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kcsBy Dr. Karen Cordes Spence

Whether or not we are conscious of the architecture we inhabit, it affects our lives every day. The quality of light in a room or its relation to nature can set our moods, our porches and sidewalks contribute to the life of our neighborhoods, and the proximity of stores, schools and parks establish communities. Unquestionably, the role that the built environment plays in how the world is perceived makes design a critical part of our lives. Such ideas are at the forefront of our discussions at Drury’s Hammons School of Architecture (HSA), illustrating one of the many ways our program is so distinctive.

While the vast majority of architecture schools focus on subjects ranging from composition to technologies, HSA combines them with the diversity of studies offered at Drury. The approach capitalizes on a breadth of knowledge to create graduates who think beyond mere building. For me, the most exciting aspect is seeing our students learn to conceive and create designs that are inclusive, innovative and meaningful.

Inclusion and innovation is celebrated at HSA in projects such as proposing a museum at the site of the WWII Japanese American Internment Camp in Rohwer, Arkansas; exploring the role of the built environment in the spread of diseases such as Ebola; and investigating high-rise structures powered by alternative energies. The Center for Community Studies immerses students in yet another type of experience as student teams collaborate with communities to develop better towns and cities. All of these projects, and more, employ design as a way to solve complex problems that face society.

Drury’s liberal arts foundation connects this creativity to meaning. Building gardens for those who have experienced natural disasters or proposing interventions for the Israeli-Palestinian border are some recent studio explorations that involve thoughtful reflection and empathy. Compassion spills over into thesis projects such as examining the design of prisons to lower rates of recidivism or planning support centers for young women in Malawi. These endeavors have been developed with the aid of faculty across the university, from Dr. Erin Kenny’s anthropological insights to Dr. Jennifer Silva Brown’s psychological work with disaster survivors.

Often, such collegiate projects are brushed off as idealistic and impractical after graduation—yet our students and graduates don’t put this work aside. Beyond our AIAS Chapter that has spearheaded fundraising efforts for organizations such as Springfield teen homeless shelter Rare Breed and our alumni who routinely serve organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, I am constantly hearing about the ways in which an education at Drury leads to career decisions and activities that make a difference. Perhaps one of the most compelling examples is the work of recent HSA alumni who created “For Burkina,” a humanitarian effort to design and build a school in Burkina Faso. They are leading an all-Drury team of students and graduates who are lending expertise and fundraising abilities to bring education to a country in which only one-third of the population is literate. (See “For Burkina” on Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn.) These types of efforts are proof that HSA is more than a typical architecture school and Drury is more than just another university.

The opportunity to learn in a setting that combines the liberal arts and professional programs provides an exceptional education, attracting individuals from all over the world. Many students—even those in the professional schools—earn double majors and minors, capitalizing on this strength and translating it into credentials. In his article on educating architects in a liberal arts setting on page 24, HSA Interim Director Robert Weddle discusses the difference this approach can make. From my view, it is precisely the kind of preparation needed to positively influence the myriad of things that affect us every day.

KAREN CORDES SPENCE IS ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ARCHITECTURE AND ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF HAMMONS SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE.