Casey Boss 03 refers to a model and diagram
to explain her thesis to a jury of professors during
her final thesis presentation in Slocum Hall.
architecture student Casey E. Boss 03 impatiently kicks
off her heels, tucks loose strands of hair behind her ear,
shouts directions to an underclassman, and turns back to pinning
photographs on a wall inside Slocum Hall. Breathe, remember
to breathe, she reminds herself aloud. On the other
side of that wall, classmate Nick Saponara 03 tugs at
the tie stifling his hasty movements, wipes sweat from his
forehead, and grumbles Should I hang all of this stuff?
is the frantic build-up to the moment that these fifth-year
architecture students have worked toward all year. Its
time for the final presentation of their architecture thesesand
they stand before representational models, charts and graphs,
drawings, and computer-generated images that they labored
over for hundreds of hours. In a few minutes, juries of four
professors will convene and render judgment on the content
and quality of the work. Each students presentationa
culmination of five years of studios and critiqueswill
be completed in less than an hour. Right now, I just
want to get it over with, says Saponara, whose eyes
dart from his pin-ups to the jury members taking their seats.
ways, the architecture thesis is a rite of passage. It is
an incredibly intense, yearlong process in which both bachelors
and masters degree architecture students are responsible
for all aspects of a project and develop their own approaches
to architecture. Each student chooses a site location, the
building type, the architectural form, and the philosophical
and social values the project will objectify. Until this point
in their education, students have worked within professors
established guidelines. In a fundamental way, the thesis
experience demands that students make sense of their education
and figure out what is important to them as architects,
says Professor Christopher Gray, former chair of the undergraduate
architecture program. The thesis is a point of completion
where the student becomes the protagonist and moves from being
a student to a peer.
focuses on Thesis Preparation, a three-credit independent
study course in which each student meets regularly with a
two-member faculty advising committee and develops the projects
groundwork. Throughout this semester, students have three
formal committee reviews, during which they present their
research and provide updates on their emerging plans. They
often travel to the locations of their projects to analyze
them in context through sketching and research documentation.
A few weeks before the semester ends, they each create a book,
a lengthy document that outlines their architectural intentions
and how they will apply them to their chosen sites. The semester
ends with a presentation of the book, which serves as the
blueprint for the spring semesters work. A similar review
process occurs during second semester, with higher expectations
and more detailed designs, and culminates with final thesis
presentations in April.
leaves outside Slocum Hall transform into colorful bursts
of orange and gold as brisk winds portend winters arrival
in two short months. As Kristine Mummert 03 walks across
campus, she carries a sketch pad, ready to draw anything she
sees that sparks a new idea for her thesis projecta
facility in Philadelphias old Naval Yard for women with
eating disorders. Thesis is always on my mind,
Mummert says. Throughout our education, our professors
have prepared us for this year. Its a big deal because
were proving ourselves. Its only halfway
through first semester, and she already considers sleep a
luxury. But whats sleep, when your identity as an architect
is on the line? Thesis is such a personal project that
its as revealing as an autobiography, Mummert
says. Sometimes critiques make you feel like youre
standing there naked in front of everyone.
heard all the hype about fifth year, architecture students
expect the worst. What you hear from upperclassmen is
that you work in the studio all the time, says Sarah
Mossien 03. Thats very true, but I also
managed to have a job and be involved in several committees
within the School of Architecture while working on my thesis.
I havent had any free time all semester.
says his fifth year began at the 2002 graduation ceremonies
as he watched classmates from other colleges receive their
four-year degrees, knowing that his hardest year was still
ahead. Architecture students must complete their theses before
receiving a professional bachelor of architecture degree.
In a lot of ways I feel like my class graduated last
year, Saponara says. It almost feels like were
graduate students. Im seeing campus from the outside.
Slocum Hall, those fifth-year student feelings of the old
senior dissipate into round-the-clock project preparation,
model making, brainstorming, and communal commiseration with
classmates. The building has an interesting hum, especially
toward the end of a semester, says Gray, who describes
the school as a big family and a physical home for its students.
Its a slightly frenetic combination of stress
and high energy. Its messy vitality. The building
is open 24 hours. Students have their own design tables and
work space where they store materials, stash midnight snacks,
and create their architectural proposals alongside their closest
is something special that occurs in the trial by fire
of thesis, says John Enright 86, who met his wife,
Margaret Griffin 86, when they were freshman architecture
students. You form strong bonds with the people you
share the experience with, and you take those with you for
your entire life. Today, the couple run their own firm,
Griffin Enright Architects, in Los Angeles, and Griffin returned
to Syracuse a few years after graduation to teach. The
fifth-year thesis project is one of the strongest components
of the school, Enright says. It is steeped in
tradition and each year shows the breadth and depth of the
school as a whole.
working world, architects must develop and present their ideas
with conviction and clarity to a variety of audiences: clients,
construction teams, and sometimes entire communities. Architecture
students are taught to do the same kind of presenting and
defending of their designs, says architecture professor
Anne Munly. Theres this constant appraisal of
your work by faculty, peers, and yourself. Its not like
writing a paper where if you dont do well, youre
the only one who knows. Everything here is public.
Thanksgiving break only a week away, the students switch into
high gear, as their thesis proposals are due when they return.
All 90 of us are in this together and help each other
through the tough times, Mossien says. We work
next to each other and give our opinions to enhance each others
is exploring negotiated boundaries and orientation in his
design for a new subway station at 2nd Avenue and 96th Street
in New York City. Boss is interested in photography and use
of perspective in creating an addition to a Boston theater
with a nightclub in the basement. They have visited, diagrammed,
photographed, and studied their respective sites extensively.
Now they review the material and try to make sense of it in
relation to the larger theoretical ideas they want their designs
week, my parents called and asked how I was doing, Saponara
says in late November. I told them Ive been up
for two days, and they thought I had only gotten a couple
hours of sleep. But I literally had been up for two days.
Boss makes sure she sleeps at least three hours a night. I
need a small amount regularly, otherwise Im not productive,
run high as rumors circulate about classmates who have had
negative reviews or who may withdraw so they can repeat the
preparation course. Witnessing classmates failures or
setbacks is particularly difficult, because fifth-year architecture
students are like teammates working toward the same goalsurviving
thesis. You can work forever and get nowhere, but you
have to keep working, Boss says.
Ilon Keilson 03 works on his thesis at his desk
in the loft of Slocum Hall.
became an SU professor almost 30 years ago, he says incoming
freshmen were told, Look right, look left, one of those
people wont graduate. It was more a game of survival.
Today, its a different culture, he says.
Its still rigorous, but we want everyone to be
successful. Now, most students who remain in the architecture
program through sophomore year will graduate, although some
must stay on after Commencement to complete their theses.
This year, approximately 15 of the 93 thesis students withdrew
from the preparation course in the fall or failed and had
to retake the course in the spring, Gray says. Among those
students was Ilon Keilson 03, who completed the thesis
preparation course in spring and finished his project over
the summer. I was not on pace to be ready by the final
day, he says. It does not reflect on the amount
of work I had done. He had extensively researched faceless
memorials and examined connections between architecture and
philosophy, but had not developed enough specific material
about his site, the islands of Boston Harbor. I consider
thesis the time when I establish myself as an architect,
says Keilson, who plans to work at an architectural firm overseas
this fall. Ill be working on the idea of architecture
as philosophy for much longer than the two semesters the School
of Architecture assigns to thesis, so I had problems picking
a place to test it.
Munly says that devising the philosophical framework and theoretical
guidelines by which to design a site is the projects
most difficult element. Thesis requires students to
bring to the table the issues important to them, Munly
says. Students often struggle to identify the issues
that transcend the particular project and are generally applicable.
Once they have established that, then they test the idea through
their designs of a specific site.
December 10, a freezing rain coats the outside of Slocum Hall.
But inside things are heating up for Saponara, who is presenting
his thesis intentions to professors Munly and Scott Ruff,
his faculty committee that has supported and critiqued him
throughout the semester. Saponara has studied and charted
the kinds of people who would ride the new subway line by
walking from one end of the Manhattan neighborhood to the
other. Along the way, he gathered data from newsstands about
the kind and number of newspapers sold each day in hopes of
designing a subway station that will reflect the riders
interests and demographics.
analysis is beautiful, Ruff says. Thats
one of your strengths. Now you need to focus on finding the
aesthetic and start considering what form it will take. Spend
the first few weeks of next semester trying out some ideas.
Make that leap of faith.
semester begins with portfolio preparation, job searches,
and interviewstypical senior worries about future plansand,
of course, thesis work. Neither Boss nor Saponara feels theyve
made enough progress on thesis. During the first of three
reviews, Boss says her faculty committee voiced concern about
how little model building she had done. Meanwhile, Saponara,
who was named a School of Architecture Class Marshal for Commencement,
eyes the graduation countdown above his desk. He interviews
with Teach for America and several architectural firms, attempting
to solidify future plans. He claims his thesis has temporarily
taken the back burner to cheering the mens basketball
team to the national title, and he marvels that his reviews
continue to go well.
has a breakthrough while attending an April 14 lecture by
visiting architect Beatriz Colomina. The lecture inspired
me about what I was doing with my thesis, Boss says.
I was excited that someone whose work I had been reading
could clearly articulate what I had been struggling to do.
Her work, in a sense, validated mine, especially when I was
questioning my work so much. Boss has not left her work
area in the Slocum loft for eight hours. Her creative juices
are flowing and she sustains her muse with pretzel sticks,
carbonated water, and a hypnotic love song played on repeat.
I work until I cant go any longer, she says.
of Eric Moss
Moss G87, a principal at Ayers Saint Gross in
Baltimore, was hired by the firm based on his thesis
design of a new baseball stadium for the Baltimore
the normal lifestyle of thesis students, and its commonly
accepted as one of the most intense periods in an architects
career. You cant work much harder than on thesis,
says Eric Moss, who completed a thesis project at Syracuse
to earn a master of architecture degree in 1987. You
just cant dedicate yourself like that for your entire
career. Wed all live short lives if we did. Dont
get me wrong, architects work hard, but we try to be humane.
Nothing is ever quite like thesis.
now a principal at Ayers Saint Gross in Baltimore, and his
thesis story has taken on legendary status in the School of
Architecture and at his firm. He designed a baseball stadium
for the Baltimore Orioles that moved away from the generic,
cookie-cutter style of the 60s and 70s into a
more contextual structure that maintained the areas
and baseballs history and spirit. He was invited to
exhibit his thesis at the schools Super Jury, an opportunity
for the top dozen masters and bachelors degree
students with the highest grades to present their projects
to a panel of outside judges. The judges are mostly distinguished
architects and educators from across the country who decide
which three students should share the $6,000 worth of cash
prizes attached to the James A. Britton Memorial Awards for
Best Theses. Adam Gross 79, partner and cofounder of
the Baltimore firm that was vying for the actual contract
for Oriole Park at Camden Yards, was one of the judges. He
saw Mosss presentation and offered him a job on the
spot. That made all the all-nighters worthwhile,
Moss says. I had been so wrapped up in my thesis that
I never thought about what I would do tomorrow, and here I
was, having a job just given to me. From there, things got
even more surreal.
grabbed the attention of national newspapers, Baltimore radio
personalities, and the Orioles management. He was featured
in the book, Ballpark: The Making of an American Dream.
Elements of his thesis project were incorporated into the
actual stadium design, and perhaps most importantly for Moss,
an avid baseball fan, it changed the way the architectural
community approached stadium design. These firms that
specialize in stadium design all caught the wave and are doing
things that are much less generic and more site specific,
says Moss, whose forte is now in designing new and renovated
facilities for colleges and universities.
his story to inspire thesis students whom he interviews each
year during recruiting trips to Syracuse. Ive
had students call me and ask, How do I do that? How
can I do something that will bring me acclaim?
he says. I wasnt seeking it. I was just like everybody
else, working hard. The rest was just a matter of good fortune.
But employers do value graduates who have successfully completed
the rigorous thesis experience. The thesis is always
the last project in students portfolios and should represent
their best work to date, Enright says. So, of
course, the thesis becomes the best measure of a students
capabilities. Thesis becomes the students first attempt
at tackling a holistic view, in his or her own terms, of how
architecture can change our environment.
2 p.m. on April 29, the moment arrives for Saponara and Boss.
Several students and friends are on hand to watch as Saponara
begins. Working on two hours of restless sleep, he introduces
his project and methodology, carefully describing his research,
plans, models, and illustrations. He falls into a comfortable
groove and calmly answers questions from his faculty jury.
the other side of the wall, Boss works through her nerves
by giving a quick 10-minute overview of her project and intentions.
She then uses questions from faculty to prompt more detailed
explanations of her thesis. Professor James Cooper expresses
frustration at having to coax information out of her. Im
beginning to grasp whats there, he says. Its
a really interesting study. But I wish you could reveal a
little more without so much prodding. So she does. She
grabs an intricate cardboard model with removable wallswhich
corresponds to sleek, computer-generated illustrations of
the buildingand uses both visual tools to explain the
overlap of space between the nightclub and the theater and
the perspectives of each clientele.
little fanfare, the presentations are done. No applause, no
speeches, no wrap-ups. The professors slip away to side rooms
to discuss grades. Saponara, who finished a few minutes earlier,
finds Boss, and they take a moment together to decompress
from a years worth of stress. Neither has many words
left. They return to their respective sides of the wall to
remove their materials and make room for the next thesis students.
Professors discreetly deliver their grades to them. The students
facial expressions reveal little, and both are surprised to
learn they are among 12 students selected to present at this
years Super Jury. Those presentations are a much more
relaxed and pleasurable experiencea perfect ending to
an exhausting year, they say.
Nick Saponara 03 fields questions from professors
about his designs for a proposed New York City subway
during his final thesis presentation.
weeks have lapsed since those final presentations. Boss and
Saponara reflect on the whirlwind that enveloped graduation,
a farewell to friends, and a temporary relocation to their
parents homes in Wayland, New York, and Yonkers, New
York, respectively. At this point, they describe their thesis
presentations as a blur, with little memory of
what they or their jurors actually said. But the thesis process
itself is unforgettable. For a year, we all loved hating
thesis, says Boss, now a design intern at Ballinger,
an architectural firm in Philadelphia. But now I just
love it. I got to the end of the year and came away with a
project that I really like and take pride in. Saponara
maintains a bittersweet fondness. Thesis was a great
experience that Ill look back on as being very valuable
to my educationbut not for a second would I want to
do it again, he says. Ive got the official
branding of having completed my rite of passage, so Im
ready to go into the workforce.
a University Scholar who spoke at Commencement, has a thesis
story that ranks with Mosss ballpark project. Saponara
chose his New York City subway site based on his interest
in transportation systems and how the long-proposed 2nd Avenue
subway line would affect the Big Apple. Little did he know
that his top choice in future employers, Fox & Fowle Architects
in New York City, would be involved in the actual construction
of the subway. His thesis and in-depth study of the project
set him apart from other qualified graduates in securing a
position with the firm, he says. Im really invested
in the new subway line from an academic standpoint, which
is different from the real-world conditions that the projects
team is facing, he says. They didnt hire
me because I have all this knowledge that will revolutionize
the design, but more because I bring an exceptional energy
and interest to the project. I couldnt have asked for
more from my thesis and senior year. Its been pretty