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Pursuing an Education in Landscape Architecture

When people ask me what landscape architecture is, I usually explain it as “anything designed outside” and “the confluence of design and nature”. I also give examples that range from Central Park to college campuses to residential designs. This definition is far from perfect, but my goal in defining the practice in this way is to emphasize the nearly endless possible directions a landscape architecture degree can lead, and the multitude of scales at which landscape architects work.

Some landscape architects turn their nose up when asked about something like lawn care and claim that “that isn’t what a landscape architect does”, but honestly, there are DEFINITELY landscape architects out there who specialize in turfgrass. I think that the frustration comes in when people assume that that’s ALL a landscape architect does. Landscape architects work on city planning commissions, in National Parks, and at prestigious multinational firms. They design campuses, parks, parking lots (boring but someone has to do it), nature trails, and yes, your backyard, too. The point here is that anywhere people interact with the outdoors (so…anything that isn’t a building) can fall under the umbrella of “landscape architecture”. But I think that’s enough soapbox-ing on the profession. Let’s back up and I’ll talk a bit about my education.

The Program

I studied landscape architecture (which I’ll call LARCH from now on) at Penn State University starting in Fall 2015, and I graduated in December 2019. When I started, it was an accredited five year/ten semester program including a mandatory semester abroad, with only one option to graduate early: an additional summer abroad. The summer between my third and fourth year, I spent six weeks in Barcelona in an intensive study abroad program with around 20 of my classmates, which allowed us to graduate a semester early. Penn State’s LARCH program also offers a six week summer program in Tanzania for the same expedited graduation. I could write entire posts on my time in Barcelona and the semester I spent in Bonn, Germany last fall (and I probably will), but now I want to focus on the general structure of the PSU LARCH program as I experienced it.

Note: in my third year, the program was entirely restructured and shortened to 4.5 years or nine semesters, but I can’t speak to that so I’ll stick to the program as I experienced it.

At Penn State, LARCH is a part of the Stuckeman School within the College of Arts and Architecture. The Stuckeman School includes architecture (ARCH), LARCH, and graphic design. The Stuckeman Family Building holds all the ARCH and LARCH studios, as the building was specifically designed for the collaboration these majors require. There are no traditional classrooms in the building. Instead, students are assigned a desk and a locker in an area designated for their studio in the big open building. 

My desk third year. Yes, the photo was taken before the semester actually started. No, I didn’t see the surface of my desk again until end-of-year cleanup.

In addition to designated studio spaces, the building has computer labs, collaborative workstations, and a variety of meeting areas for large group instruction, club meetings, and critiques, as well as administrative and professor offices. The building really is its own ecosystem. With enough tea and popcorn stored in my locker, I could probably live there for days if I needed to.

The PSU LARCH curriculum follows a ten studio sequence, where you must take one and only one studio every semester. For the first through third year, specific studios are prescribed to build student proficiency in design basics including hand and computer graphics, understanding of spatial relationships, small-scale and community design, and GIS. Studios also teach necessary software like the Adobe Creative Suite, AutoCAD, SketchUp, and Rhinoceros along the way.

In the fourth and fifth years, students are offered studio options from which to choose. Some studios are offered every semester, while new locations and design challenges are added every year. The studios I chose in my fourth year were in Baltimore, Maryland and Braddock, Pennsylvania. Other studio options included cities like Cleveland and Pittsburgh as well as destinations further afield like Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and Ahmedabad in India. Each studio focuses on a different aspect of design, so students are able to tailor their educational experience to whatever path they see in their future, or they can take a chance on a topic they never knew existed. Each semester, one studio is offered as a collaboration between ARCH and LARCH students, too.

These studios are supplemented by courses in soils, ecology, site grading, stormwater management, planting, design history, and professional practice. This is, of course, in addition to general education requirements in math, science, art, humanities, and physical education that must be met by all PSU students regardless of major.

The Truth

If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Studio classes in the first through third years are 3 hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, switching to 5 hours a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the fourth and fifth years. Each semester, you can also count on having one supplemental class like materials or grading for an additional 6 hours per week of class time. That adds up to 15-16 hours of class time per week at a minimum in the Stuckeman building, but this barely cracks the surface of the real amount of time you can expect to spend there. 

Frank procrastinated on his studio project. Don’t be like Frank!

Most people tell incoming college students to expect to spend twice as much time working outside of class as you spend in class. In other majors, that means sitting in your dorm or the library studying and doing homework, but unless you have a couple thousand dollars to drop on all the necessary software and somewhere with a giant desk, trace paper, scales, rulers, pens, markers, pencils, materials to make models, … you get the point. All that “outside of class” time happens in Stuckeman, too.

Now, I’m not trying to make this whole thing sound miserable. The hours spent in studio are almost always with friends, and I wouldn’t trade my time at Penn State for anything. We had somewhere between 30 and 40 students in my year when I began freshman year, and the bonds that we all formed with each other really mean the world to me.

Not many people can say they’ve traveled the world with 20 of their closest friends. (Copenhagen, Denmark 2019)

This small class size has another benefit that really helped me through the program. Instead of being a nameless, faceless student in a lecture hall of 500 people (which I had the joy of experiencing through several gen eds), students have the opportunity to develop a strong relationship with their professors. Studio class time often consists of one-on-one desk critiques with your professors, who really do feel like they’re there to help you learn and grow as a designer. Most studios have at least two professors to give students enough time for valuable feedback throughout the design process. Plus, it always helps to get multiple perspectives.

I’d love to go in more detail about my experience studying LARCH at Penn State, but hopefully this offers a helpful high-level summary. If you have any questions about anything I talked about here, please don’t hesitate to ask!

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