Dessein: Representing the Underrepresented

A course in Auburn’s Bachelor of Architecture program that many students look forward to is ARCH 3410: Dessein Elective. Dessein is a French word for design or plan, and students typically have two or three dessein elective options to pick from annually.

A dessein elective course is unique as it is fully faculty driven and developed around a faculty member’s area of expertise or interest. The purpose of the dessein elective is to explore the art of representation through architectural drawing. Gorham Bird, Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, has a Master of Science in Architectural Conservation from the University of Michigan, and has practiced professionally working on renovations and additions to historic structures. This led him to create Critical Conservation: Representing the Underrepresented, a dessein elective which explored architecture as an artifact of culture that can help with documenting the political, social and historical past. The course filled quickly, and using the Rosenwald Schools as their subject, the students were challenged to think about the way that architecture fits into the world of preservation and conservation. 

The Rosenwald Schools were built between 1912-32 throughout the rural South as educational facilities for African American children. The schools were unique in that they made it possible for African American children to receive formal education during a time of segregation. Today, many of these structures are in severe disrepair, prompting the National Trust for Historic Preservation to include the Rosenwald Schools on its list of endangered places. 

“Through this course, and the process of documenting a building, students are exposed, first-hand, to the responsibility of an architect to be an advocate,” said Bird, adding, “students see that their expertise can be utilized on behalf of local communities, and in this case, empower underrepresented communities in need.”

At the end of the semester the students had the opportunity to travel to the Tankersley Rosenwald School in Hope Hull, Alabama to complete architectural drawings and renderings of the structure as it currently stands, and to meet with Montgomery County Farmers Service and Welfare Association, a nonprofit organization made up of alumni of the school. Below are samples of student work from that field exercise. 

Learn more about The Rosenwald Schools and Auburn University’s restoration and preservation project surrounding them here. 

Related people:
Gorham Bird