KCAD architecture students follow a new blueprint


Brian Craig and students in the architectural program at KCAD visited Portland, Oregon, to see how environment and design interact. Courtesy KCAD

The Grand Rapids architectural community has been waiting for its first class of architects to graduate from a master’s program for nearly 30 years, and they finally crossed the stage in May.

Discussions for a master’s program in architecture first started in the 1980s but didn’t officially get off the ground until two years ago, said Brian Craig, director of the graduate program in architecture at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University. The first five graduates of the two-year KCAD MArch program finished in May, and all have job offers.

Craig said the thesis process the five students went through at the end was impressive, tackling creative questions and solutions ranging from a community center for migrant workers to addressing an urban food desert in Grand Rapids and housing and services for homeless youth.

“I’m so proud of them. These are the students that said, ‘This is a brand new program, but I want to be a part of it,’” Craig said. “They did a fabulous job, and they can stand up against students from anywhere.”

Helping the first class cross the finish line was one of three major professional highlights for Craig in the past six months, along with a lifetime achievement award from the American Institute of Architects of Grand Rapids and the President’s Award from the American Institute of Architects of Michigan.

“This has been an interesting year for me personally, and the awards are great — I can hang them around my neck and walk around with my bling,” Craig said. “But really, it’s about the program.”

Craig said friends and colleagues tell him it makes sense he’s back in education, as mentoring young professionals has always been a focus. So his reentry into the educational sector of architecture — first at FSU and now at KCAD — has been exciting.

His career in architecture started in education, first as part of the Peace Corps in Afghanistan and then as a professor at University of Notre Dame.

Looking back, Craig said he feels like he was too young to offer perspective to his students.

“Now,” he said, “I have that perspective, of both practice and life.”

Following his early educational career, Craig spent more than 20 years in practice as a principal at Progressive AE before becoming director of built environment at FSU.

He and the then-president of KCAD discussed starting a master of architecture program.

Craig then started a two-year transition from being full-time at FSU to full-time at KCAD.

“I saw an opportunity and I went for it,” Craig said of helping start the program. “There was the perfect confluence of opportunity, timing and the experience I had.”

Grand Rapids is a perfect setting for a graduate architecture program, Craig said.

“Grand Rapids has all the issues and opportunities of any urban center, and yet it’s at a size you can get your arms around and feel comfortable,” he said. “At the same time, you can be challenged by the fact there are so many opportunities.”

The past year, Craig and his students took time to look at sites along the Grand River to determine what can be done to help connect the community to the water. The class studied what makes great waterfront cities work and even took a trip to Portland, Oregon, to see how design and environment interact.

While in Portland, the class also looked at other factors, including how to make a city more livable through transportation planning.

Each graduating class will participate in a similar study-away program.

 “The program’s curriculum encourages thinking globally while acting locally,” Craig said. “This is in part a product of my own journey as an architect, having lived and practiced in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Zambia at various times in my career. Through travel we build understanding of the forces that create place: culture, geography, climate, history and politics, as well as design. We become better at seeing and reflecting on what we see.”

The students can then come back to Grand Rapids and implement the lessons learned in potential projects in West Michigan.

With a new program, Craig and KCAD administration were able to design a reflexive curriculum that still can receive accreditation from the National Architectural Accrediting Boards by talking to architects throughout the Midwest and figuring out where the industry is heading and what it needs to become.

The curriculum is under constant discussion and review by faculty and students and can be changed on the fly, Craig said.

The program’s home within KCAD also adds a special factor for the school: collaboration. Recently, Craig discussed the relationship between architecture and installation art in place-making, with a printmaking professor who specializes in installation art.

“It helps us ask the questions of ‘how do we collaborate across disciplines,’” Craig said. “There are so many great opportunities to do that within the arts, and we’re finding interest in applications coming from students in other disciplines into the graduate architecture program.”

KCAD MArch has two pathways, a two-year track for undergrad architecture students and a three-year track for nontraditional architecture students. The program currently has student with an English undergraduate degree and two with interior design backgrounds.

The second graduating class is set to have seven students, and while Craig wants the program to grow, the small class sizes offer greater flexibility and plenty of one-on-one mentoring time.

Craig will continue to do his best to ensure the program maintains its feel as it grows.

“We have put in a lot of work and effort in intentionally creating and documenting our culture,” he said. “Grand Rapids really is our secret sauce as a place full of opportunity. People in the industry are excited about this program and I hope it continues to raise the dialogue and expectations as a community and what we do with design and the buildings we build.”

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