Architecture: A Hallmark of Experiential Learning at Athenian

Just past the small airplane under construction on the left as you enter Athenian’s Carter Innovation Studio (CIS), it’s nearly impossible to miss the rows of intricate architectural models that line the shelves on the far side of the room. From urban analyses to project proposals and the creation of these imaginative models, Athenian’s architecture program is a hallmark of the school’s noted emphasis on experiential learning, with innovation at its core.  

“There is always this idea of invention in the end,” says architecture teacher Monica Tiulescu. “The way the class is evaluated is based on understanding that the students are developing a process and a method, and innovation is the goal,” she says. 

The Oakland-based artist, who currently has work on display at the deYoung, holds a B.S. in Architecture from Cooper Union, an M.S. in Architecture from Columbia and a CTE in Architecture and Media Arts from UC Berkeley. Before coming to Athenian in 2016, she taught at the college and graduate level for 17 years, and her classes reflect that rigor. In a unique program that makes use of the schools’ idyllic studio space, she teaches Introduction to Architecture, Advanced Architecture, and Architecture Theory. Monica also teaches 3D art and Digital Art. 

The Cycle of Design 

With loyal students returning to retake her class after completing a year of her introductory and advanced classes, Monica treats her students like young professionals who are creating a product for a client. Her classes emphasize innovation, organizing information, and understanding of the principles and process of architectural design, with students learning practical skills such as drafting and modeling along the way. Structural feasibility matters, but creativity reigns as students learn to think about the cycle of design from idea to completion, with an acute awareness of the social, cultural, demographic, and geographic contexts of their work. Students change hats throughout the process, learning to approach the project as politicians, business owners, or other members of society.  

“I run it like a design office, where they are able to engage at every stage of the process,” she says.

Distance learning 

Her architecture classes lend themselves to working in person, but Monica and her students adapted to an online environment during distance learning. Students have been learning SketchUp and 3D Models at a distance, and have been working individually on projects that are typically collaborative. 

“Starting a project online is always a little bit harder,” she says. 

But with Athenian’s hybrid schedule, things are getting back to normal. Now onsite half-time with an alternating-week schedule, those who are learning in person are again benefiting from Monica’s expressive, hands-on teaching style. 

Monica’s classes make use of many of the tools in the CIS to produce their models. While many projects are made with small, portable tools, particularly this year, in the studio they have used the bandsaw, the table saw, the laser printer, and occasionally the 3D printers.

Architecture Within a Social Context

Monica teaches architecture in the context of the world in which the building will be received. She considers the social construct of the city, its history, politics and other dynamics that can be used to better understand the types of architecture that we use. 

The idea of the client is central to the class, with students building empathy toward that person or group. This year’s cohort has started a research-based urban analysis, and is now designing and drafting floor plans for a 40,000 square-foot library focused on antiracism. In both its informational content and its architecture, students are exploring how to build a space where racism cannot exist systematically. 

Future projects will have a similar sense of social justice. The class plans to build a tiny house, where they will be fully engaging with all the tools in the CIS. From engineering to electricity and plumbing, this will be a major project requiring outside help. Before the pandemic they had been planning to build tiny houses together, and they are hoping to revisit this project in small groups. Monica hopes for each finished home to be fully functioning and to eventually donate homes to those in need. 

Monica encourages students to bring in their interests as they work on their projects. One student, for example, is focusing on hip-hop music, which informs his design choices. 

“I try to tap into personal narratives to drive a project,” she says.

Students stay with Monica, many taking a full year of architecture and an extra semester of theory, and even repeating classes to continue their work with her. 

After two years in Monica’s class, including introductory, advanced, and theoretical classes, Odiso O. ‘20 is using theoretical concepts in her work in the way she organizes a project, analyzes a city and creates architecture. 

“What I most enjoy about architecture at Athenian is that the courses are conceptually innovative. Students are pushed to see architecture as more than just designing buildings and become deep thinkers throughout the entire process,” Odiso says.

Chad M. ‘22 has had one year of architecture and has strong analytical skills, and shows a sophistication in organizing space.

“I enjoy studying architecture at Athenian because it allows me to express and explore my creativity in a way that I was never able to before.” Chad says. “My instructor Monica is a joy to work with, as her enthusiastic passion for architecture really brings the class to life.”