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Expanding Architectural Possibilities

A U.S. Army veteran brings his unique background to architecture to create moving, impactful spaces.

As a mortarman with the U.S. Army, Aaron Cass ’21 knows a thing or two about camaraderie, which is why he was pleasantly surprised by the sense of teamwork he discovered while pursuing his degree in Syracuse University’s School of Architecture .

“We’re not in it to be better than anyone else,” says Cass. “We’re here to learn from each other. I don’t need to be better than anybody. I want to learn with everybody.”

Cass decided to study architecture toward the end of his service. Interested in the subject since he was a boy, he earned an associate degree in architectural technology from Finger Lakes Community College before matriculating at Syracuse University.

Now in his final semester of the five-year bachelor of architecture program, he reflects on the strengths he’s developed throughout his somewhat unconventional career path. “I think veterans have the capability of being creative people but don’t often hone that skill during their time in the military,” explains Cass, who also discovered a passion and talent for photography while he was deployed. “I believe veterans have a perspective that is not widely seen in creative fields, but it's really important to give them those opportunities coming out of the service.”

Aaron Cass portrait. Click to read story
Aaron Cass served as a mortarman in the U.S. Army before studying architecture.

Finding Independence in the Army

Looking to gain some independence, Cass joined the Army out of high school to find out who he was and what he wanted to do in life, ultimately deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan. His four years in the service provided him with “nuggets of gold” for which he is thankful. “I learned how to be independent and take care of myself, and I met my wife,” says Cass. “There are all these little things that if I were to go back in time and not join the Army, I would not be where I am. I’m glad I did, because I am happy with who I am today.”

To cover the cost of University tuition, Cass utilizes his G.I. Bill benefits and the Yellow Ribbon Program . He’s also drawn upon some of the many services offered by the Office of Veteran and Military Affairs , most notably its career fairs.

“Syracuse really values its veterans. Whether you’re in a five-year program like me or a four-year program—or going into law enforcement, like many veterans do, or even a more creative field—it's really important to have those opportunities. That’s why it’s great that the University is so welcoming,” says Cass.

A Unique Perspective on a Creative Field

As he prepares to graduate this spring, Cass is busy working on his thesis, which ties together architecture and his expertise as a military veteran. He is studying the relationship between firearms used in mass shootings and the space and architecture in which those weapons are used, with a goal of understanding the role of spatial context in these deadly attacks. It was a topic that his advisors had never heard before and one reason why Cass sees potential in veterans joining creative fields. “It’s an important perspective to have from people who can make beautiful work, but still talk about very real things.”

Syracuse really values its veterans. Whether you’re in a five-year program like me or a four-year program—or going into law enforcement, like many veterans do, or even a more creative field—it's really important to have those opportunities.

—Aaron Cass

Cass was initially worried that his thesis idea would slip from his grasp and become something else entirely. “I came in with very strong ideas and a fairly clear project in mind, and although it has changed in its structure and approach after reviewing with my main thesis advisor, Professor Joseph Godlewski, I feel like I’m working on a much stronger version that he and the panel helped me get to.”

Cass is looking forward to working more closely with his thesis panel and Godlewski, who he says has done a great job of balancing critique and honest input with encouragement. Cass credits his advisor with sparking lively discussion and welcoming input from his students during his lectures. “His way of teaching makes the class more involved while making it clear that he’s interested in learning with us and not just teaching at us. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say that you could ask nearly any architecture student about Professor Godlewski and they would tell you they find him inspiring.”

The Possibilities That Lie Ahead

Reflecting on some of the architecture that’s had the most profound effect on him, Cass mentions the Jewish Museum Berlin , which he feels best represents the power of architecture and how a space can touch a person. “Just looking at the building itself, you see this object that is intimidating and doesn't look like a place you want to go into,” he says. “That architecture makes you feel something subconscious just by looking at it. But once you get into the building, it’s a different feeling.” He explains how the museum, though not a Holocaust museum, through its architecture and design gives the feeling of loneliness and dread but leads to light and hope. “It’s an incredibly moving space. To me it’s the best example of what architecture can and should be.”

Cass eventually hopes to design spaces for humanitarian causes, creating beautiful architecture that offers solutions to issues that affect communities, such as the need for safer hospitals. “Architecture has power, but not everyone sees it. It’s not just the space of it, but also the feeling of it, the atmosphere of it. The abilities and possibilities within it. That’s what I love about architecture.”  

Lisa Maresca

This story was published on .

Also of Interest

  • School of Architecture

    As the fourth oldest architecture school in the country, Syracuse's School of Architecture offers a professional curriculum that stresses creativity, research and problem solving. The five-year program leads to a Bachelor of Architecture degree.

  • Veterans and Military-Connected Students

    Syracuse University ranks among the nation's top schools for veterans, including being named the No. 1 Private School for Veterans by Military Times.