This past summer, a group of eight students, seven from the School of Architecture and Design in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS), and one landscape architecture student from the University of California at Berkeley, traveled to Mexico on an architecture and design journey of discovery. They honed their professional skills through cultural immersion, expert critique, and through a public exhibition of their work. The CASA Mexico Study Abroad Program was established by Virginia Tech alumni Steven and Cathi House of House + House Architects of San Francisco.

“Each day the students explore and sketch, wander and photograph," Cathi House said in describing the program. "We tailor unique assignments for each of them to test their skills and understanding of the possibilities. There are lively debates and intense critiques, lessons, and thoughtful examinations. They each work on a larger project assigned to challenge their individual skills through the various phases of development, interspersed with quick charettes on smaller projects.”

Students photograph buildings in Guanajuato, Mexico.
During a field trip to the capital city of Guanajuato, Mexico, CASA students photograph colorful buildings, learning to see rhythms, shadows, scale and the poetic mystery of a curving passage. Photo courtesy of Steven House.

The five-week immersive learning experience takes place each year from mid-May through the end of June. The first stop is always Mexico City, where the students gain initial exposure to local culture, seeing firsthand the works of local architects, artists, and craftspeople. They visit museums and historic sites, sketch, photograph, and enjoy local cuisine. This immersive experience helps them understand the interrelationship of community, culture, nature, art, architecture, and the built environment, all in the context of centuries of rich history.

From there, the students travel to San Miguel de Allende, a city popular among artists, writers, and travelers for its stunning architecture and vibrant culture. There, they are encouraged to explore the city and neighboring communities, interact with local residents, and hone their artistic and Spanish language skills.

Beginning with a common starting point, students are assigned a design project tailored to their individual strengths and perspectives. One student was challenged with designing a neighborhood restaurant and cooking school; another a boutique hotel; still others used the same site to design a chapel, a single-family home for artists, a recycling center, an arts and crafts center, and two private homes.  Each found inspiration in and through the local culture, seamlessly integrating their designs into the existing community.

Kathryn Herrick, a senior majoring in interior design, noted that her experiences outside of the classroom influenced her restaurant/cooking school design. When she and her classmates would go out, residents would ask what they were doing and then show them special places they might not have found otherwise.

“I felt the culture was very loving and I translated this vibrancy and warmth through the idea of cooking, sharing meals, and the incorporation of sunlight, color, music, and movement into the design,” Herrick said.  

The immersive Mexico experience culminates in a CASA Celebration Party where more than 100 guests — architects, artists, writers, sculptors, and other experts from creative fields — challenge each of the students to understand and explain their work from different perspectives.  

“It was really interesting to get so many different comments and challenges and absorb it all, thinking about how we can include these thoughts in our design process and make us better designers," Herrick said. "All these different perspectives and critiques make you stronger.”

Landscape architecture student, Olivia Haag, explains her design for a community chapel on a dense urban lot in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico to artists, writers, and architects during the CASA Celebration gathering.
Landscape architecture student Olivia Haag explains her design for a community chapel on a dense urban lot in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to artists, writers, and architects during the CASA Celebration gathering. Photo courtesy of Steven House.

Back in Blacksburg, the journey was not yet complete — the students condensed their complex, multi-faceted experience into a two-day exhibition to share with the Virginia Tech community. Stanzin Namgyal, a junior majoring in architecture, designed the poster announcing the exhibition. Nate Bennett, a senior architecture major, and Herrick helped organized the exhibition. The event was held on Sept. 23-24 and featured eight presentation boards with the students’ designs. A collage of photos and sketches helped convey the students’ experiences. Each student was available to talk about their trip and explain their designs to fellow students and faculty.

School of Architecture + Design student observing 2021 CASA program exhibit in the lobby of Cowgill Hall. Photo by Chiravi Patel.
School of Architecture + Design student observing 2021 CASA program exhibit in the lobby of Cowgill Hall. Photo by Chiravi Patel.

The full experience — from cultural immersion to critique by artists and experts to the public exhibition — provided students with much more than they find in a classroom setting. Each aspect helped them develop and hone skills necessary for professional work in design.

“Studying in Mexico took me out of my comfort zone as a person and an architect," Bennet said. "The growth and perspective I gained from living in a foreign country is incomparable to remaining at home. I felt more a part of the place instead of designing from the outside.” 

The seven Virginia Tech students participating in the program were Bennett, Herrick, Stanzin Namgyal (junior/architecture), Sakshi Pitre (junior/architecture), Mitchell Kita (junior/architecture), Maria Leao (junior/architecture), and Ayana Bullock (junior/architecture).  The UC Berkeley student was Olivia Haag (masters/landscape architecture).

For more information about 2022 CASA program and the application process, contact

— Written by Phil Miskovic

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