Most young children typically have a favorite toy, video game or book they are obsessed with – but McKenna Sabon had a more unconventional interest. “My initial passion for design came from my obsession with hotel rooms,” said McKenna. “When I was six, I begged my parents to ask hotel front desk clerks if I could peek at the different rooms. From there, I began to notice the architectural features of new places I visited.”
She continues, “In elementary school, I traveled to Chicago to visit the American Girl Doll Factory and Store – but I was more excited by the city’s architecture. What really hooked me was when we went up to the observation deck of the Willis Tower (then called the Sears Tower), and seeing all the beautiful buildings piercing the sky. After that trip, I became infatuated with buildings and cities. Then in high school, I traveled to Italy, which exposed me to architecture’s role in establishing place and culture – two ideas that I am drawn to now in college. When I finally was applying to colleges for undergrad and was considering majors, it felt like a piece of me would be missing if I chose something different than architecture. And here we are!”
McKenna, who is entering her senior year of the undergraduate architecture program at the University of Michigan’s Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning, is the 2021 recipient of the Michigan Architectural Foundation’s (MAF) Richard M. and Sidney K. Robinson Scholarship. The scholarship is awarded to a student who aspires to a career that combines the roles of citizen and artist. “In my essay, I argued for the roles of citizen and artist to be identical to each other, and that we cannot understand one without the other.”
Scholarship applicants are required to provide a personal statement describing their interest, experience, and plans related to architecture, along with information on their leadership and extracurricular activities. “I am the current Philanthropy Chair for the professional architecture fraternity Alpha Rho Chi (APX), which I find truly inspiring. We engage in volunteer activities, including visiting local elementary schools and speaking with students about architecture as a career. We also are exploring working with Taubman College to establish a sustainable greenhouse near the architecture building.” McKenna adds, “I also have worked as a copy editor with The Michigan Daily for the past three years, which allows me to connect with students from all over the U of M campus. I love to write (and am minoring in writing), and the experience has exposed me to ways to combine architecture and writing.”
McKenna is drawn to types of architecture that align with culture and community, and it is a dream of hers to use architecture to rebuild and revitalize the city of Detroit and its people. “The process of speaking and listening to a community and working with them is truly inspiring,” she says. “If I am to help design architecture that an entire community will use and benefit from, taking on a role as a citizen that listens and cares for the public is essential. I am most fulfilled when I participate in a project for studio that requires me to interact with a community, appreciate their history, and discover how design could positively impact their future.”
One of the things McKenna enjoys most about her degree program is the way she is pushed to constantly question and consider how architecture and society affect one another. “In both my studio courses and theory courses, we are always reminded to remember how architecture does not exist in a vacuum, and how it is deeply connected with culture, history, and media.” She also enjoys the camaraderie between the students in her program and the lifelong friendships she forged, due to Taubman’s studio setting and its welcoming and casual environment.
A selection of work from McKenna’s student portfolio
McKenna’s favorite collection of architecture is the work of the MASS Design Group. “Many of their designs work to better the surrounding community and promote justice,” says McKenna. “As a young designer, I find their mission as designers to be truly inspiring.” Her favorite aesthetic work of architecture is the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute in Venice, Italy. “When I caught a glimpse of the Basilica as I was leaving Venice, I swooned. It is smaller than what one would expect and is immediately recognizable by its beautiful blue dome.”
How does McKenna believe architecture enriches life? “Whether architecture occurs on purpose, as in a client-architect relation, or inevitably, like in vernacular architecture, the end result is a physical presence that aids in the function and progress of a particular human activity,” she says. “I believe architecture enriches life through the actions of everyday people: a house becomes a home by the actions of the resident; a school becomes a place for learning from the presence of students and teachers, and so forth. It’s a two-way street, where architecture enriches life and life enriches architecture.
When I think about how every human in the world is surrounded by architecture in one way or another, I am blown away by the impact my future career could have.”