Auburn News

Constructing confidence

While this story was originally slated for our fall issue of Auburn Magazine, spacing issues required that it be cut down significantly. However, we still wanted to share this story with you in its entirety, so today we are featuring it on the blog. Whether it be our magazine or the blog– happy reading! War Eagle!

Marzette Fisher admits he wasn’t the smartest or most talented would-be architect among the two dozen or so students who graduated from Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction in the class of 1971. Still, his ego got a lift that year when he took top prize in the college’s Alagasco-sponsored design competition, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this fall.

“I honestly felt like there were better designs than mine, but the professors saw something in my solution that they didn’t see in the others,” Fisher says. “To say that it was a turning point in my career is an understatement.”

The contest for fourth-year architecture students has become a rite of passage at Auburn among young designers in their final months of their professional training. Alagasco, a Birmingham-based natural gas company, originally sponsored the competition in 1961 as a public relations ploy to raise the company’s profile and offered the winners prize money meant to pay for a “grand tour” of Europe’s most famous buildings. Half a century later, the money goes to help pay the winners’ college costs while they’re still in school—but that’s just a side benefit compared to the self-confidence boost offered by the recognition, alumni and students say.

“The reward was $1,000 toward my next year’s tuition, but the monetary price was not nearly as important as the fact that this was the first competition I have ever won,” says this year’s victor, 24-year-old Ivan Vanchev, who designed a 500,000-square-foot children’s hospital in virtual Chicago cityscape. Last fall, Vanchev and his classmates were tasked with developing plans for a medical center that would fit onto a narrow urban lot and include emergency access on the ground floor despite a scarcity of space.

“This competition is always the most complex project these students will have faced,” says David Hinson ’82, head of the college’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture. “The project puts a lot of challenges on the table for students to respond to.”

Fourth-year students begin the project during fall semester. A field trip to the hypothetical site is typically included along with workshops meant to introduce students to the project’s challenges. As the semester draws to a close, dozens of 30-by-60-inch student drawings begin covering the corridors of Dudley Hall. A panel of faculty and Birmingham-area architects identifies a group of finalists and then chooses the winners.

Late Rural Studio co-founder Samuel Mockbee ’74, a Mississippi architect who gained worldwide fame by using locally available building materials to create artful dwellings for the poor in Alabama’s Black Belt, took first place in the Alagasco competition when he was enrolled at Auburn.

After his prototype of a community mental health center garnered the top spot in 1971, Fisher—now a partner in the Birmingham-based firm ArchitectureWorks—used the prize money to fund a 12-week European trek.

“At that time in your life it was unbelievable that someone gave you a check and said, ‘Go to Europe,’” Fisher recalls. “However, that one summer amounted to, in a different way, an equivalent education. It was really just a true blessing.”