A Tribute to my Architecture Mentor.
|Jaime Juan Jose Bellalta |
June 24, 1922 - Mar. 20, 2012
Architect, Philosopher, Professor,
Catholic, Husband, Father,
Activist, Mentor, and Friend.
Professor Bellalta was my chosen advisor for that most arduous 5th-Year Architecture student's right-of-passage: Design Thesis. Now, there are many ways to get a degree in Architecture, but the Notre Dame way is modeled on the 5-year curriculum of la École des Beaux-Arts. Notre Dame's School of Architecture stands alone. It is not a Department in the College of Arts or Engineering. As opposed to a 4-year Bachelor of Art in Architecture or a 4-year Bachelor of Science in Architecture, the 5-year plan at Notre Dame combines both art and science courses, plus the requirement of this aforementioned semester-long design thesis.
Design Thesis culminates in a 30-minute oral defense of one's architectural design. As a comprehensive examination of the curriculum, Design Thesis:
- grows out of the interactions of a master's studio environment
- expresses the student's design philosophy,
- showcases mastery of presentation techniques such as drawing, rendering, and modeling,
- demonstrates knowledge of construction technology and materials,
- highlights awareness of the professional practice of architecture, and
- provides a forum for defending a particular design solution before a panel of critics
What is a Design Philosophy?
In the years leading up to thesis, students and professors get to know each other. I requested entry into Professor Bellalta's 12-student studio for my thesis because I admired his design philosophy. A philosophy of design is an architect's approach to creating architecture. I would describe Jaime's approach as soulful, artistic, organic, wise, empathetic, and client-centered.
There are three main philosophical approaches to architectural design and countless blends and variations. One approach is science-centered, one is art-centered, and one is client-centered. The successful student will know the science, the art, and the client. A student can follow any one of myriad paths to success, but normally a bond between a professor and student is formed on the basis of common preferences, outlooks, and abilities.
- Some architects enjoy solving the program requirements within budget constraints. For them, architecture is an primarily intellectual exercise like solving a puzzle. The modern idea that "Form follows function" might be their creed. Notre Dame had some architecture professors who attracted these very practical, engineering-minded students into their studio group.
- Some other architects have a very specific, recognizable style. For them, every design is an opportunity to showcase their talent and promote their "brand," if you will. If you hire Frank Gehry to design your building, you expect he'll create a spectacular sculpture. In contrast to the rational or industrial approach of modernists, this expression is all about style, personality, ornament. Notre Dame had some professors who attracted students with these artistic, post-modern aspirations.
- The final approach I will highlight is that of the empathetic designer. The passion behind empathetic design comes from the client. The architect projects the client's aspirations, and refines the solution from the client's feedback. Under this approach, architecture is neither mostly art nor mostly science, but a unique and complete blend of the two.
Professor Bellalta personified the empathetic designer. He attracted more students than he could take, and I was lucky to get into his studio.
The Design Studio
Jaime would come around to each of his 12 fifth-year design students and, after listening a bit, sketch what he heard and offer his inspirational feedback and with his ever-moving black Pentel felt marker. His idea was not to teach us how to "do" architecture, but how to feel it. He did not teach us the Way of Jaime. He taught us by example to listen first, then draw what we heard, adding a spark of insight if we could. He taught us that design is right when it "fits" and that fitness is determined by a unique combination of client desires, available materials, the influence of the environment, the deliberate use of color, proportion, rhythm, texture, deeply understood symbols, and finally, the skill of the master builder to pull all of these elements together.
My thesis was the design of a new ROTC facility on the campus. Initially, I envisioned a very prominent structure. After some debates about the presence of ROTC on a Catholic University, I opted for a less figural site. Impressed by my mentor's example, I became interested in the ability of architects to influence the way people see the world and themselves in it. Do people feel valued and included in this space? Do people feel moved by some deep connection felt in this space? Does the built environment complement the natural environment?
Professor Bellalta's Impact on Me
The desk-side one-on-one critiques in studio were invaluable. They shaped not only my design philosophy, but my outlook on life. They were only the beginning of Prof. Bellalta's profound influence on me.
The idea that architects have a role in positive social change inspired me to activism.
I revived and became the Editor of Architext, a student journal of architecture. The journal had been launched years prior, and shelved. I took it over, solicited content, published 4 editions during my fifth year, and handed the Editor's role to a successor. I was also founding President of Notre Dame's Student Chapter of Architects for Social Responsibility, concerned with educating people about the potential devastation of nuclear war. To this day, I am involved in community-based activism.
When I was a young adult at the beginning of my career, Professor Jaime Bellalta left an indelible Pentel sketch on the vellum of my psyche. His marks have endured nearly 30 years. I can still hear his fatherly voice, see his knowing smile, feel his penetrating eyes, and smell the black ink he left on the tracing paper over my continually improving designs. He lives on in the memories of all the students whose lives were enriched by his example: Architect, Philosopher, Professor, Catholic, Husband, Father, Activist, Mentor, and Friend.
NOTRE DAME - Jaime Juan José Bellalta, born in Santiago, Chile on June 24th, 1922, died surrounded by his loving family and friends at age 89 on March 20th in his home in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Amen, and Amen.