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Teaching in the Streets

Art history professor uses the city as his classroom

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March 8, 2012 | by Brendan Cosgrove

AUDIO: Professor David Van Zanten discusses his class field trip around Chicago

CHICAGO --- The first stop of the Chicago outing for the Northwestern University art history students was the gentrifying Wicker Park neighborhood, followed by visits to an architecturally significant high-rise in Hyde Park and then the Illinois Institute of Technology campus on the South Side.

“I would prefer to teach in the streets rather than in the classroom if I’m here in Chicago,” said David Van Zanten, Mary Jane Crowe Professor of Art and Art History.

For most of the last 30 years, Van Zanten has been taking students from his “History of Modern Architecture” class on field trips around Chicago to get a firsthand look at the buildings and areas they are studying.

Van Zanten believes that if you are studying architecture on a campus near “one of the most important cities in the world,” you don’t want to be confined to a classroom with four walls.

These trips, Van Zanten says, give his students the opportunity to understand that architecture isn’t about a single building.

“It’s about context. It’s about scale. It’s about a dynamic between the building, the spaces and the individual looking,” he said.

In Chicago’s Wicker Park, the students learned how a typical late 19th-century urban environment has survived as a thriving neighborhood today.

In Hyde Park, they examined a high-rise designed by noted architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to learn about what Van Zanten calls “a very subtle solution to the problem of building a high-rise” in the mid-20th century, halfway between the traditional and the modern.

Finally, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the students got a feel for how a college campus was built from scratch within Chicago’s famous grid system of city streets.

“Architecture is about a lot more than just photographs and words,” Van Zanten said. “You have to get out of the classroom.”

In the above audio interview, Van Zanten elaborates on the class trip and why he thinks it is important for students to learn by experience.

Topics: Campus Life, University