For future architects, the question “Why Wellesley?” can be a little complicated. Unlike five-year architecture programs at other colleges, Wellesley offers an interdepartmental major that requires classes in both the studio art and art history departments. That means that when a student graduates from Wellesley, they can’t immediately start working as an architect; they must first go to graduate school.
“The architecture major is an interdisciplinary program that students come to for different reasons. Some students come because they want to be architects. We also have students who aren’t so interested in becoming designers, but they’re more interested in history and theory,” said Professor Martha McNamara, an art history professor and one of the co-directors of the architecture program.
Other paths students follow after graduation include historic preservation, urban planning, affordable housing and landscape architecture. The department tries to foster that broader community of architecture students.
For Siobhan Finlay ’18, who has always known she wanted to be an architect, the choice between a five-year architecture school and a liberal arts school came down to Wellesley’s unique interdisciplinary program.
“The Wellesley curriculum just gives you a different perspective. You’re able to apply the history and theory side to your own projects,” said Finlay.
At Wellesley, there is not a single professor of architecture. Instead, there are four co-directors of the architecture program: Professor Daniela Rivera, who teaches drawing; Andrew Mowbray, who teaches 3D design; and Professors McNamara and Friedmann, who teach art history and have extensive knowledge about architecture.
Some architecture students, like Finlay, arrive at Wellesley knowing they want to be architects, while others decide during their first or second year. The program at Wellesley offers students the flexibility to decide later on if architecture is the right fit for them and gives them important background knowledge that they might not otherwise have.
Julia Li ’18 initially wanted to attend a university that would offer a Bachelor of Architecture, but decided on Wellesley instead because she wanted to keep her future options open.
“Attending a five-year program is essentially like attending a trade school, and I didn’t want to graduate college with only one skill,” said Li.
Many students appreciate the balance between studio art and art history. Finlay believes that having a background in both gives her an advantage.
“Students who are in a five-year program had great ideas, but they didn’t know how to express them because they didn’t have that vocabulary,” said Finlay. “They were always sitting behind a computer making 3D models, which obviously is an important skill, but if you don’t know the ideas behind certain movements and styles, it’s really hard to do anything in architecture.”
At Wellesley, the major requires a total of 12 classes—no casual commitment. All students are required to take the introductory art history and drawing classes, in addition to 3D design. Once they start taking 200-level art history and art studio classes, they can start to shape the major. For example, if a student is more interested in the theoretical side of the major, they may not take as many studio art courses as someone planning to be an architect.
“It’s great how flexible it is, because you can really take it in any direction you want. The department’s there to support you,” said Caroline Grassi ’18, who is also an architecture major.
The department publicizes several internships and other opportunities to its majors. For example, Sasaki Associates in Watertown, MA has taken on several Wellesley alumnae. The professors also encourage students to study abroad and take studio art courses at other universities.
Many Wellesley students choose to take classes at MIT that are more specifically related to architecture. However, it is possible to complete the major at Wellesley without setting foot on MIT’s campus.
According to Li, MIT courses are more technical and computer-based, whereas Wellesley’s courses better allow students to exercise their creativity and create full projects.
“The scope of their projects are quite different as well; [at MIT] it felt like we were given exercises that were to develop your problem-solving skills, rather than coming up with an idea and building upon it to create a full-fledged project,” she said.
At Wellesley, students have the opportunity to put together a portfolio of work from their studio art courses, which is necessary if they wish to go onto graduate school.
As co-presidents of the Architecture and Design Club, Li and Finlay organize the two fall portfolio reviews that are mainly aimed towards seniors applying to graduate programs in architecture.
“What I tell students all the time is no one ever got into architecture school because they had perfect GRE scores,” said McNamara. “They get in on the strength of the work they show in their portfolio.”
Besides organizing the portfolio reviews, Li and Finlay also plan to hold smaller, community-based events and to involve students who may not be architecture majors. Only four to six architecture majors graduate from Wellesley each year.
“Because it’s such a small major, you get really close with the people who are doing it with you—and that’s why I love it,” said Grassi.
Several other colleges, such as Smith College and Connecticut College, have an interdisciplinary architecture program similar to Wellesley’s. However, according to McNamara, Wellesley’s advantage lies in students’ ability to take more technical courses at MIT while still gaining all the benefits of a liberal arts education.
“Our real strength is that we have both a really wonderful curriculum here on campus, and we can draw on the MIT pre-professional studios,” said McNamara.
Wellesley consistently sends its architecture students to the top graduate schools. Whether students decide to become designers or not, the architecture program at Wellesley equips them with the critical thinking skills they need to become successful.
“It’s really hard to study a building or be a critic of a building if you haven’t at least tried your hand at drawing or some other studio project. It really gives you a new perspective on it. And it’s the same with architecture history—you can’t just dive into a studio without knowing what’s come before you,” said Grassi.