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Architecture: The discipline that studied abroad before there was study abroad

To borrow a catchphrase frequently found in university mission statements and increasingly used with a sense of urgency across disciplines, now is clearly the time to “think global, act local.” In the case of design professions, both in study and in practice, I would argue that it has perhaps always been “this” time. In fact, the ideas behind “think global, act local” were first described by an urban planner, Sir Patrick Geddes, in his 1915 book, Cities in Evolution. Geddes understood the design of a city as a multi‐layered system – one whose form is intrinsically interdependent with social processes, environmental principles, and larger infrastructures beyond its immediate context. This systemic and holistic thinking may extend across oceans, but is just as relevant an approach when considering a very specific local problem at hand. A design education offers this unique methodology of problem-solving, rooted in parts‐to‐whole relationships.

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India Study Abroad
NYIT students and Prof. Gandhi visiting the architecture of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, India

Studying architecture and design in a large city in the US far exceeds the usual benefits of studying abroad. Of course, the diverse opportunities, the caliber of professionals, and a calendar full of public events, lectures, and panel discussions are enough to lure any international student. More simply, however, and as I often tell my students, merely standing in the middle of a dense urban street different than one’s own is an education in itself.

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Puerto Rico Design-Build Project
NYIT and UPR students discussing strategies for a community beach pavilion in Puerto Rico

At the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), design students are routinely challenged to engage unfamiliar sites and projects both within their own city and abroad. This may range from a simple assignment that diagrams local environmental or construction principles for a specifically built project to summer travel studios in places like Italy, Germany, Spain, and India where students can sketch buildings and their sites firsthand. Students might also find themselves video conferencing and collaborating with students from other universities abroad in focused design workshops or they may participate in designing and building an actual project for a real client in locations as far as Puerto Rico and Africa. Such service engagement work often requires students to deeply understand the local environs through field work, participatory design practices, and community feedback workshops. As a professor of architecture leading many such initiatives at NYIT, I am most pleased when I see my students offering diverse points of view and engaging critically with local professionals. Discussions often center around pressing contemporary issues that have potential to inform solutions locally and also within larger global contexts.

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Puerto Rico Design-Build Project
NYIT and UPR students building a beach pavilion for a community in Puerto Rico

Arguably, given their unique training, design professionals are very well suited for the cross‐disciplinary creative thinking required to take on 21st-century global challenges. If working collaboratively with designers, consultants, and clients across time zones is commonplace in professional practice, it only seems appropriate and valuable that architecture students also engage in research and projects that transcend traditional scopes and boundaries in the course of their studies. The kind of work that architects are taking on, the methodologies they are using for project delivery, and the skills valued in the industry are changing rapidly in the context of an increasingly connected world.  

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Africa Design Design-Build Project
NYIT students studying brick patterns inspired by local hand-woven mats for the design of a community tech education center in Senegal

Visiting a city; a building; an urban space; and moving through it, recording observations, and sketching for analysis – these experiences are invaluable to the study of architecture and its allied design disciplines. There is no amount of study at a desk or a computer that can offer the same education. Their sketchbooks that remain are evidence for a discipline that has motivated its most prominent professionals throughout history to venture into lands foreign to their own. Inspired by these mentors, designers continue to visit and re‐visit canonical built works and also, the unknown vernacular ones that surround them. The result is a collective built environment that has always been and continues to be shaped by both local and external influences, ranging from the aesthetic and historical to the environmental, political, socio‐economical, and cultural. In architecture, travel is part of ongoing research and study for the beginning student and seasoned practitioner, alike – it is, in fact, the discipline whose apprentices were “unofficially” studying abroad long before any such university practices were set in place.

Farzana Gandhi, AIA LEED AP
Chair, Manhattan Architecture Department
Assistant Professor of Architecture New York Institute of Technology
School of Architecture and Design