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Designing Welcoming Spaces, Virtually

Architecture student Aaron Cass finds remote learning success and a creative vision for downtown Syracuse with support from professors and classmates.

Aaron Cass portrait

If you were to ask Aaron Cass ’21 why he decided to study architecture after serving in the U.S. Army, he’d likely tell you about the time when, as a teenager, he designed his dream house. The fantastical home featured 10 stories with a diving board on the roof leading down to a pool in what he dubbed the “oasis room.” His creation included a five-story waterfall and exotic plants, a massive basement dedicated to video and table games, and a personal zoo on the ground level.

Despite some obvious flaws with the physics of the design, Cass never forgot how passionate he was while sketching it. That memory is what drove him to consider architecture when he was planning his next steps after serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a mortarman. Ever the analyst, he made a list of interests that included photography and math. Initially, architecture was at the bottom of that list, but the more Cass reminisced about the house he'd sketched as a teenager, the more the field appealed to him.

Cass earned an associate degree in architectural technology from Finger Lakes Community College before studying at Syracuse University’s School of Architecture , where he just finished his fourth year of the five-year bachelor of architecture program. When the University shifted to online instruction due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cass, like all students, had to figure out how to complete his courses remotely—no easy feat when you’re in a program that requires students to create models of buildings using specialized equipment. Despite this, he says the remote learning experience has been a positive one, mostly due to the support of professors and classmates.

“It was hard, but we’re still a community and continue to help each other out, only now it’s less about going to someone’s desk and more about discussing how we’re handling classes and how we’re doing mentally,” says Cass. “If our school didn’t have that tight community, it would’ve been much harder.”

If our school didn’t have that tight community, [transitioning to online learning] would’ve been much harder.

3D concept model of a building designed by Aaron Cass
The concept model for Cass’s comprehensive design studio course featured a range of play spaces for children of various ages and abilities.

Assistant Professor Daekwon Park, who teaches the comprehensive design studio course Cass took, was patient as the students adapted to a new way of completing their coursework. During one session where students were particularly struggling, Park paused the class discussion to allow them to talk about how they were feeling. “He understood how difficult it was to stay motivated,” says Cass. “It was helpful to hear him acknowledge that.”

School of Architecture students go through the program as a cohort in which the initial core curriculum is sequentially organized, with each semester building on previous study. Cass and his classmates in the comprehensive design studio course must design a building with programmatic needs and a target audience in mind. He and his partner were in the process of creating the model for their building in downtown Syracuse when the transition to remote learning began.

Alternate view of 3D concept model of a building designed by Aaron Cass
Structure model for Cass’s comprehensive design studio course.

Their mixed residential building was designed in mind for working families and kids up to 17 years of age living in downtown Syracuse—an area that is built more for employed adults than for children. Their model was to showcase a mixed residential space that catered to this younger demographic by featuring a range of play space for children of various ages and abilities. One portion of the building would have an indoor playground that transitioned to a parkour gym and then to a rock-climbing wall. “We wanted to create something elegant to give back to a demographic that doesn’t find a whole lot of welcoming space downtown,” explains Cass.

Instead of presenting a large-scale model in person, Cass and his partner shared their ideas by presenting diagrams and drawings on a slideshow over Zoom. A different experience than they had anticipated, but a success nonetheless.

Cass is looking forward to graduating next spring and entering the world of architecture, no matter where it takes him and his wife, a recent graduate of SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry . His goal is to put his degree to good use and design beautiful spaces for humanitarian causes. “There is too much suffering in this world," he says. "I hope to use my skills and designs to fix that.”

Lisa Maresca

This story was published on .

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