Alex Thomas ’22 builds an academic architecture path

Kay Richter, Staff Writer

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As a small liberal arts college, there are some fields of study that Macalester can’t offer, like finance, engineering and architecture. This has not deterred Alex Thomas ’22 from pursuing his love of architecture and design.

Thomas applied and enrolled at Macalester under the impression that the school’s joint architecture program with Washington University in Saint Louis still existed. The program involved spending three years at Macalester for the general education requirements and finishing the architecture requirements in two years at Washington University.

It wasn’t until late in his first semester that the information about the previously discontinued program was taken off the art and art history department website. Thomas recalls he “was upset and nervous about what [he] would do next.”

Design and architecture have always intrigued Thomas. He often thinks of questions about common objects that usually don’t merit a second glance.

“Why are jars and glasses more vertical than horizontal?” he asked. “Have they been shaped a certain way so we can hold them better or drink out of them easier? How does our usage of everyday objects like glasses or even classrooms affect the way they are designed?”

Thomas’ unusual high school experience inspired him to consider the purpose behind designs. He attended a boarding school in India. He described the design of the school as “strongly influenced by considerations for the environment and social interactions.” His school’s  learning environment around him focused on community and independence, and the physical school was built to reflect that.

Thomas’ school is not the only factor that got him thinking about design. His family is from Kerala on the southern coast of India, but Thomas spent much of his life in Dubai. The high school he attended was in a rural, developing part of the country. “Living in different environments both naturally and socially has influenced what I aspire to in communities I want to live in,” Thomas said.

“When I think of architecture and design,” Thomas said, “it represents a way to convey my perspective on the world through experiences. There are increasing needs for spaces that inform curiosity and appreciation for the environment and spaces wherein we strive for social justice.

I think design can affect that change,” he continued. “Whether it means planning buildings for physical accessibility or implementing policies to fight gentrification, I want to be a part of that change.”

Thomas has to get creative if he wants to pursue architecture at Macalester. His first instinct was to try to design his own major, but he decided against it very quickly because the school does not make the process easy.

“At Macalester there isn’t a lot of support because not too many people want to do it,” Thomas said, “and not too many people want to do it because there isn’t a lot of support.”

His solution? An environmental studies major with an emphasis in sustainable design. At Macalester, the environmental studies department embraces interdisciplinary studies by requiring majors to take seven classes in environmental studies and seven classes in a different department. The sustainable design emphasis combines classes in the art department with architecture classes taken during a semester abroad in Copenhagen.

Thomas is more than happy about his major even though it wasn’t his first choice. “I find it exciting and challenging to tie my work in other classes back to sustainability and architecture.” Thomas said, “I like the fact that academics at Macalester allow for that cross-disciplinary connection — to highlight connections that aren’t immediately visible through independent work.”

The sustainable design emphasis offers him other unexpected benefits. He considered a computer science and studio art double major but explained that “as a STEM major, pursuing computer science allows international students like myself to work in the U.S. for three years after graduating as opposed to a work permit for one year for non-STEM majors. Environmental studies counts as a STEM major at Macalester which leaves me less stressed about job opportunities later.”

Additionally, Thomas will get to go abroad because study away in Copenhagen is a required part of the curriculum. International students have much stricter rules about studying away while keeping their financial aid and have to choose from specific Macalester-led or exchange programs. The Copenhagen program doesn’t fit these requirements, so it would’ve been off the table with a different choice of major.

In the future, Thomas hopes to put his knowledge of sustainable design to use.

“I want to effect a positive change in the world around me through sustainable architecture and design,” he said. “Perhaps that means working as an architect to design affordable housing or working with urban policy to create friendlier cities, I’m not sure. I know that I want my work to benefit communities who need good design the most — marginalized, developing communities — to strive for social justice the most effective way I can.”

Thomas’ main advice to others hoping to follow a similar path at Macalester is to find those connections between classes, academic interests and personal connection to design. He hopes that students “recognize the importance of [their] voice and experience when it comes to architecture. Ask yourself what drives your interest? What problems do you want to solve through design? And importantly, how can your other interests contribute to that solution?”