Sandy, the game-changer: more than academic interest

Nina Rappaport moderates the roundtable discussion.

Laura Trimble

Event: Arch Schools 2012 Exhibition Reception and Deans’ Roundtable
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.17.12
Speakers: George Ranalli, AIA, Dean, Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, The City College of New York; Elizabeth O’Donnell, Associate Dean, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art; Urs P. Gauchat, Hon. AIA, Dean, New Jersey Institute of Technology; Judith DiMaio, AIA, Dean, New York Institute of Technology; Andrew Bernheimer, AIA, NCARB, Director, Master of Architecture Program Parsons, The New School of Design; Tom Hanrahan, Dean, Pratt Institute; Evan Douglis, Dean, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI); Robert Shibley, FAIA, Dean, University at Buffalo (SUNY); Marilyn Jordan Taylor, FAIA, Dean, University of Pennsylvania; Joyce Hsiang, Acting Assistant Dean, Yale University; Nina Rappaport (moderator), architectural critic, curator, and educator, and publications director at Yale School of Architecture; Jill N. Lerner, FAIA, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, and First Vice President / President-Elect, AIANY (introduction); Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, ACSA, Distinguished Professor, Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture, The City College of New York (closing remarks)
Organizers: AIANY in partnership with the Center for Architecture Foundation
Sponsors: Swanke Hayden Connell (patron); Beyer Blinder Belle, Forest City Ratner Companies, Mancini Duffy|TSC, NYC School Construction Authority, Perkins Eastman, STV Group, Thornton Tomasetti (sponsors); ASSA ABLOY, Cameron Engineering, Cosentini Associates, DeLaCour & Ferrara Architects, E-J Electric Installation, Ennead Architects, F.J. Sciame Construction, FXFOWLE, Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies, Ingram Yuzek Gainen Carroll & Bertolotti, Jack Resnick & Sons, JAM Consultants, JLS Industries, Knoll, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, Langan Engineering and Environmental Services, Lend Lease, Milrose Consultants, Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, Syska Hennessy Group, Vanguard Construction & Development, Viridian Energy & Environmental / Israel Berger and Associates, World Trade Center Properties (supporters).

The eighth in the series of annual Deans’ Roundtables, held within three weeks of Superstorm Sandy and focused by that event on climatic effects on the built environment, offered chances for leaders of the region’s architecture schools to move, in the words of RPI’s Evan Douglis, “from marketing to messaging.” Representing one’s institution in its best light among colleagues under normal circumstances is one kind of communication; reimagining the wider relation between professional academies and societal needs for architectural expertise amid inexorable climate change is another entirely. As multiple commentators on resilience, ethics, and activism pointed out – and as the summation by Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, energetically and succinctly stressed – “anybody who thinks that we live in an era of unpredictability hasn’t been paying attention… there’s a lot of predictability,” involving both climate change itself and its linkages to economics, technology, and design. “This is the greatest time for architects there ever was,” Brown continued, outlining a new professional paradigm in which crisis and opportunity are fused.

Early institutional reactions to Sandy, noted AIANY President-elect Jill Lerner, FAIA, have been swift. The Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR), launched last year by co-chairs Brown and Illya Azaroff, AIA, received information from more than 300 architect-volunteers within 24 hours to help with building assessments, and an AIANY staff-led “members helping members” effort reached nearly 700 Chapter members in affected areas. (Please visit AIA New York’s Superstorm Sandy Recovery website for information on recovery efforts.) Beyond short-term responses, however, the institutions that shape rising generations of architects also have critical long-range responsibilities.

University of Pennsylvania’s Marilyn Jordan Taylor, FAIA, emphasized how architecture and design schools need to embrace a research mission to be “an equally respected player” with the other components of major universities, and to convince students (from the undergraduate “predisciplinary” state to the “disciplinary moment” and eventually a “postdisciplinary” point of thinking across barriers) that part of their mission, during the current crisis and perhaps over their whole careers, is “to show how design creates value.”

These observations set the stage for recurrent self-critiques of architecture schools’ embrace of interdisciplinary scholarship and analysis, reaching out to the physical sciences, environmental activism, and the realms of law, politics, and economics to take on increasingly hard questions: not just the technical details of how to rebuild after catastrophes, for example, but the variables affecting decisions on whether occupying certain sites is advisable at all.

Interdisciplinarity, some participants specified, needs purposeful definition: it’s a matter of appropriate engagements with multiple fields, not expansion of architecture’s concerns so far that it dilutes the discipline. The design fields, observed NJIT’s Urs Gauchat, Hon. AIA, can unite left-brain and right-brain modes of thinking, generating specific problem-solving approaches suitable to the hurricane as a “teaching moment.” Urging colleagues not to “forget everybody else [and] define the world in the way that is useful to us… [which] to me, makes us irrelevant,” Gauchat instead recommended collaborations with other fields’ existing approaches to problems. Since so much of education skews toward left-brain skills that are quantitative, measurable, and “quasi-scientific,” he added, the design disciplines have distinct strengths worth advocating. Engagements with science/technology/engineering/mathematics departments, added Robert Shibley, FAIA, AICP, of the University of Buffalo, face barriers of perception and communication: “We imagine ourselves to be ‘bilingual,’ [but] our STEM colleagues don’t…. What we need is a universal translator in the context of the university.”

Smaller institutions like Cooper Union, noted Elizabeth O’Donnell, have their own cultures, distinct from those of large research universities; their methods may encourage students to “not so much answer questions as to figure out what the right question is to ask.” Noting that in the same year as the hurricane, the Midwest had a summer hot and dry enough to lose 80% of its corn crop, O’Donnell identified these phenomena as “radically different expressions of the same condition,” and finds that architecture schools naturally educate students to address that whole condition rather than the disparate pieces. She also identified the Museum of Modern Art’s 2010 “Rising Currents” exhibition as a useful case of extramural research fostering public recognition of how design can help mitigate damage; that “the media is beginning to search outside the normal locations where they expect scientific research to happen” strikes her as grounds for optimism.

Thomas Hanrahan of Pratt was more guarded about the gap between “what we do pretty well” (ethical applications of multidisciplinary and multi-scalar analyses) and “how you leverage them up politically. How do you broaden the conversation… to get the world to acknowledge these really extraordinary skills?” One practical and overdue step, he suggested, would be to ensure that sustainability is a basic standard component of any curriculum.

Though Columbia’s GSAPP was conspicuous by its absence, one of its recent graduates sparked discussion late in the proceedings with a pointed question about schools’ responsibilities to their students and graduates, who “pay every month for the next 30 years for these institutions.” Comparing some of his peers to the “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” he contrasted the nuts-and-bolts knowledge he is now acquiring in practice with the intellectual “muscle that I flexed for seven years.”

Several deans recognized this question as an urgent one and attempted to answer it with honesty and nuance. CCNY’s George Ranalli, AIA, proposed a “significant realignment to the world of architecture, to the practical application of theory,” and acknowledged that the professional conditions his own generation faced – “you would get a job when you got out, and it would be good-paying, so you could spend your time in school, in which you were really pushing the exercises of your imagination, the exploration of tools and principles and so forth… and you were going to get paid to learn the rest of what you had to learn after two to five years in an architectural practice” – have vanished: “That’s just not what the trajectories of the market [are] offering, and frankly, it’s not the trajectories that our students are looking for.”

Though theory/practice disconnections and job-placement challenges are by no means unique to architectural study, restructuring the walls between the academy and its society to be more porous, synergetic, and open to “two-way traffic” will be a critical element of these institutions’ response to the global climate crisis, which increasingly looks like a permanent condition.