From smallest to largest, first to last, three things attracted third-year architecture student Brendan Wallace to enroll in the spring 2020 interior architecture studio Future Nostalgia: Deeds, Breeds, and Otherworldly Ruins.
First was the name.
Second was the professor: Rana Abudayyeh, recognized nationally for her imaginative approach to teaching and research, whose work has included redesigns of refugee settlements in Jordan and student designs for Amazon Prime fulfillment centers where deliveries are carried out by drone.
Third was the realization that the studio was being done in partnership with Gensler, the world’s largest architecture firm, which has designed the terminals at San Francisco International Airport, the second-tallest building in the world (China’s Shanghai Tower), and the Tower at PNC Plaza in Pittsburgh.
“I knew that would be a huge milestone for my career,” said Wallace, who moved from Elkins, West Virginia, to study architecture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
The studio’s 16 students—eight from architecture, eight from interior architecture—were split into teams that included members from each discipline. The teams were tasked with reimagining structures in four cities: the decaying Michigan Central Station in Detroit, Lever House in New York City, the 1111 Lincoln Road parking garage in Miami Beach, and the closed Westside Pavilion shopping mall in Los Angeles. They were asked to focus on adaptive reuse of the buildings—repurposing structures originally built for different purposes.
As they adapted the buildings, students were expected to consider rising challenges in each location: shifting demographics in Detroit, air quality and pollution in New York and Los Angeles, and rising sea levels in Miami Beach. They were to think creatively about how to make the buildings not only beautiful but also useful and resilient to contribute beneficially to the environment around them into the future.
Abudayyeh, the Robin Klehr Avia Professor of Interior Architecture, worked directly with Jordan Goldstein, Gensler’s global director of design, to develop the studio’s agenda.
“We weren’t looking for conventional solutions,” Abudayyeh said. “We wanted the students to push the boundaries and arrive at imaginative design narratives and innovative projects.”
Wallace’s Team Detroit transformed the railway station into an amphitheater and market space for local vendors. They incorporated an undulating green wall, with crop-producing vegetation fed by rainwater. Team New York split their structure in two, separated by a drone landing space (Gensler is currently working with Uber to create landing spaces for Uber’s proposed drone taxi system). The first 21 floors featured casual and collaborative workspaces, gyms, and dining, with the upper floors turned into micro hotel and conference rooms along with a rooftop bar.
Goldstein and Klehr Avia, regional managing principal, met regularly with students to discuss their proposals and advised them from idea development to final presentations—which, before the pandemic, had been scheduled to take place in Gensler’s New York City offices.
“The Gensler team were incredible partners,” Abudayyeh said. “As industry leaders, they provided the studio with unique insight into the profession and looked to our students to see what new ideas and visions the young generation of designers brings to the table.”
Presentations of final projects took place online, and the firm awarded a prize to the top-performing team. Gensler also funded the production of a book, Urban Futures: The Gensler–University of Tennessee Research Studio, which was recently published and is available as a digital flipbook. Wallace, hired on as an undergraduate researcher, served as lead designer for the book.
“We got to experience what the professional world would be like,” said Jungyeon Park (’20), an interior architecture graduate who was on Team New York. Park, who moved from Seoul, South Korea, to Clarksville, Tennessee, in her senior year of high school before attending UT, currently works as a junior designer for Architect Associates in Brooklyn.
Students across disciplines had to learn to work together—a requirement made more challenging by the online environment. They had to find one another’s strengths—architects thinking big picture about how the buildings fit naturally in their surrounding environments, and interior architects focused on space planning, room layout, and observing codes.
“It was a very interesting concept for a project, using an abandoned building and repurposing it for a changing world,” Park said. “Getting to know Gensler was amazing. The project was very rewarding.” Park’s Team New York was awarded first prize.
In the foreword to the book, Klehr Avia, a 1976 interior design graduate who in the past 40 years has led some of Gensler’s most iconic projects, wrote that collaborating on the studio gave her hope and assurance that students at UT “are well equipped and skilled to tackle the challenges and bring the fresh ideas that our world is seeking out in these uncertain times.”
“Research shows that students want to make a difference in the world,” wrote Scott Poole, dean emeritus of UT’s College of Architecture and Design, in the afterword for the book. “They want to be a part of projects that improve quality of life, that are at the forefront of innovation and change—projects that inspire action and anticipate the future.
“Our task,” Poole wrote, “is to provide opportunities to help them succeed.”
For both Wallace and Park, those opportunities were plentiful, and they are grateful to have been able to take advantage of them as college students.
“This has built crazy amounts of connections,” Wallace said. “For people at Gensler to know my name—to have heard me speak and present and be passionate about this project—is almost bizarre. This is 100 percent the biggest thing I’ve done as a student.”
The College of Architecture and Design frequently collaborates with local and national partners on innovative projects. Students have been involved in projects that include the development of a 652-mile paddle-hike-bike trail along the Tennessee River and an internationally acclaimed system for generating, transferring, and storing energy between a 3D-printed building and vehicle. To learn more about the college’s projects and partnerships, visit its website.
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Amanda Johnson (865-974-6401, email@example.com)