Cal Poly's acclaimed architecture program celebrates 50th anniversary

Trade publication ranks Cal Poly's program best in the nation

nwilson@thetribunenews.comMay 8, 2014 

Six students graduated from Cal Poly’s first architecture program class in 1964 — back when paper and pencil were the go-to tools for architectural renderings.

Now, the major’s 700 bachelor’s degree students have access to three-dimensional printers, computer modeling, video tutorials, and other technology to help with their craft.

As the program continues to evolve, this year marks its 50th anniversary.

After five decades, Cal Poly’s five-year undergraduate architecture degree is widely recognized as one of the best in the country. An estimated one in five architects in California and one in 20 nationwide are Cal Poly graduates.

“It’s a grueling program,” said George Garcia, a 1989 Cal Poly architecture graduate and owner of San Luis Obispo-based Garcia Architecture + Design. “It teaches you the technical skills. It also prepares you with a grueling schedule of late nights, meetings the next day, designs. When people hear you’re a Cal Poly graduate, they know you have the intestinal fortitude with designing a house or commercial building.”

A recent survey in the DesignIntelligence publication, a trade publication for architects, ranked Cal Poly’s undergraduate architecture program the best in the nation for preparing students to enter the field.

The survey gathered information from 693 professional architectural practices and firms — and included private and public universities.

Cal Poly also has a Master of Science in architecture consisting of 20 students that plays a smaller role in the college and didn’t enter into the ranking. Students who earn their degree also must also complete three years of professional experience and pass state exams before licensing.

The report ranked the university highly in areas including construction methods and materials, sustainable design practices, and cross-disciplinary teamwork. The program involves intensive training in a wide range of design principles — from building a piece of furniture to creating conceptual renderings of a skyscraper.

“I have learned how our work as architects plays an important role in improving our communities, where we work, and the environment,” said Lizeth Benitez, a fifth-year architecture student. “I am never bored because it’s math, science and art all into one. Designing space encompasses the entire human experience, affects our daily living, and can inspire us for the future.”

In a recent display of work on campus, student teams of four and five showed conceptual work they designed as a hypothetical multi-use facility on campus.

Third-year student Mohtaram Tavassoli’s group planned mobile units of light-weight materials that included classrooms, a theater and shared workspaces for students of various majors that presented a view of Bishop Peak and San Luis Mountain.

“Our idea was to create buildings that could be equipped with computers and drafting tables that could be moved around campus wherever needed,” Tavassoli said. “The enjoyment was trying to come up with a design within a week and make it realistic.”

Students spend hours each day in studios scheming and also building small-scale projects, using physical models to formulate their ideas. They also collaborate with students of other majors such as landscape architecture and architectural engineering students.

“We are fortunate to have very talented students joining us,” said Christine Theodoropoulos, dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design. “Our faculty really puts their teaching responsibility at the top. They define success as the success of the students.”

The program also encourages students to spend a quarter or summer interning off-campus or studying abroad. Students spend time in cities around the world.

“Our students go to places like Copenhagen, Los Angeles, Rome, and come back with a new perspective on how they view the world, and the world of architecture,” said Jeff Ponitz, an assistant architecture professor. “They return with a different look, a different haircut. I think the diversity of thought and a culture of making, here at Cal Poly, is what makes it unique.”

Former San Luis Obispo mayor and Cal Poly architecture faculty member Ken Schwartz remembers early on when Cal Poly’s architecture program was fighting for recognition against established state powers in the field such as UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

Schwartz served from 1952 to 1988 in a variety of teaching and administrative capacities, including interim dean. Cal Poly had previously offered an architectural engineering degree, which it still does.

“We had to work to build our reputation,” Schwartz said. “But it made sense. It didn’t take long before our students started accomplishing big things in the workforce.”

Schwartz said other universities would try to bring in prominent architects to lead the school and guide the design philosophies. But Cal Poly took a different approach – one that it has maintained throughout its history, according to Schwartz.

“Cal Poly took a very thoughtful approach,” Schwartz said. “The program encouraged a variety of design philosophies and didn’t try to mold students into one way of doing things.”


Some graduates of the Cal Poly architecture program include:

  • Milford Wayne Donaldson, whom President Obama appointed chairman of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
  • Rebekah Gladson, campus architect at UC Irvine.
  • Paul Neel, the former California state architect.
  • Weird Al Yankovic, who graduated with a degree in architecture from Cal Poly, where he also was a disc jockey on campus radio and went on to a successful song parody career.

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