Architecture professor Mario Ortega enters his Design 3 classroom at MDC’s Kendall Campus wearing a suit jacket and a determined expression.
He doesn’t speak a word, but the murmuring t-shirt-and-jeans crowd quiets and perk up in their seats. When he has their attention, he flashes a quick smile before resuming his decidedly professional air and attending to the tasks at hand.
On this day, Ortega is reviewing “The Containment of High-Speed Forces,” a multi-
phase conceptual project that the students have been working on for several weeks. Starting at one end of the room, he thoughtfully examines the first set of colorful geometric drawings and models pinned to fabric-covered wall panels.
For “High-Speed Forces,” Ortega’s students were asked to project three forces, or lines, into a contained space – in this case, a 10 by 10 inch square – without knowing how the space they were designing was going to be used.
Next, the students added depth and height to turn their drawings into scaled, three-dimensional models.
Later, the students will learn that the model they are building actually represents a train station in South Miami.
The forces are three sectors that will combine in the project: the pedestrians, the automobiles and the trains. At this point, none of the models look anything like a train station. But that’s the point.
“At the start of the project, they have the opportunity to work in a free realm, open to all of their ideas and design elements,” Ortega says. “The latter phases of the project force the students to be innovative and marry their creativity with the base reality of all usable spaces: habitability.”
The variety among the drawings attests to the students’ creativity and originality. No two models are the same, and each, while remaining within the parameters of the project, represents a unique vision.
Ortega looks over one student’s model.
“This works well. You should further develop this idea,” he says.
“I wanted to create balance without fragmenting the space,” she responds.
Ortega critiques each student project in turn, offering guidance but carefully avoiding specific directives. When a visitor to his classroom asks him to explain this technique, he says: “I encourage them to explore ideas, but I always remember that it is their work to create, not mine to dictate to them.”
Inspired to Design
After class, members of the Architecture Student Society, a group Ortega founded to offer a supportive, peer environment for architecture students on Kendall Campus, gathered to chat about their advisor.
Their collective opinion is that Ortega’s popularity stems from his availability and his dedication.
“His door is always open and he encourages us to love our work, to love what we do,” Heidi Rodríguez says.
Ortega always pushes students to reach their full potential and his track record speaks for itself: 95 percent of his students successfully transfer to prestigious architecture programs at four-year institutions after earning their associate degrees at MDC.
While a large number opt for local schools, many exceptional students have transferred into programs at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.; Pratt Institute in Manhattan; and New-School of Architecture and Design in San Diego.
One such student, Ye Yuan, is continuing her studies at the acclaimed Southern California School of Architecture. She fondly remembers Ortega as a mentor and a friend. “He was much more than just a good professor,” she says. “He was a great inspiration. Because of his passion, I fell in love with architecture.”
Yuan adds: “Professor Ortega is a great listener. He always pointed out valuable things said by students, so we knew that he really cared about our ideas and thoughts.”
On his most recent evaluations, an astounding 100 percent of Ortega’s students agreed or strongly agreed that the “professor encourages me to learn.”
“Most of us are just happy to be in his class,” says María Medina, president of the Architecture Student Society.
Among architecture students, it is common knowledge that Ortega’s classes regularly fill up quickly. Some students say they stay up until midnight so they can nab a spot as soon as the registration period begins. Several others recalled unfortunate semesters when they were too late.
And there is widespread interest in Ortega’s courses beyond Kendall Campus. Students from schools throughout the tricounty area have enrolled at MDC part time solely to enroll in his classes.
Ortega attributes his popularity to his dedication to preparing the students for life beyond MDC.
“I interact with my students as if they are professional architects,” he says. “They must learn how to discuss and explain their work in a calm, intelligent manner.”
One student echoed this sentiment. “He treats us as colleagues, not students. He demands a lot, but he respects us and our work.”
Teaching From Experience
Ortega’s first passion is architecture, which he eloquently describes as “a noble and humane practice with historical, cultural and academic roots.” But he is also passionate about education and has always felt that his true calling was teaching.
Ortega was born in Havana, Cuba. When he was young, his family left the island seeking freedom, and after stops in Spain and Puerto Rico, they settled in Miami. His parents, both physicians, encouraged him to take advantage of the academic opportunities this country offers and motivated him to work hard and excel.
As a student at Miami Dade College, Ortega taught while he studied. With his Associate in Arts degree he transferred to the University of Florida with a full academic scholarship. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture.
After graduating in the top 10 percent of his class, Ortega was hired as a lead designer at the international firm of Bermello, Ajamil & Partners. There, he designed one of South Florida’s most prominent architectural structures, the internationally recognized toll plaza at State Road 836, known as “The Wing.” The toll canopy is a steel structure clad in aluminum panels, supported by steel cables from two hexagonally-shaped pylons located at the north side of the structure.
After 10 years of work on award-winning projects all over the world, Ortega joined Miami Dade College as a full-time faculty member.
“Professor Ortega brought a lot of real-world experience to the classroom that helped enhance my understanding of the industry and practice,” says Edwin Perkins, a former student who is now a part-time faculty member in the architecture department.
“He would consistently go over and beyond his duties for his students. As a teacher, I now understand how hard this is to accomplish,” he adds.
One way he offers real-world experiences to his students is with his regular “Gallery Nights” gathering. This series of evening events preserve the artistic element of architecture and give students an opportunity to put their work on display for discussions with friends, family and members of the architecture community.
Ortega has found other ways to take the education out of the classroom by initiating a lecture series that brings prominent international architects to Miami Dade College to present their methods and projects.
Ortega also found time to continue his own education, earning a second master’s degree from the University of Florida in the newly created architecture education program, proving that he values the fundamentals of education above all else.
Yuan, the former student, says simply: “He’s a good teacher because he really loves to teach.”
— Katherine Joss