Aaron Plewke: Outstanding Graduate in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, Graduate School of Architecture

Mastering architecture, around the globe and around the corner

Working from his Givens Hall studio, Aaron Plewke (along with fellow graduate student Meredith Klein) has designed and managed construction of Washington University in Shanghai, a new study center created in affiliation with Fudan University.
Working from his Givens Hall studio, Aaron Plewke (along with fellow graduate student Meredith Klein) has designed and managed construction of Washington University in Shanghai, a new study center created in affiliation with Fudan University.

Architecture is a global profession. Just ask Aaron Plewke, who will receive his master’s degree May 20 from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

In recent months, Plewke, a Danforth Scholar in the Graduate School of Architecture & Urban Design, and his fiance, fellow graduate student Meredith Klein, have designed and managed construction of WUSTL’s new East Asian Study Center in Shanghai — all from their studios in Givens Hall.

“Basically it will be the university’s undergraduate presence in China,” says Plewke, who monitors progress via Skype, email and Google Chat. “At this point, construction is more or less complete. We’re just finishing odds and ends.”

Slated to open in June, the 1,500-square-foot center is the second university commission for Plewke and Klein, following last year’s renovation of Givens 105, the Sam Fox School’s administrative office suite.

“Aaron and Meredith approached the design with great attentiveness,” says Peter MacKeith, associate dean of the Sam Fox School and associate professor of architecture, who recruited the pair for both jobs. “Their design ‘discovered’ a new spaciousness to the suite, and provides a welcome graciousness to the reception of students, faculty and visitors.

“Aaron has lived up fully to the ‘leadership and service’ ambitions of the Danforth Scholars Program,” MacKeith says, noting that Plewke served on curriculum and admissions committees while maintaining architecture’s highest GPA. “Most impressively, he has achieved all this with constant grace, good humor and quiet confidence.”

Born in Chicago, Plewke was raised in South Florida, the son of a nurse and an auto mechanic. He worked construction during high school summers and, as an undergraduate, initially planned to study engineering. But Plewke missed working with his hands and soon transferred to the University of Florida’s School of Architecture.

It was there he met Klein. Or rather, it was during a semester in Vicenza, Italy, where both studied with Robert McCarter, now the Sam Fox School’s Ruth & Norman Moore Professor of Architecture.

“When we got back to Gainesville, I realized I didn’t have her phone number,” Plewke says with a laugh. The oversight was soon corrected and, after graduating in 2005, the pair found work in Orlando and later Manhattan, taking a small studio apartment near Madison Square Park.

“We originally discussed a two-year break from school,” Plewke says, “but the economy was so good that it turned into four years.”

Such practical experience informs the Givens 105 renovation, which encompasses six workstations and two waiting areas. Warm maple partitions delineate space while circular perforations balance privacy and natural light, growing larger near the central walkway and smaller as they approach perimeter walls.

Similar functional elegance characterizes Washington University in Shanghai. Located in Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, it includes a director’s office, conference area and large classroom that can be subdivided to accommodate smaller study groups.

“The space is 35-feet deep but has windows on just one side,” Plewke says. Thus, to maximize illumination, “we created walls from corrugated polycarbonate and used bookcases to add visual separation and acoustic dampening.

“It’s a small project, by architectural standards,” he adds, “but a rewarding one.”

Plewke’s degree project proposes replacing a gas station just north of campus with a hybrid public building that would combine civic, governmental and leisure programming. Critic is Sung Ho Kim, associate professor of architecture.

On a different scale is Plewke’s degree project, a large speculative building located just north of the Danforth Campus at the intersection of Skinker and Delmar boulevards.

The site, currently occupied by a gas station, represents something of an urban design conundrum. Though hampering pedestrian movement along Delmar, the station is one of the few places where students, Loop visitors and nearby residents all rub shoulders.

To maintain the dynamic, Plewke proposes combining civic, governmental and leisure programming into a single hybrid building that would fill out the city block bound by Skinker, Eastgate, Delmar and Enright.

“The aspiration is to address all three communities,” he says, “and to bring them into closer proximity with one another.”

Speaking of proposals, Plewke and Klein will marry in June. (Klein, incidentally, recently won a Henry Adams Medal, the top graduate award of the American Institute of Architect, while Plewke received the Henry Adams Certificate of Merit.) The ceremony will take place in St. Augustine, Fla., after which bride and groom will return to practice in New York.

“This time, we’re going to live in Brooklyn because you get a little more space for your money,” Plewke says. “Living in Manhattan was an exciting experience, but now we’re looking to become part of a community.

“We want to add a bit more breadth to the way we experience the city.”