On the surface, Boston Architectural College (BAC) may seem an unlikely place to find innovative teaching. It is a small evening school in a 1960s concrete slab building (sporting a huge trompe l'oeil mural of a classical structure that can be seen from the portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike that runs through downtown Boston) with open enrollment and a predominantly volunteer faculty. But this outward appearance belies the BAC's incredible strengths: It was one of the first architecture schools to introduce “concurrent practice,” incorporating professional work in the design field into the curriculum, which so many programs nationwide now emulate. Also, its privileged location in the center of Boston means that plenty of nascent architects who dream of teaching provide a healthy supply of educational innovators.
Dan Weissman was one of those young visionaries. In 2005, as he was completing his undergraduate architecture degree at Washington University in St. Louis, the Milwaukee native was recruited by fellow alum William Lam to join high-profile Cambridge, Mass.–based lighting design firm Lam Partners. Once in the office, Weissman, who was armed with just a single lighting class from his architectural coursework that split the semester with acoustics, had to soak up knowledge on the job. And he did; fast enough to be recruited by Lam to assist teaching a core lighting course at the BAC the following year. (Lam Partners has been involved with the BAC lighting courses since 1986, frequently calling on the assistance of recent graduates who are new employees to provide a broader sense of lighting practice beyond the traditional office workplace.)
Weissman knew from working at Lam, and from his own formal education, that architects could benefit from a stronger introduction to the principles of lighting. There had been plenty of times while he was at Lam Partners that an architect's lack of basic knowledge about daylighting principles shocked him. He had seen a number of highly developed projects in the office that would have been much more complete if the original designers had had a better awareness and understanding of daylighting principles and techniques.
Practical work experience also taught Weissman how he learned best—by doing. He had learned lighting from colleagues and through simple trial and error. Returning to the classroom, Weissman was acutely aware that a studio-like setting would be the best way to convey to students the phenomenological aspects of working with light. “Instructors tend to give too much information all at once, but architectural students think differently from engineers—they are empirical learners, not number crunchers,” he says. “The challenge is to pull out the big issues, discuss them thoroughly, and let students explore iterations of a design problem.”