UC Berkeley (Nick)



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    the Berkeley Guide pt. 2

    Nick Sowers
    Nov 6, '08 3:10 AM EST

    Part 2: The danger that entails in a year at Berkeley.


    I figure it's somewhat late in the game to be enticing malleable minds to consider Berkeley as a place to apply, but maybe there are some of you out there. Or maybe you are fortunate to still have a job, but are wondering if next year is the time to go, and if Berkeley is the place for you. Or, you were thinking about applying until you read this post. It's all fair game, I say.

    I've thought about how to give advice and actually instead of trying to put together a bullet-point list of what you should and shouldn't do, what sort of student Berkeley likes and does not like, I'd rather just talk about my experience, and the experience of some of my friends, and leave it at that.

    After all, I didn't even consider Berkeley until a professor of mine from USC said I should take a look. I had assumed that with my 5 yr B.Arch from the West coast, I should expand my horizons by going for a post-professional degree on the East coast. But after digging through Berkeley's website, I found a number of faculty that I thought I'd like to work with, and explained how my ideas fit in with theirs in the personal statement. --n.b., spend a lot of time on this statement and be sure to customize it to how you think you will fit in here. It's absolutely critical that you establish yourself as an individual with a clear set of goals and interests. (these of course, can be very broad, and no, you don't have to pretend to be "sustainable"--after all, I'm now looking at machines of war and death)

    The point is, I don't think there's an ideal type of student for Berkeley, so don't bother trying to figure it out. This is going to sound campy, but just be yourself, write selfishly and lavishly about why your interests are so important, and you'll be good.

    Last fall I took a studio with Nicholas de Monchaux, a seminar on Louis Kahn with Susan Ubbelohde, and a seminar on landscape urbanism with Rene Davids. It was an incredible semester for me. The beginning felt like 1st year of undergrad in the sense that I was looking at things with fresh eyes, and learning new languages--the language of mapping, for one. We were reading Corner, de Certeau, Stalker, the Situationists, etc. The work of the studio and some discussions can be found here: Digital Atmospheres blog.


    Mapping as a generative tool both for understanding the city and for proposing a specific intervention where the sites were quite varied and dispersed was a unique challenge. We learned GIS and really adopted some ways of thinking that are not typical in architecture schools--that we can think more systemically about design.


    My proposal was to bring chickens into the city, consuming the waste resources in San Francisco's produce district, and also providing for cheap housing beneath a plenum of composting chicken poo. The heat from the compost pile would provide hot water for the residents, who in turn would produce scraps for the chickens. The "chicken city" would eventually colonize rooftops and plant them with all of the compost that is produced.

    The design depended upon the mapping tools in order to parametrically locate other sites in San Francisco where the chicken/student symbiosis could flourish.


    I loved working on this project, and I was kind of amazed at how quickly it materialized after months of process, investigation, banging head on desk, etc.

    The semester was also incredibly difficult: married life and grad school do not mix. But that's another story...

    The spring was very different from the fall. For one, the studios become more horizontal, meaning that you are with the students that you will finish your thesis year with, whereas the fall mixes thesis prep-level students with those who have only done two semesters of design as well as new option 1 and 2 students who have a wide set of skills. I found that the spring was truly the time to forge an identity with your class.

    The spring also exposed for me what are at the same time the biggest strengths and weaknesses of the program. On the one hand, I got one of the coveted positions to teach 11B, the first real design studio for undergrads where you get your own section of students and teach design! That was definitely the best part of the semester. Teaching, however, forced many sacrifices, as did the need to keep up with demanding seminar work (I did a seminar on digital modeling tools for heat/energy design, and another one on housing). My studio project was largely undeveloped, though I did really enjoy the work. But I was up past 2 am at least three nights of the week and waking up by 8am every single day, either to teach or for class.

    So a big weakness: there are so many things vying for your attention and energy at Berkeley that you find yourself dropping the design project from time to time--you had better be focused because Berkeley is not going to help you there.

    Some images of my spring project:





    Voila, it's almost midnight and I still have a chunk of Roland Barthes to read, and a thesis statement to revise.

    Obama rules. Prop 8 drools.


    • alucidwake

      your work from the mapping studio is amazing. i can only hope to eventually learn mapping (somehow) and be able to design with it the way you did.

      the images from your spring semester project are pretty beautiful as well, the bottom most one being my favorite.

      do you know paz? she left rpi for uc berkley a year or two ago

      Nov 6, 08 3:37 am  · 

      Very Nice work...

      Nov 6, 08 10:19 am  · 

      Love those last few images.
      have fun with Barthes...

      Nov 7, 08 7:10 am  · 

      yeah Barthes after midnight, no-man's land if there ever was such a thing.

      thanks for the comments!

      alucid: haven't worked with Paz, but I hear she's doing some interesting research.

      Nov 7, 08 12:31 pm  · 

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