, Cal Poly grew to be the top-ranked architecture program in terms of career preparation. Now, the program celebrates its 50th anniversary as an accredited degree program with approximately 700 bachelor’s students.

“We were pioneers in this experience,” Schwartz said. “Fifty years ago was the first time architecture degrees were distinguished from that of architectural engineering degrees.”

According to College of Architecture and Environmental Design (CAED) Dean Christine Theodoropoulos, the national role of architecture influenced Cal Poly’s beginnings.

“At a certain point nationally, architecture programs were becoming more and more formalized, and this goes hand in hand with the accreditation process for architecture that started in the late ’40s,” she said. “It started to ensure that for Cal Poly to continue to contribute to prepare architects, we needed an architecture program that was professionally accredited.”

Prior to 1964, graduates from Cal Poly worked as architects, but graduated with architectural engineering degrees. The program was located in what was then called the division of engineering. The first architectural engineering graduates who worked as architects graduated in 1960.

“We had a great engineering background; it wasn’t all design, because the engineering background was very useful,” interim architecture department head Margot McDonald said. “You could take a Cal Poly student and introduce them to the office in the real world and they’d be good to go … That became our reputation. It grew and grew, and it became one of the largest programs in the country.”

The curriculum back then was significantly different, Theodorpoulos said.

“They had a common core curriculum and studied generally about CAED together, then in students’ later years, they branched out into their majors,” she said. “The major disciplines have now matured and the accreditation standards across all disciplines have become more rigorous.”

The CAED became a “full-fledged” school in 1968. Soon enough, an outgrowth of other degree programs — city and regional planning, construction engineering and landscape architecture — accompanied the architectural engineering program and the architecture program in the early ’70s, McDonald said.

According to the CAED website, approximately one out of 20 architects nationwide are Cal Poly graduates.

“The reason we’ve been ranked No. 1 in the nation is because Cal Poly graduates consistently rank highest in terms of preparation, performance and skills when going into the field,” Theodoropoulos said. “It’s not related to the size of the school, nor the curriculum.”

The DesignIntelligence survey indicated Cal Poly graduates are best prepared for entry-level positions, something Theodoropoulos believes is consistent with Cal Poly’s brand across all disciplines.

“We really prioritize in making sure graduates are well-prepared to enter the career of their choice,” she said. “If you spend a lot of your education making models, prototypes and trying different materials, your ability to think about materials in space and all those things that make up architecture is more refined and practiced … Part of it is how it’s offered here and the Learn By Doing aspect.”

But the digital revolution also influenced a change in architecture, McDonald said.

“The emphasis on digital tools, including fabrication, existed in the main factory industry for probably 25 years,” she said. “Now, it’s more accessible from the cost perspective.”

However, to Theodoropoulos, the main change in technological terms is students teaching students.

“In our current culture, technological tools are cropping up quickly all the time, and students have learned to teach themselves the cutting use of technology,” she said. “There’s a lot of peer-teaching in the studio. It’s kind of contagious.”

As for the future, current dean Theodoropoulos and former dean Paul Neel agree that maintaining the strength of the program is most important.

“We have a very unique method, Learn By Doing,” Neel said. “We understand what’s going on in the world and we’re great contributors to the construction industry. Not only do they become architects, but they do other things, too … They go into other fields related to the building industry, and it’s the second largest in the state behind architecture.”

However, that simple formation of an independent, accredited program is what Theodoropoulos said Cal Poly is truly celebrating.

“As the disciplines became more distinguished, architecture needed to stand on its own,” she said. “And that’s basically what we’re celebrating 50 years of, that birth of an independent, accredited architecture program.”

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