Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the Center's signature education program: the Newhouse Architecture + Design Competition. To celebrate, we're reflecting on the program's enduring impact with alum Arturo Villalpando.
Each year, scores of Chicago area high school students participate in the Chicago Architecture Center's Newhouse Architecture + Design Competition. This legacy education program from the CAC gives students a peek into how the architecture industry operates through firsthand experience applying the design process to real-world problems. It also teaches them what it means to be an engaged citizen, creating innovative solutions for community needs through design.
Ahead of the competition's 40th anniversary in 2022, we're reflecting on its impact on the thousands of teens who have participated over the years, many of whom have gone on to have careers in the field. CAC Director of Education and Experience Angela Esposito recently spoke with Arturo Villalpando, a program alum currently working at bKL Architecture. Here's an excerpt from that conversation.
Tell me about you and the work that you’re currently doing.
I’m of Mexican heritage. I went to a bilingual grammar school, all the way up to fourth grade, I think, and then I transitioned into more of an English platform. So I learned the English language when I was older. Then I went to Lane Tech High School. I didn’t even know that it was more of a drafting kind of school. All of the freshmen were forced to take drafting – I say “forced” like it’s a bad thing! But I was required to take drafting and for some reason, I had a knack for it.
When you go into your sophomore year you’re given the choice to pursue a specific area of interest – there’s the architecture engineering side, there’s sciences, the mathematics, and physical education if that’s what you wanted to do. I did the architecture course because I kind of liked it and then that’s when I got introduced to the Newhouse competition.
Then that was the main focus from my sophomore year to my senior year. That’s when I heard that you could win an internship and work at a firm and get some experience. In 2010, I got the internship here at bKL, which is actually a fairly new firm. It was founded in January 2010 and I started in June—I was the first intern!
I’m really grateful for the Newhouse competition. It gave me a way to get some experience and reassure myself that this is actually what I wanted to do, which was really important and something that I didn’t take for granted, but also didn’t realize how important it was until I got to college. There were probably 50 or 60 students in my architecture class, broken up by studios. By my senior year, there were maybe 18 of us. So it was kind of funny to see how some people didn’t like it, but I stuck with the program because I already had the experience of working at a firm for a summer.
BKL gave me some big responsibilities that summer, they didn’t just put me in a corner and give me busy work. I was doing a little bit of everything: model shop, drawing, using software that architects use. That was in high school, which, now that I think about it, was kind of crazy! Something that’s really cool about bKL, where I work now, is that it’s very diverse. It’s something like 50% women, and I think we have something like 18 different languages spoken at the office. So it’s a very diverse group of people, which has obviously grown over the years.
That internship through Newhouse was only for the summer, but they were happy with the work I was doing and my work ethic, so they gave me the opportunity to keep coming back every summer break during school. When I graduated I was offered a job right away at bKL. I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to go through that hustle of getting interviews from other firms and trying to find a place to work.
What would you say to teachers about why the Newhouse competition and projects are important to students, from a student perspective?
Freshman year, teachers gave you a tutorial book about how to use CAD [computer-aided design]. You know, follow all these steps. Which is being used in architecture, yes, but all you’re doing is learning software. The thing I loved about the Newhouse competition is that it’s giving you these windows into what architecture really is. And it’s asking you to use everything you’ve learned. For example, one of the competitions I did was designing a house, and you’re using the software you learn your freshman year, you’re also using your creativity because you have to make something super cool. And then, at times, some of the divisions were even team projects in the classroom, which helped you collaborate with others. And that’s what you’re doing here in the profession—you’re never working alone, especially in projects here at bKL.
Something that I did appreciate from my teacher was that he was very hands-off. Not that he didn’t want to teach us, but he asked us to figure things out on our own, and if we had questions or problems, he’d have us collaborate with other students. It’s not linear, you’re getting a little bit of this, a little bit of that, which is preparing you for what the actual architecture field demands—it’s not always pretty colors.
The school year was pretty long, so we’d be working on our Newhouse division and it had its own list of requirements, so we’d have critique days in the classroom. We’d talk with our teacher and our classmates, and then they might have opinions. And that gave you the ownership, where we’re like, “oh, this doesn’t look good you might want to try and do this.” And sometimes you might have to scrap the whole thing altogether and start over. So you’re getting everything. It was so cool, the fact that my high school transition into college and the studio side of things was a little different, but it had a lot of the same principles.
What would you tell students about why they should get involved in Newhouse? Why should they layer this on top of their high school experience?
If you want to go into this career path, the Newhouse competition gives you a good opportunity to be able to work on projects and do things that show you what the architecture field would be like. That’s why I think Newhouse is very important, especially during your high school years—it’s a way to get this firsthand experience. It saves you a lot of time. There’s also a lot of things that the Chicago Architecture Center offers that could give high schoolers a little taste of what this field is like.
When I went into college, I felt way beyond my years. Even during my first year of college, some of the classes were teaching us how to use software that I already knew.
What did the professors say?
There were even kids in the master’s program that didn’t have internship experience, which was kind of crazy to me. That’s why I’m forever grateful to the Chicago Architecture Center.