University of Michigan

Degrees: 3-year MLA, 2-year MLA post prof., PhD | City: Ann Arbor, MI | School: School of Natural Resources and Environment
Date Visited: 09.24.12

Established: 1909
Average Graduate Class Size: 15 – 18 (low 8; high 22)
Average PhD Class Size: 3 – 5
Program Size: 45 – 50
Female to Male Ratio: 70:30
Website: http://www.snre.umich.edu/la

Ever since its inception in 1909, the landscape architecture program at the University of Michigan has steadily built a strong reputation for itself based on research and its emphasis on the ecological sciences; after all, it’s also home to the world’s oldest landscape architecture PhD program.

My overview of the program started with a meeting with Bob Grese, a professor of the program at Nichols Arboretum, where he also serves as Director for the grounds. After our conversation I headed over to the School of Natural Resources and Environment’s Dana Building to take a tour of the studio, where I was pleasantly surprised by not only the studio setup, but the LEED certification and sustainable initiatives of the Dana Building.


Having visited Penn State University’s program just a few weeks ago, it was interesting to compare and contrast that experience with the University of Michigan’s landscape architecture program. The regional differences that take place in landscape architecture departments across the U.S. do well to reflect the nuances of the discipline; it’s a very interesting learning experience. Like before, I’ll break down my findings into sections but first, I want to add that I love the tight-knit community feel that’s undoubtedly encouraged by their studio set-up; they recently had a potluck at Professor Grese’s house too, how fun is that?

Samuel T. Dana Building and Studio Set-Up

Located on the northeast corner of the University of Michigan campus, the first thing I noticed about SNRE’s Samuel T. Dana Building was the amount of construction around the front entrance. Although I initially wrote it off as sidewalk reconstruction, interesting elements soon began to emerge into sight: gabion seating, Michigan wildflower signage, and even a bioswale. I was impressed–particularly when I later found out that this sustainability garden was actually created by a landscape architecture student-initiated design-build project–but it wouldn’t be my last surprise.

Despite its unassuming exterior, the Dana Building is actually a LEED Gold-certified building. Using green practices, its hundred-year old infrastructure was renovated and expanded to include greater classroom and office space. My favorite parts were the educational, often interactive, signage explicating the building’s green retrofit.

The landscape architecture studios are all located on the third floor of the Dana Building. Just like the building, the modest studio exterior belies the interior. The three landscape architecture studio rooms are set up in a row, with the critique room between the first and second-year studios. Though they each have their respective door leading in from the hallway, what makes this studio setup unique is how each studio is connected to one another through a series of doors; if you kept all three connecting doors open at once, you could stand in the first-year studio and see all the way through to the third-year studio. This type of setup makes it easy for students to share resources and to get to know and collaborate with one another.

I also liked how each studio could even be likened to a one-bedroom studio apartment since its inclusive of almost everything students would need: a kitchen area, studio desks, a model-building/wood shop area, couches, communal meeting area, and a small library. And as a veteran of late studio nights, I know how nice it must be to have everything within arm’s reach. I was also impressed by the studio desk setup. Though UMich students don’t have individually supplied computers—they have a shared computer lab in a separate room—each desk has its own drafting table, outlets, and pin-up wall space; there’s no need to compete for outlets or the coveted pin-up wall space.

SASLA

SASLA is UMich’s student landscape architecture organization. Though they don’t sound like they are too involved in sending students to events like LABASH, they are highly collaborative and engaged with one another. For instance, after talking to a second-year, I learned that even though there are plenty of computer program licenses available for students, such as Adobe InDesign and 3DS Max, instruction for these digital programs can be limited. Recognizing this, students under SASLA will arrange digital workshops every so often to share skills and knowledge about these programs.

Professional Practice Opportunities

I really enjoyed hearing about UMich’s professional practice opportunities, which I thought sounded like a particularly strong aspect of the program. Every year, the UMich’s landscape architecture program holds two major events to help students advance into their field: Portfolio Day and the job shadow.

Portfolio Day

Usually once a year, the department will invite landscape architecture professionals to sit down one-on-one with students to critique their portfolios. Sometimes SASLA will also organize a portfolio critique day as well.

Job Shadow

UMich’s job shadow program is a tradition with a reach from San Francisco to New York City and is primarily for 2nd and 3rd year MLA students, however, 1st years with design experience may participate as well. This three to five day job shadowing experience typically takes place during winter or spring break and sometimes during the 2-day fall break after midterms. Previous host firms have included Andropogon, MVVA, and Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects.

Curriculum

The professional practice class is offered in conjunction with architecture students. Here, students not only interact with a series of professionals, but they also learn business management skills, licensing, writing contracts, and legal aspects.

Interdisciplinary Experiences

Years ago, the UMich landscape architecture program was housed in the same building and department as architecture. However, the program has since moved into the School of Natural Resources and Environment out of a faculty decision desiring greater dialogue with the ecological sciences. Since the move, the program’s strong ties with the ecological sciences and design have become one of its defining hallmarks.

Students thus take a number of classes with students from SNRE, such as plant identification and integrated assessment, in which students are able to see a problem with a series of different lenses. In addition, most MLA students undertake an interdisciplinary foci project, a large group master’s thesis where the landscape architecture students works together with students of other fields in a professional team-like environment.

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