Pennsylvania State University’s landscape architecture department may be one of the oldest landscape architecture programs in the nation, but it’s no stranger to modernization. In 2005, the department moved into a new, LEED Gold-rating facility that it shares with the architecture department, and in 2006–just in time for the celebration of the program’s centennial–revamped their undergraduate curriculum.
I had the opportunity to sit down for an hour with Professors Andrew Cole and Brian Orland to talk about the evolution of the landscape architecture program at Penn State University. There are many aspects about PSU’s program that differ from my own undergraduate experience at the University of Maryland, for instance the open studio layout and the fairly large class sizes; I came from a class of eighteen. I was also taken on a brief tour of the facilities by two students that offered a great chance to see the studios first-hand. An in-person visit is crucial since it’s impossible to condense all the information and people into an introductory pamphlet.
Penn State’s landscape architecture program is a large program with a long history; the department continues to grow and is even dabbling with the idea of offering an online program certificate so that parts of a curriculum can be completed online. I’ve broken down some of the highlights that I’ve gleaned from my visit below.
At first glance, Penn State’s landscape architecture studio set up is really confusing, especially if you come from a more structured studio experience like I do—each landscape architecture studio at Maryland was contained in their respective, four-walled studio room. In the Stuckeman Family Building, however, there are few classrooms and even fewer walls.
Sharing the department space with architecture students, the approximately 240-student landscape architecture program sets up shop in a very open environment, with two-story high ceiling workspaces. Studios are located on the second and fourth floors, each with an open core in the center so that from the fourth floor, you can look all the way down to the second floor studios. A third-floor mezzanine consisting of review and gallery spaces link these two studio floors. The second floor is reserved for lowerclassmen, while the fourth floor is for graduate students and upperclassmen.
Each studio floor consists of rows of large drafting desks, filing cabinets, and shared computer labs. Desk rows are divided into sections, and each section is assigned a studio; assignment is carefully determined so that no two adjacent studios will be in session at the same time, but the sections are divided so that theoretically, a landscape architecture section could be working between two architecture sections.
The key idea here is flexibility and enhanced collaboration. First-year students get to know the third-years; architecture students are able to learn from the work of their landscape architecture peers. About 500 students are enrolled in the architecture and landscape architecture programs at PSU and so adaptive space becomes particularly helpful in accommodating a variety of uses from small seminars to large critique sessions. Larger lecture classes often take place in one of the two amphitheater-style spaces.
The architecture and landscape architecture programs of Penn State are blessed by the financial generosity of the Stuckeman family. There are program-wide hardware upgrades that take place about every two years; multiple computer labs with dual monitors with a separate PC lab and Mac lab; a huge woodshop in the basement; two 3D printers and a laser cutter; dozens of computer stations on the studio floors with at least 32-inch screen monitors; and not only does the school have enough software licenses to satisfy the 500-student pool, but their software licenses cover everything from the entire Adobe suite to SketchUp Pro. It’s all pretty impressive, especially their award-winning interdisciplinary studio that teaches building information model (BIM) technology.
I also like the way that technology is integrated into the curriculum. Brian told me that though certain design programs are included as part of certain courses, students are also expected to take responsibility for their own education through extracurricular lessons. The Digital Beehive, a student and faculty-driven set of digital tutorials, is held throughout the semesters to give students additional opportunities to brush up on their digital toolkit, from ArcGIS to Civil 3D.
LASS – Landscape Architecture Student Society
LASS is PSU’s active landscape architecture student chapter. As soon as I entered the Stuckeman building I saw LASS representatives sitting out in the lobby with a bake sale fundraiser. They also host an annual barbeque to welcome in the new school year.
And though LABASH is a big part of what LASS fundraises for, it’s not the only focus of their fundraisers. They’ve been known to help raise money to send people to ASLA, fund scholarships, the Fall Festival, and to raise funds for their annual banquet.
Mandatory Study Abroad
The mandatory study abroad first piqued my interest in Penn State’s program.
Most PSU students travel during their fourth year, with the majority going abroad to Bonn, Germany. Though other study abroad programs exist, such as one to New Zealand and Australia, PSU’s relationship with Bonn is the strongest; the PSU faculty has more control over the study abroad curriculum at Bonn. Students may also make a case to attend other universities as well.
Brian Orland explained that the 2006 revamp of the curriculum was a way to consolidate the professional curriculum into the first three years so that the fourth and fifth years of the program could focus more on research through “depth” studios. Since many of the fourth years are gone on their mandatory study abroad, the remaining fourth-years, fifth-years, and graduate students are grouped together into “depth” studios that are operated “like a professional office in terms of skill breakout.”
Each undergraduate studio is themed as follows:
First-year: Basics of Design
Second-year (1): Small Site Design
Second-year (2): Small Campus and Parks
Third-year (1): Regional Design
Third-year (2): Community Design
Fourth and Fifth-years: Depth Studios
Taking advantage of its surrounding open land, the PSU’s landscape architecture program delves heavily into field work and field trips. In addition to practicing brick laying in the materials class and plant identification, there is also a weekly seminar held in second-year, where students travel through and document landscapes. Though students no longer go camping as part of the course due to liability reasons, the program hosts a week-long tour of Pennsylvanian landscapes.
I liked how landscape architecture theory was introduced early on in the program, starting with first-years. Theory is then carried throughout each of the five years in studio courses. From first-year to third-year, students take a discussion seminar in addition to their main studio course to balance practice with theory. Though how each seminar is run is up to the professor, each seminar usually consists of several readings and occasional quizzes or writing assignments.
Since studio class sizes are so large, each course is often assigned multiple instructors in an effort to reach a 1 to 12 teacher to student ratio. These break out seminar sessions help to bring down the scale of the studio class as well.