Student News

The Language of Architectural Materials

By Soumya Rachel Shailendra

The gardening shed, overlooking the Green Mountains, may just be a dilapidated structure for most of us, but for Zen Beattie ’21 it holds immense potential for redesigning and reconstruction.

 Zen, a fourth-year student of Architecture and Visual Arts at Bennington, has always been interested in understanding the “language of architectural materials.” In his pursuit to create a more ecologically sustainable architectural practice, Zen has consistently striven to experiment with the full scope and utility of a material. What can a material offer? How can we reinvent the use of a material? In what ways can we reuse and upcycle materials in conditions of scarcity? 

Originally from Sydney, Australia, Zen came to Bennington after working for a fabrication studio in New York City during his gap year. He remembers being fascinated with the internal structures of objects as a child. “I have always liked taking things apart — mobile phones, cars, machines,” he says. While he initially thought that his interests were centered around architecture, he soon realized that the profession was more desk-oriented, and that he preferred to directly engage with the process of construction. The hands-on nature of his interests compelled him to experiment with sculpture, woodwork, and even dance, as he developed a wider theoretical and practical vocabulary of designing a space. 

“I took Spatial Intervention with dance professor, Dana Reitz, and architecture professor, Donald Sherefkin, which changed my life,” he says. The class required students to make sculptural- or movement-based intervention in two different sites in the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) building. Students were encouraged to measure the dimensions of a room through dance, which further exposed them to an interdisciplinary study of space. “Before this, I had always thought of designing a space for dancers, never about using dance to design a space,” he says.

In the renovated gardening shed, Zen has installed a set of revolving doors that drastically alter the conventional designs of entryways and exits. He has installed a corrugated steel roof, as it brought back memories of school buildings in Australia, where he was accustomed to hearing the tapping of the raindrops on the roof. He has also used gravel and bricks to extend the patio to allow for small gatherings outside the shed. Currently, he is working on designing handles, mirrors, and wall stands for the interior of the building. The project has developed with the constant critique and recommendations of his peers in the Senior Projects in Architecture class taught by Donald Sherefkin. He has also worked closely with the Buildings and Grounds team on campus, who have assisted him in clearing the rubble and waste in the building. 

Although Zen had come to Bennington with a fear of Mathematics that he had inherited in high school, he realized that a foundation in the sciences was imperative to architecture and construction projects. He restudied his entire high school math curriculum under Karly Briggs, and went on to take classes like Applied/Engineering Physics with Tim Schroeder, Evolution with Betsy Sherman, and several classes on Ecology with Kerry Woods. His sensitivity for the climate crisis has further helped him in developing an artistic practice that repurposes the use of the construction material for sustainable design. When asked about how he feels about not having his project in the Usdan Gallery for the Visual Arts Senior Show, he says: “I don’t care if it’s not in Usdan. I will have some models in the show, but I want this shed to be a part of this community.” 

In the past, Zen has worked with Christoff:Finio, the architects that redesigned the Commons building. While working at an architectural firm, he realized that his true passion lay in fabrication and that he was interested in working directly with his hands. After graduation, he plans on working at a horse farm in Bennington for the summer before delving into the fabrication industry in New York City.