“Living by Water” – Interview with Professor Carmina Sanchez-del-Valle


How would you describe the process of teaching and learning architecture at Hampton University in comparison to other architecture programs in the US?

To answer this question, it is necessary to explain what is required to practice architecture in the U.S.A., and who defines it. This is a long explanation. Each jurisdiction regulates the practice of architecture including defining the education and internship requirements through a licensing board. In most jurisdictions (states and territories) the education requirements are met by completing a National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB) accredited professional degree. This is because representatives from all licensing boards are members of the National Council of Registration Boards (NCARB). NCARB is a member of NAAB. NCARB is a non-profit organization that encourages jurisdictions to adopt national licensure standards to ensure the similar credentials that facilitate reciprocity to practice the profession across jurisdictions. For this purpose it manages the internship program and certifies completion of internship hours through the Architectural Experience Program (AXP), and offers the Architect Registration Examination (ARE) to become an architect. Individual architects are members of NCARB if they choose to have national certification. 

The standards for a “professional” study of architecture are established collectively by a number of organizations grouped under NAAB. These collateral organizations represent different sectors of the profession. Besides NCARB these are the AIA (American Institute of Architects), the AIAS (American Institute of Architecture Students), and the ACSA (Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture). Missing from this group was NOMA – the National Organization of Minority Architects, a group with which we have much interaction. It became a collateral in 2021. Individual professionals are members of NCARB, AIA and NOMA, but membership is not compulsory. The same is true for AIAS. Universities, colleges, schools and programs of architecture and the administrators and faculty are members of ACSA. NAAB Procedures and Conditions for Accreditation define the process, the standards and criteria to assess the program and the student academic performance. They also establish the minimum number of credit hours to be completed to receive a professional Bachelor of Architecture (5-years), a professional Master of Architecture (1-4 years postgraduate, or 5-years graduate), and a professional Doctor of Architecture degree (1-4 years postgraduate). In the U.S. only the University of Hawaii offers the professional D. Arch. These titles can only be used for professional degree programs. 

The department of Architecture at Hampton University offers one degree program. It is a “single-institution”, accredited professional degree consisting of five and a half years leading to a Master of Architecture. It consists of a combination of undergraduate and graduate courses, but no undergraduate degree is received. There are only five or six such degree programs in the U.S. Half of the schools offer accredited 5-year Bachelor, the other half a graduate M. Arch, or both. At Hampton University, we offer a shorter path to a graduate professional accredited degree in architecture. 

Besides that, in what ways is our program unique? It is offered by a Historically Black University (HBCU). This means that the institution was created to educate Black people who during times of slavery had no access to higher education. Hampton University – previously an institute – was established in 1868 right after the U.S. Civil War. Its history and mission are tied to the education of underserved communities. These impact the type of degree programs and vision, curricula, academic content and pedagogical approaches, the makeup of faculty and students, extracurricular activities, and campus atmosphere. There are only 7 architecture accredited programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, of a total of 133 in the U.S. For perspective, Black students represent 5% of the total number of students enrolled in accredited architecture programs. According to ACSA data 1 of every 3 Black architecture students attends an HBCU program. HBCU architecture programs enrolled 32% of all the Black architecture students in the U.S.A. 75% to 80% of our graduates in any given year self-identify as Black.  

What else describes our uniqueness more specifically? Our program’s mission is to educate a diverse group of individuals to become licensed architects. We work with local communities, and studio projects involve interaction with those communities – most of them in urban locations, and in areas close to the water, as we are in a coastal area that is subsiding and flooding. After completing their 3rd year our students are required to enrollment in an international urban design studio that is planned and taught by our faculty. This studio engages city planners, urban designers, architects and community members in the cities where the studio takes place. Many architecture programs require study abroad but very few do it all in-house. The studio is preceded by a course on urban design theory. In their 5th year students enroll in the graduate seminar on community design issues that I teach.   

Definitively, our students affect what we teach and how we teach it. They are a diverse mix of people of different ages, from different states, and backgrounds. Most are committed to their home communities and are actively involved in organizations in those communities. The fact that a significant number of our students are older, may have other degrees and life experience, may have children, may be first generation, may be a legacy student attracted by the history of the institution, and may have to work while studying require faculty to be creative in how we choose and stage projects for studio. I have noticed that our students are more interested in considering social issues and design to improve living conditions than in purely formal aesthetic issues. They tend to prefer to work with “real world” problems, and are less taken by pure speculation unless they can see an impact.

Could you say a bit more about the seminar on community design issues? Do you have social partners that impact the course format and content? 

Yes, in the seminar we consider and discuss the work of local organizations. The course content is modified every year depending on what is going on locally, regionally, nationally and abroad. I invite guest virtually, and attend with my students at least one community event, be it a town hall meeting to discuss a proposed project or problem, a workshop or charrette, or a lecture by a city official open to the public on an on-going initiative. It depends on what is going on at the moment. I use newspapers, and online videos of meetings and presentations to access work in other places around the world. 

I combine the analysis of conflicts in community design in the past, and bring in tensions occurring in the present in the U.S. and elsewhere. The main focus is on the communities themselves. There are places that I always include such as Miami’s Overtown and Wynwood, and Harlem in Manhattan. There are also topics that we work on every semester such as the right to housing, right to the city, community participation theory and approaches based on current cases, standards to determine quality of life, and others. I have created a series of game simulations where students’ role play exploring the response of different constituencies towards a proposal. They have to research to play the part accurately. Sometimes students request studying specific issues. For example, one semester they wanted to investigate if Amazon distribution centers improve the economic and living conditions of the people in the towns where they are built. To teach the community design issues I have to reach out to social and political science colleagues in the School of Liberal Arts; also outside the university to environmental resources managers, community designers, and others.  

Could you say a bit more about simulations? 

Keep in mind that my students are in a professional architecture program. The seminar I teach on community design issues is an add-on to the core professional curriculum because many of our students after graduation pursue careers in urban and community design, policy and development. Therefore, the seminar is more of an overview. Role playing is a way to get my students to be immersed in the discussion, to have empathy for those involved. Role playing exercises are prefaced by essays on gentrification, or tactical urbanism, or community revitalization. When students read scholarly articles, they can be critical, but they tend to adopt a distant perspective, one where they are unaffected by conflict or tension in the place they are analyzing. The articles prepare them to confront the issue that is to be considered in the role playing exercise. The role playing grounds our discussions – puts faces on the issues.

I collect all the information for role playing from newspapers and newscasts, select from this material some to share beforehand, and get the roles from there. Also, I give each participant written on a piece of paper – like in a play – the role they play, the position that their character holds, concessions they will not make, and the relationship they may have with other actors. Sometimes I tell them that they are acquainted with another character, but others don’t know about it, and they cannot tell. I do invent these situations because they happen. For example, when someone is a friend of the family, and therefore has privileged access to that person. At the end these linkages are revealed and we discuss if in any way they affected the negotiations. I also give them a template to focus their discussion indicating what is the main issue (they can change it), what is expected, what is the goal, and how much time they have. Also, I give them rules for negotiation. In the template they record the various stages of negotiation, agreements and disagreements, as well as note areas where they could not establish a position or make a suggestion. 

How accurate are these role-playing simulations? They are reductive and limited by class time – 45 minutes for role playing, 30 for discussion. Sometimes we spend the whole session role playing and discuss it in the next session.

Which interdisciplinary angles and alliances do you find the most relevant for Hampton architecture students?  

Any perspectives and collaborations outside our program are necessary. As in many institutions in the U.S., professional education in architecture has yet to find a fit within the university context. We are an ambiguous “animal”. We are within the School of Engineering and Technology, we are a STEM discipline (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but also Humanities. To fulfill general education requirements our students take courses in other schools within the university, and thanks to that interact with other faculty and students. Because of accreditation requirements and because we are small we tend to target essential requirements for the architecture accredited degree, and have little room to explore other subjects on campus. We spend much time on the specialized content courses required for accreditation, and for our students to be prepared for internships in architecture firms. We are committed to offering an education that is relevant and that points to diverse career paths and require courses on urban design and community design. The university general education requirements, and the accreditation itself promote that we cross disciplinary boundaries, to collaborate with colleagues on campus and from neighboring institutions, and with practicing professionals outside academia. 

It is a myth that architecture is trans-disciplinary. As an academic discipline it may have come about as an agglomeration of disciplines, but once it was named and supported a profession, it was no longer “trans”. We have to collaborate with others outside architecture to be interdisciplinary, and to do transdisciplinary work. In our program the Urban Design Theory course and International Urban Design Studio are examples of the cross-over. The first is taught by an urban designer and the studio is taught in collaboration with planners, city managers, and others involved in the places where the studio is sited. The opportunities available on campus and the interests of our students and faculty have led us to collaborations with colleagues in aviation, electrical engineering, environmental engineering, earth sciences and marine sciences, and literature. 

The Design for Adaptation to Sea Level Rise concentration that we offer under the helm of Mason Andrews is an example of collaboration. Students take courses in marine science and GIS at Hampton University and at Old Dominion University. They also participate in joint design workshops taught by Mason Andrews and Dr. Mujde Erten-Unal an environmental engineering colleague at Old Dominion University. They co-direct the Coastal Community Design Collaborative (CCDC) a group that connects local and regional academic institutions, governmental offices, and NGOs and is part of the National Resilience Initiative of the AIA and the ACSA. There are other five such groups in other schools of architecture in the U.S. The concentration in design for adaptation to sea level rise is the only one so far within an architecture program in the U.S. It is most challenging to maintain, precisely because it involves so many partners. 

Years ago I collaborated with engineering, business and art colleagues teaching a joint 7-week design workshop embedded within our own elective courses. The scheduling was a nightmare and was not sustainable after two years. Also collaborated with engineering, business and computer science colleagues teaching a design innovation workshop, which also lasted for two academic years. 

You have a very interesting teaching experience in cooperation with a literature scholar Amee Carmines. How did it emerge? 

I was introduced to literature as a mirror of experience in the human sciences research seminars I took with Dr. Valerie Polakow at the University of Michigan (U-M) – Yes, as a way to look at architecture, the world, at life itself in a more complete way. With one of my U-M former classmates Dr. Amr Adel-Kawi collaborated on a project documenting an important medieval market street in Cairo, Egypt. We created an interactive digital mapping of streets and blocks using photographs, paintings, and historical and literary texts. This was when I was teaching at the University of Kansas (KU). Also, at KU the approach of my colleague Bill Carswell was influential. Carswell, who taught studios and a seminar on phenomenology, asked his students to write fiction as a way to design. Then, at Florida A & M University School of Architecture I co-created a course with colleague LaVerne Wells-Bowie on the architecture of the other Americas where we use excerpts from novels and short stories to situate the analysis and discussion of architectural works. We also did a workshop where students designed within those settings. Our philosophical approach in relation to “Otherness” was informed by bell hooks writings. 

At Hampton University the first cross-disciplinary effort between our department and English Lit was led by one of my colleagues many years ago. It was difficult to manage because the scheduling of English Literature courses is different from that of Architecture. Course scheduling is tied to the organization of the curriculum and faculty teaching loads. In 2016 there was much discussion about pop-up classes. I participated in a workshop and a series of discussions on the potential and the form that pop-ups could take. The pop-up concept led me to the idea of the “micro-seminar”. It consists of 2 to 3 joint sessions between students enrolled in different courses to consider the same issues from different perspectives, while sharing resources. A colleague in English Lit teaching composition to first year students agreed to work with me on the micro-seminar. We designed a three session micro-seminar on Harlem, New York City. It was embedded in the second semester first year required English course, and the architecture graduate seminar on community design issues that I teach. We collaborated for three academic years. However, changes in the structure of the School of Liberal Arts, faculty loads and scheduling difficulties terminated the “Harlem” micro-seminar. 

For many years I had had many conversations with another English Lit colleague – Dr. Amee Carmines about living in the city, city as entity, and city as the essence of being; and had shared with her my observations about graphic narratives, which I use in the community design issues seminar. In the absence of any other collaborator we discussed joining forces. Amee was teaching upper level English Lit courses, one of them on the novel. This varied from year to year between the American Novel and the English Novel. Amee would start planning for the micro-seminar from the conversations we had about current events, communities in the news, and new books. Then, Amee would consider our conversation and recommend a text that best fit her course for that semester. I would read it and discuss it with her to finally determine if it was relevant to the architecture seminar. Our common interest in understanding place as shaped by people and environment, was what brought us together. We conceptualized it as the “living by water” micro-seminar because our campus and the neighborhoods where we live are surrounded by water, water informs the history of Hampton, there is a culture specific to living by water, and there are water people. Scheduling has always been the main challenge. Our classes met at different times, but the same days of the week. Fortunately, I teach the same students in the seminar and in studio. With the agreement of our students we met jointly during our studio time – which was the time when Amee’s students were taking the English Lit course. 

Co-teaching interdisciplinarily, or not, is like bringing together different jazz bands. Each teacher is playing with a different band, and join forces with the agreement to play the same piece together, and that the piece will be made while we play through improvisation. Some consider improvisation to be the result of a lack of preparation, a last minute solution. Yet improvisation requires much practice, agreement to collaborate, and trust in the craft of the others. It is the opposite of lack of preparation.

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