Creating Order Out of Chaos
A building, a park, a mountain, an idea: these are constructed using disparate parts that, when combined and placed into a particular order, become recognizable. It is the work of sorting through the messy compost of the mind that is unique to each of us—for some, these are images or words. For one student, it’s a scrawl of mathematical equations that forms the basis of her building design that she presented in an architecture class at TMCC.
Deciphering the chaos—truly listening to student voices—is how TMCC Professor of Architecture and Design Kreg Mebust understands his work. “I try to create order out of chaos, and that’s something that’s been on my mind for quite some time,” he said. “We are all immersed in the built environment. We live, work and breathe in the built environment. How can we tell if a building is good architecture? How do we create a storyline out of architecture that students become interested in?”
For Mebust, the art of teaching design isn’t a linear process, but something more like shoring up experiences and memory, and using that momentum to ignite the creativity and curiosity in each of his students. “In the classroom, we open up a space for personal storytelling,” he said, explaining that words and thoughts are expressed through line drawings and study models. “We hope that they are messy and rudimentary. However, they are significant because they are the visual images of the storytellers’ values, beliefs, culture, and aspirations.”
Mebust began teaching at TMCC ten years ago as a part-time instructor for a class on “The History of the Built Environment.” At the time, he was also working for a local architectural firm. And then, the recession hit. “My part-time teaching opportunity was very rewarding, and it meant a lot to me because what I was doing mattered.”
A graduate of the Landscape Architecture program at Kansas State University, Mebust’s passion for design merged with his appreciation for the natural world. After graduating, he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Oregon into northern Washington before taking a position at a landscape architecture firm in Boston.
When Mebust decided to change careers again, he started his journey by hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. The journey would take him five months and would continue to inform his approach to his work as an architect. “That experience gave me an appreciation for the environment and being able to see humanity and the natural systems through a different lens,” he said.
This is when Mebust came to Reno “sight unseen” to begin his career at TMCC as a part-time instructor and a professional in the field. Even though he now serves as a full-time tenured professor in the Architect, Landscape Architect, and Residential Design programs and as the Chair of the Applied Technologies Department, Mebust continues to hold his license in landscape architecture in Nevada and California and as a residential designer in Nevada. He serves as the Secretary for the Nevada American Society of Landscape Architects, the educational liaison for AIANN (American Institute of Architects in Northern Nevada), and is the former representative for the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Board, and past President of the State Board of Landscape Architects, which he served for nine years.
In 2019, he received a NISOD Excellence in Teaching Award and the TMCC Model Dairy Excellence in Service Award. He is also an involved faculty advocate for the sustainability initiatives, including the recent application to the U.S. Department of Education that would enable TMCC to be the first community college to receive a Green Ribbon School designation. This would recognize TMCC for its reduction of environmental impact and costs, improvements on the health and wellness of its students and staff and its provision of effective environmental and sustainability education. So far, TMCC’s application has been approved at the state level and will be the first in Nevada to compete on the national stage.
Each day, Mebust brings his insights and experience into the classroom but admits that he still feels as though he is learning. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have fun. I hate to even call myself a professor because of what I learn when I teach—sometimes, I feel like I’m only three or four steps ahead of my students. I’m always learning,” said Mebust, who sits beside a stack of books he’s brought to the interview that demonstrate his point clearly: Mario Salvadori’s Why Buildings Stand Up and Why Buildings Fall Down among them.
It’s the relationship between us and the world where this kind of work resides. To get a sense of this, take a drive on South I-580. In the space between Fairview Parkway and the junction to U.S. Highway 50 in Carson City the margins of the highway showcase Mebust’s work: large, iron sculptures of aspen trees with flickering leaves, Basque sheepherders with their woolen flocks (gestured as spirals on the sheeps’ bodies), the cutthroat trout that populate the streams in the nearby Sierra Nevada range. Mebust was also the lead designer for the Bartley Ranch and Anderson Park—the expanse of green nestled under Reno’s Windy Hill—and Cabela’s, West of Boomtown.
“Architecture that’s connected to the site, the environment and the people that use it... enables us to open up a completely different dialogue of how that structure is going to interact with the environment, with the created volumes, and the people that will use the space,” he said. It is a process that involves curiosity—and plenty of creative play.
Teaching Students to Answer the Question “Why”
In 2019, two TMCC architecture students placed first and second place in the ninth annual “Design is Innovation, Creativity and Energy (DICE) Conference”, which hosted a design competition that asked participants to re-imagine the folding chair. TMCC student Ryan Player—who would win the competition—was inspired by memories of his father’s La-Z-Boy recliner.
“The students I get are creative and curious and they have a voice—they want to say something—and they search for a medium to tell their story. [Through these classes] they tell their story through plants, buildings, structures for people to enjoy because, in the end, we believe design matters,” said Mebust who claims the challenge to design a unique cardboard chair as much aesthetic as it is functional: students must make chairs that work as chairs under the constraints of what cardboard can and cannot do.
Students in each of Mebust’s classes are presented with challenges that merge the classroom with the community, providing design solutions for public spaces. Mebust’s students have redesigned the V&T Railway Depot in Carson City in 2016. This has inspired other community entities to call upon TMCC Architecture students who are becoming known for their cutting-edge, unique and creative design solutions. So far, TMCC students have designed projects for the V&T Railway, Minden’s Culture Arts Center, Reno Bike Project, Lake Almanor State Parks, the Reno Animal Ark and proposed housing solutions for the homeless in Reno.
“That was a student-driven project,” said Mebust, who took a backseat while students led the discussion and planning for a series of small housing structures specifically designed for homeless young adults. “The students wanted to do something about the social injustice of homelessness. And, we ended up asking if architecture has a voice in social injustices.”
In the end, Mebust’s students decided that it does. “As a class, we decided that we should all have a place to live, and beyond that, it should be a place to live with dignity.”
And while the project was not put to public use, it was the process and not the end-result that provided valuable lessons about the design process, the importance of learning from making mistakes and building what can be imagined.
“What we try to instill in our students is curiosity—that’s our rocket-fuel and our ‘secret sauce.’ If students aren’t curious, then design becomes static. Design needs momentum, and curiosity creates that momentum,” Mebust said.
Working with community clients—who become a part of the design process—provides students with dynamic challenges that are an inherent part of the profession. “Community-based projects prepare students for working beyond school. It prepares them to work in a professional office, and it gives them a taste of what a professional in the community might be challenged with. It teaches students how to solve the problem, how to create a workflow and how to answer the question ‘why’,” he said.
Why did you design what you did? Why do I like it? Why is it special? Why would someone become emotional when experiencing this space?
How you can shore up the various pieces and parts of a single creation is the journey that begins with asking—and answering—that difficult, one-word question. It is an attempt to create order out of chaos, and that is the work of the architect.
Building a Pipeline to the Future
This semester, an aspiring architectural student surprised Mebust with a problem-solving method that relied exclusively on mathematics. “This student... was very good at idea generation, [and this particular example] was very complex. She used mathematics to help calculate the trajectory and angles of all these different arcs [in her building design.] She has a passion for math, and she came up with this problem-solving method that I had not seen in all the years that I’ve been teaching,” Mebust said.
Mebust spoke with the student, who has agreed to accompany him to visit other middle and high schools in the community to present on a practical application of mathematics in architecture and design. The experience reminds Mebust of his favorite book, Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, which tells the story of an elephant who alone can hear a speck of dust. “Education is certainly about equity and so is design. Our classrooms are a place where we can create a space for students to be heard and seen. I think, as educators, we’ve got to be able to hear those student voices,” he said.
However, Mebust also believes that the classroom is a space for making connections between ideas and how they can apply to the world around us. “The classroom is where students can make connections between their work and the environment, to the design world and to other students. That kind of connectivity is what gives meaning and purpose in our lives.”
That is why Mebust empowers students to articulate their process, whatever that process may be. That, he says, is the point of education. “So, there’s all these [different elements coming together] and this is the way their brains work. And this is what I love to see because it begins to answer the question ‘why.’ If you can put your process on paper, then you can begin to share it with someone else.”
Given all the chaos that each of us might house in our minds, Mebust helps students to assemble the puzzle pieces that grant them a voice through creativity and design. This is work that, he says, “feeds the soul.”
For more information about TMCC’s program in Architecture and Design Technology, contact the department at 775-673-7265.