[2017-07-03] An exterior that attracts at a distance, and an
interior that greatly differs from most educational spaces. But how
is life at Umeå School of Architecture for staff and students?
Let's spends a day in the building by the river with students and
Student Jesper Haglund demonstrates his model for
Sara Thor. Photo: Malin Grönborg
It's a crisp May morning and the Umeå School of Architecture is
a lit up cube, from corner to corner in all directions. Still, some
seventy year one students gather at nine o'clock in the darkest
room of the building.
"We'll wait a couple of minutes to see if anyone shows up late,"
suggests Amalia Katopodis, who is course coordinator for year
When she finally starts her presentation, she sounds both as a
veteran and as one of the students:
"The creative process is like parkour, guys. We all need to
avoid obstacles and find ways to keep moving forward. That's what
we do as architects, we keep finding solutions."
"Scale is so important"
The team of teachers meet in the staff lunch room for
a brief coordination meeting. From left: Sara Thor, Pablo DeSoto,
Amalia Katopodis and Toms Kokins. Photo: Malin Grönborg
Only four weeks remain until the exhibition that all work is
aimed at, but lots of hard work still remain. Amalia Katopodis is
running through some important scheduling details and is egging her
"We must be using the right scale when developing our ideas, and
slowly zoom in. Scale is so important. One of the reasons that
teachers advise against using computers is that they make you lose
an eye for scale. We must make our decisions gradually. The
adjustments we make in scale 1:1000 or 1:100 are not the same as
the ones in scale 1:50 or 1:20," she emphasizes.
On the front row, the year one teachers are lined up: Sara Thor,
Toms Kokins and visiting lecturer Pablo DeSoto. Sara Thor comes
from Gothenburg but has worked in practice in England for many
years. She has spent two academic years in Umeå now, which has been
a positive and constructive time.
"There are about 20 of us teachers, but some only work
part-time. And there are about seven or eight administrative
members of staff. It's a rather small institution," says Sara
"We can take a maximum of 248 students, and at present there are
a few less as we had no newly admitted master students last year.
But we are kicking off a new Master's programme this autumn which
has had a fair bit of international attention," she says.
One giant room
"There are so many that come here and say 'wow, so
cool!' However, there are pros and cons that it's so open-spaced,"
reasons student Linnea Ågren, situated left in the photo, speaking
to her desk neighbour Stina Nordström. Photo: Malin
Upstairs is where the third-year students can be found. Here,
all students have their workplaces in one big room that has been
divided using shelving and dividers.
Student Gustav Söderhult is slouched down with his
computer and headphones to watch a Japanese documentary on
architecture for a history assignment. When seventy people share
one large working room, your need to be creative to shut yourself
off. Photo: Malin Grönborg
"The Master's students are beyond the divide over there, and us
year three students have our seats in the L-shaped part,"
demonstrates student Stina Nordström.
"There are so many that come here and say 'wow, so cool!'
However, there are pros and cons that it's so open-spaced. You hear
everything that is going on in the room, which can be somewhat
disturbing at times. But it's nice too, so it definitely has its
advantages and disadvantages," says Linnea Ågren.
In the break room, IT technician Sven-Erik Hilberer and
economist Margareta Brinkstam are chatting over a cup of coffee. In
Swedish, one must add. It can otherwise go days when people speak
nothing but English.
"I came here from Umeå Institute of Design, so I'm quite used to
speaking English. It's rather stimulating in a way," says Sven-Erik
"The language can be a challenge in issues regarding work
environment for instance, when it's tough to find the right
nuances. But you get used to it."
Students Mikael Parkman, Martin Smedsen and Tove
Brunberg next to the large model of the train station area in
central Umeå. Photo: Malin Grönborg
For first-year students, a great part of the spring semester has
revolved around a project based on the train station area in
central Umeå, Järnvägstorget, a part of the centre and Haga. The
students are now working individually with imaginative buildings to
fit into the neighbourhood. As suggested by the morning
presentation, the students are advised to use pen and paper.
There's hardly a computer around.
High level of concentration
The relaxed atmosphere makes it easy to forget how hard the
students concentrate on their work at Umeå School of Architecture.
In one corner we find one student slouching in a bean bag with big
headphones and a laptop.
When we break his bubble of concentration with a question, we
realise that he's watching a documentary on architecture to prepare
for an oral presentation. Being one of seventy people sharing one
workplace, you have to think of creative solutions to shut yourself
Sandra Kärnstrand sketches in a traditional way with
pencil, paper and ruler. Photo: Malin Grönborg
To Sara Thor, the rest of the day will be spent on student
tutorials. She takes a look at the booking list to see who comes
next. It's Julia Herbert, whose drawings portray a circular
building with a flat, green roof. One floor is a communal area, the
other is a workshop with a thin greenhouse integrated with a curved
glass wall. It's tricky to get all the window details into the
plan. The rounded lines make things more difficult.
Cohesion with the surroundings
"If you want a rounded window, I'd draw the detail in this
manner," instructs Sara Thor, showing her idea with her finger.
Julia Herbert takes out a few more sketches. The teacher's
suggestions are to make the sketches as clear to the beholder as
"It's easy to forget that those who see the drawings haven't got
the same idea or insight into the plan as me. You need to clear
your mind and imagine that you're looking at it for the first
time," says Julia Herbert.
Lunch time in the staff kitchenette. Visiting lecturer Pablo
DeSoto from Spain is passionately talking about his research and
his road to Umeå via Brazil. The time is approaching one o'clock.
The rest of the teachers join for a short status report before they
spread out again to have more individual tutorials.
"They're treating us like adults"
In the School's entrance, you can see a model of the Umeå train
station area to scale, which the first-year students has created
together. A few students are presenting the building process based
upon maps and a comprehensive work to measure and map the actual
city area was done in that process.
Third-year student Josefin Antus in a supervision
meeting with instructors Richard Conway and Sangnam Shirke. Photo:
So what are the students' impressions of education at the
School? Do the teachers succeed in the task of developing their
creative skills in the intended way?
"The teachers are a big part of it, they steer the ship in a
way. But as students we also gain a fair bit of inspiration from
each other. Things pop up everywhere to give us knowledge," says
Johan Vonkavaara agrees that the distance between students and
teachers is short, and can't see that it would be negative in any
"It's what makes this education so great, them treating us like
adults. This profession is all about finding solutions and new ways
of going about business. If we were just given tradition lectures
all the time, we wouldn't get into that flow of mind."
In the open plan office for teachers, it's nice and calm. Only
one person is sat at a desk working. It's Carla Collevecchio,
course coordinator for year two, who is having some well-needed
"Recently, I've been with my students all the time, having
briefs, tutorials or group conversations. I only spend roughly one
day per week here."
For nearly ten years, she's worked simultaneously as an
architect and as a teacher at the Central University of Venezuela.
But she has now lived in Umeå together with her husband for nearly
a year and a half.
"It's a much smaller school, so it's nice to be able to
contribute in a meaningful way. I'm pleased about contributing to
the entirety in a more evident way."
On the wall next to Carla Collevecchio's workplace hangs an
aerial photo of the Norwegian island Træna, which is the scene for
the major, joint project for the second-year students.
"Together with the people on the island, we have this Facebook
group. There, the students can ask questions about what happens in
a certain area of the island, and islanders immediately start
sending pictures, maps and drawings."
Working closely with students
Sara Thor gets one final question before we leave the building:
What is it that makes us find Umeå School of Architecture as such a
harmonious and safe place?
"We work very closely with students and want them to feel
comfortable enough to approach us. The building helps as well as
it's very open," she says.
"From year one, a lot revolves around how students experience
their own space at school. It's all about the importance of
respecting each other, and not making education into a competition.
You gain a lot from collaborating. And our way of building upon
that is for us teachers to treat the students and each other with
respect. We're not here to judge or criticize, but to help; like a
team that builds together," says Sara Thor.
Read more about the Architecture Programme (In
Read more about the Master's Programme in
Architecture and Urban Design
Text: Jonas Lidström
Translation: Anna Lawrence
Photo: Malin Grönborg
On the wall next to Carla Collevecchio's workplace,
an aerial photograph of the Norwegian island Træna is posted, which
is the scene for the year two students' major, joint project.
Photo: Malin Grönborg
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