UF CityLab-Orlando Igniting Fruitful Ideation Within Local Architecture Community

By: Mia Alfonsi

University of Florida’s CityLab-Orlando worked in tandem with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Orlando Chapter and the Orlando Foundation for Architecture (OFA) to amplify architecture’s presence and prestige in Orlando.

Core 4 design studio students, completing their last design studio course before advancing into CityLab-Orlando’s Master of Architecture program, took on a uniquely relevant design challenge: the Orlando Center for Architecture and Design (OCAD).

The OCAD is a space that would house the Orlando Foundation of Architecture, AIA’s Orlando Chapter and the Orlando 2 + 2 + 2 Architecture Program, an NAAB accredited architecture program that Valencia College, the University of Central Florida and CityLab-Orlando, part of the UF School of Architecture. Lucas Najle, AIA, a 2015 UF CityLab-Orlando graduate, led this studio class in theorizing ideas for a project that would greatly impact Orlando.

The project started in January, and students completed their final reviews virtually due to COVID-19 and campuses shutting down.

As a UF CityLab-Orlando graduate, a licensed architect with over eight years of experience and a member of both the AIA’s Orlando chapter and OFA, Najle says his professional achievements coupled with his passion to expose students to experiences beyond the classroom are what drew him to the project.

“For me, I saw there was a perfect fit, and it was just a natural progression to create this project where students would be able to get exposed to those opportunities and then [work with] these architects that are actively making these kinds of projects happen in our community,” Najle said.

What’s more is this was the first building many of these students were able to design from the ground up. Previously, students had been conducting their architecture work in a more theoretical way.

Since the project’s conclusion, Najle reveals that UF CityLab-Orlando, AIA and OFA have still been in contact regarding the OCAD. The project is one of OFA’s long-term goals. Right now, the institute is trying to fundraise and build a foundation to hopefully implement OCAD in the future. There is a hope that this newfound relationship between AIA, OFA and UF CityLab-Orlando students will only continue to flourish.

“It’s kind of a nice synergy that’s happening between all the different programs,” Najle said.

It is this synergy, Najle’s leadership and the student ideation that Stephen Bender, UF CityLab-Orlando’s acting program director, says makes this theoretical project a bit more realistic.

“Lucas did a really good job of bringing [his students] to the level they needed to reach,” Bender said. “Students really focused on the social aspect of how organizations and people work together and made places for that. The designs are feasible in some fashion, and it would be feasible for OFA to continue this push and come up with a campaign that might result in a facility.”

Najle views this potential project as an opportunity for students to gain real professional experience and share their value given the subjectivity of architecture–each architect interprets a prompt in his or her own way.

“They have fresh ideas,” Najle said. “They’re seeing things from their point of view, so there’s a lot of value in having them involved to create these experiences. They are having their voice heard and influencing how OCAD could develop in the future.”

Plus, if the project were undertaken, most of UF CityLab-Orlando’s students are already working at firms in Orlando, so they could easily contribute their tangible experience to the endeavor, according to Najle. Through this partnership with the AIA, UF CityLab-Orlando is trying to ignite fruitful ideation within students that could contribute to a long-term impact on Orlando’s community.

OCAD would operate as a “big container for the Orlando architecture community,” according to Bender, and provide new value to the architecture profession. Ideally, it would operate as a one-stop-shop for architecture where people could learn about the profession, meet architects and get involved with important lectures or community events, Najle said.

This idea of having architecture centers in big cities is not unprecedented. In fact, Najle states there are many across the United States, and these buildings serve as an asset to the local community in helping spread awareness of architecture.

Najle’s commitment to this project, though theoretical, reaffirms his passion for advancing the profession of architecture and helping students lead with purpose. “As architects, we should always strive to be the community leaders,” Najle said. “The way we think is different from most people; we’re kind of natural problem solvers. To us, that is extremely valuable when it comes to realizing the impact of planning communities and expanding the built environment. The earlier students can make that connection, the greater an asset they become to their local communities.”

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