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Until last fall, Lauren Brown had never heard of the Urban Land Institute or its student design competition. This week, she’s on her way to Minneapolis, Minn., where she'll compete against students from Harvard and Yale in the contest, with a $50,000 prize at stake.
In the months between, there were many trips to Manhattan, Kan., 16-hour work days during winter break and a lot of hours spent with the other graduate students on her team. All well worth it, the KU architecture student says, even if it’s been a bit overwhelming.
“I knew it was going to be intense,” Brown said, “but I hadn’t really prepared myself for how intense it was going to be.”
Brown, from Hermitage, Mo., is in the fifth year of KU’s five-year Master of Architecture program, in which students also get a bachelor’s degree along the way.
This ride began in September, when one of her instructors, Genevieve Baudoin, recommended her to a group of Kansas State University graduate students forming a team for the Urban Land Institute’s Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition.
In the contest, teams of five graduate-level students from around the country compete each year to design a new way to use a chunk of urban land in a certain city. The three K-State students, all in a master’s program for landscape architecture, needed a building architect on their team. Their adviser came to KU for help.
Baudoin, an assistant professor of architecture, went to Brown, who she says is a sharp student she thought would fit in.
“I knew she’d be good at working on a team,” Baudoin said.
She joined Brown to meet with the K-State students at a Lawrence coffee shop, where they hit it off. (It was kind of like an architectural blind date, Baudoin says.) A Master of Business Administration student from the University of Missouri-Kansas City joined the team, as well, to serve as a real estate expert. They formed one of 149 teams from the United States and Canada that would compete in the ULI contest.
Brown didn’t even learn until she’d accepted her spot that the winning team would receive a $50,000 prize.
Jason Brody, an assistant professor of regional and community planning at KSU, serves as the team’s main adviser. He said Brown has fit in perfectly.
“I think her capacity to work well with students that she never had met prior to the competition, that were in disciplines that were not her own, was exceptional,” he said.
It wasn’t until January that the team learned its specific task: Design a plan for Minneapolis’ Downtown East neighborhood. The area will be the site of a planned new stadium for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, but for now it’s filled mostly with parking lots and has little going on, Brown said.
“It’s kind of a derelict site right now,” she said.
The team knew nothing about its task before then, and now it had two weeks to learn all it could about Minneapolis and how its population might change in the future, formulate plans and produce drawings.
From Jan. 14 to Jan. 28 — a good portion of winter break and the first few days of classes at KU — Brown stayed in Manhattan, working in a K-State architecture studio from 8 a.m. until about midnight or later each day.
The students emerged with a plan for a livable, walkable neighborhood in a downtown area where those don’t really exist. It would be centered on an old, unused armory that would transform into an indoor market and public gathering place, and it would feature a “grand lawn” where all sorts of outdoor activities could happen.
“We’ve tried to create this environment that allows you to exist there and have everything around you,” Brown said.
In February, the team learned that its plan was good enough to make it one of four finalists, out of the 149 entrants. On Wednesday the students will head to Minneapolis for a final presentation, and on Thursday they’ll learn the winner.
Brown has been back and forth between Lawrence and Manhattan the last few months, helping finetune plans and prepare for a 25-minute presentation in front of a contest jury. The team went to Minneapolis during spring break to check out the site in person.
The time has piled up. The teammates have joked that if they win the $50,000 grand prize, they’ll have earned maybe a dollar an hour each, Brown said. And if they don’t win, she says, the last thing they’ll think is that they could have worked harder.
“I don’t think that’s possible,” Brown said.
Teams from Ivy League schools and other top-ranked universities tend to pop up in the contest’s finals, and this year is no different: Brown and company will compete against teams from Harvard and Yale, as well as one with students from Purdue and Ball State universities. But K-State students have made the finals before, too.
“While it’s really exciting for us to be a Kansas and Missouri team competing with these guys, it’s not anything new,” Brown said.
The team is also one of the youngest in several years to make the finals of a big-time national competition that brings out the best schools have to offer, Brody said.
“The work has been tremendous,” Brody said.
However the final result turns out, Brown says, she’ll have a gem of a line on her resume as she aims for an architecture job on one of the coasts, as well as some great experience working as part of a group to design not just a building, but an entire urban neighborhood from scratch.
She’ll breathe a big sigh when the contest is over, she said. And so will Baudoin, her instructor: She’ll finally have Brown back in her class.