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Beyond the Classroom / featured

Collaborative Experiences Foster New Design Ideas

Atyeh Ashtari

Landscape architecture aspires to be interdisciplinary. It recognizes that the design challenges of the 21st century can only be solved through collaborations with others in different fields.

All too often, however, students do not venture outside their majors. They stay safe within the walls of the classroom. This is a story of landscape architecture students who moved beyond the classroom and joined with students across campus.

It started with an invitation from the University Chancellor: would the College of Fine and Applied Arts host a design competition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the University of Illinois?

Landscape Architecture Professor Jessica Henson and graduate student teaching assistant Atyeh Ashtari were tasked with organizing the competition. They would bring students together from across campus to create designs honoring the University’s distinguished past, celebrating the present, and envisioning the future.

Jessica and Atyeh worked with other professors to develop an 8-week design challenge. Students would form interdisciplinary teams, with students from at least two different majors on each team. The design requirements would be open-ended. Students could decide what aspect of university life or culture they wanted to celebrate, and they could choose any medium for their design: a landscape, a structure, a mobile app, a game.

Since many students would not have a design background, professors provided a few lectures, a crash course in design. Students shared their design ideas each week, and Jessica and Atyeh gave feedback on their designs. At the end of the 8 weeks, the students’ designs were presented to a jury of distinguished professionals from around the U.S.

The competition presented several challenges for Atyeh and the students she coached. How do you explain design concepts to students with no design background?

“Critiquing these designs was very different than what I was used to,” Atyeh explained. “I had to listen to their idea of what design was before explaining my ideas to them. I had to find ways of guiding them without controlling their ideas too much. Non-design majors tended to approach the challenge by defining the problem. Design majors explored the philosophy behind the project.”

Sometimes, the design process was frustrating, especially for those without a design background. “The design majors know that designing can be a really dark process. Trying to figure it all out can be very difficult and energy consuming. Students with a design background know they will eventually get out of the dark zone. But it can be hard for others when they are asked to revise their designs.”

On competition day, Atyeh was amazed at the quality of the work her students produced. The designs varied widely, and it was clear that the collaborations had led to some innovative thinking and designs.

One group made up of landscape architecture, architecture, and electrical engineering students created a design for an ascending walkway on the South Quad that complemented the buildings adjacent to it. The walkway had sensory features that would react when you touched them. Facts about past University of Illinois achievements were engraved along the walkway.

Atyeh found great value in the intense collaborative experience she helped foster. “By opening yourself to ideas from different majors, you can incorporate those values into your design. For example, we all say we want our designs to be sustainable, but different majors define and practice sustainability differently. By listening to how others define sustainability, we can incorporate the best of these ideas into our designs.”

Atyeh herself is frequently at the boundaries between disciplines. In 2016, she received a traveling fellowship to be the only Landscape Architecture student on an Engineers Without Borders irrigation project in Ecuador. Because of this experience, she decided that she needed more knowledge from other disciplines. Although she recently graduated with an MLA degree, she is currently pursuing a Master’s in Urban Planning. She plans to combine her landscape architecture and urban planning knowledge to address the design challenges of the 21st Century.

I’m Atyeh Ashtari. I was a teaching assistant for the sesquicentennial design competition. The main focus of that was being an interdisciplinary design project to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the university.

We advertised around the campus and everybody was welcome. We ended up with 18 different majors and nine teams. The criteria for creating a team was that at least two different disciplines should have been in the teams that they were creating – that was the challenge and the beauty of the project.

The way that non-design majors look at a design project is by defining problems; like they are immediately going to guess what the problem is and how to solve it. The way design majors look at it is by looking at the philosophy behind creating a project. Bringing these two things together that contrast really showed itself, but helped the project go further along.

“I participated in the competition and I set up a group of five people to join this competition to make it like an installation design: three students from landscape architecture, one from architecture, and one Ph.D. student from electronic engineering.”

It was an 8-week project, which was relatively short to accomplish this kind of project. By the end of all the critiques, lectures, and discussion about their ideas, we ended up with eight wonderful projects.

“Our project is about bonding to infinity. That is because our university has more than 10,000 international students from 100 countries. Bonding is an important concept at our university. We use this circular wall, but at each elevation, it looks like an infinity symbol. Now, we need to think about how to make this object more interesting or more interactive with the audience. Landscape Architecture plus technology could also introduce more interactive lifestyles.”

From the beginning of the project, we let the students know that we have six critics coming from all over the U.S. to critique their design. So, they knew that this was going to be a huge deal both for them (networking and getting to know people) and for the university.

The quality of the projects was so great that we had two 1st place winners – the judges couldn’t agree on one.

To be able to see a truly interdisciplinary project being practiced in real life, that was what I got out of it. And to be able to lead that process, to hear about all the challenges that these different majors are experiencing and trying to guide them through that challenging process, was what I’m taking away from this.