Independent Work in Architecture: An Interview with Rae Perez ’19

Learning about independent work in different disciplines can widen your understanding of research and provide insight into the diversity of work being done by the undergraduate research community. This may be especially important if you are a first-year or sophomore student deciding on what concentration to declare. As a GEO major, I am very familiar with the type of research that goes into scientific independent work, but less familiar with research in other disciplines.

To learn more about other types of student research on campus, I interviewed Rae Perez ‘19 about her independent work in the architecture department. Rae is researching the closing of 50 public schools in black neighborhoods in Chicago. Her thesis will analyze these buildings in the context of the city’s racial and political landscape. If you are curious about what research for an architecture thesis might look like, here is what Rae shared about her independent work:

What is your thesis about?

It is an architecture thesis challenging the borders of architecture by dipping into social sciences, urbanism, racial and political dynamics of a city. [I am] trying to understand how individual buildings reflect political ideologies. Chicago shut down 50 public schools in predominantly black neighborhoods and is doing nothing to help a struggling demographic they have historically injured. I want to look at how these buildings have embodied different meanings over time.

“This is Overton Elementary, a school on the South Side of Chicago shut down in 2013. Since then, architecture firm Border-less Studios has organized several art installations and activities to activate the site while its future is being determined.” – Rae

What makes this topic important?

So much African American culture has come out of these neighborhoods, and taking away the schools erases this legacy. These buildings matter. I want to use architecture not just to think about the buildings’ floor plans but to think about the meaning behind the spaces.

I am tentatively interested in exploring looking at the size of these schools and their locations to understand them as spaces. These schools are huge and concentrated within a very small area and the reason is because African Americans in Chicago are concentrated in a very small area through segregation and red-lining.

“I want to use architecture not just to think about the buildings’ floor plans but to think about the meaning behind the spaces.”

Why did you choose this topic?

I did my JP on a very different topic related to education. I wrote about online learning environments–how online classrooms compare with physical classrooms and how to use architectural ideologies to design a digital learning space. So education has always been a driving theme behind my academic work. For my thesis I wanted to look at a contemporary issue in education in a specific place. [My topic] hasn’t been examined through the lens of architecture and urbanism, only through education and policy [cultural and social lenses].

What does architecture research look like? How do you research a space?

It’s a good question. Architecture is a relatively new discipline, and because it is interdisciplinary, it draws on a lot of other types of research.  On a day to day basis I do a lot of historical research and looking at floor plans, but also going out and interviewing people–doing the type of research you might see in anthropology or sociology. There are a limitless number of ways you can approach the analysis of a space, from formal qualities (what it is) to environmental qualities (what it feels like) to how it interacts with the larger environment, [for example] as one unit in a larger urban context. [Architecture] uses a lot of different methodologies but gives primacy to the tectonic features of a space (features related to building and construction). It basically attributes agency to [these features], which is to say the way something is built and designed matters and you can analyze its effects on what goes on inside and outside that space.

While Rae’s architecture research focuses on studying space and architectural features, her interdisciplinary approach to research is applicable to many other research areas. Using a variety of research approaches may allow you to tackle a scholarly issue from a unique perspective, giving new insight into a topic. Learning about different approaches to research on campus can be very valuable. It may widen your understanding of a discipline, help you decide what concentration to choose, and perhaps even inspire a new direction in your own research.

Alec Getraer, Natural Sciences Correspondent