This year’s new deans share their thoughts on their institutions and the path forward – The Architect’s Newspaper

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During an exceptionally difficult and tumultuous year in education, architecture and design schools across the United States were forced to adapt to extraordinary new circumstances—conducting studio courses online, migrating events and reviews to the virtual sphere, and implementing COVID-19 testing and distancing policies on campus. A number of institutions underwent simultaneous shifts in leadership, introducing new deans and department heads whose tenure will be marked, at least in part, by how they lead their schools beyond a global crisis. AN spoke with five new and incoming academic leaders about their new positions, the state of their respective institutions, and the direction of design pedagogy as they see it.

Sekou Cooke, University of North Carolina at Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture

Sekou Cooke in a gray suit in front a window
Sekou Cooke (Courtesy the UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture)

Sekou Cooke, the new director of the Master of Urban Design (MUD) program at UNC Charlotte, is a Jamaican-born practitioner, educator, and curator based in Syracuse, New York. In addition to teaching at Syracuse University’s School of Architecture and running his own practice, sekou cooke STUDIO, Cooke is a founding member of the Black Reconstructions Collective, a contributor to the groundbreaking MoMA exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, and author of the recently published monograph Hip-Hop Architecture.

AN: What would you say are the primary differences between the institutions where you have studied or taught and the one you’re entering as department head? What excites you most about the new context?

Cooke: Location may be the biggest difference. I’ve mostly been associated with schools in the Northeast (Syracuse, Cornell, Harvard) that represent a kind of architectural literati. I’ve also taught briefly at CCA in San Francisco, but most of my colleagues there were educated in the same northeastern schools that I was. Entering UNC Charlotte, I’m aware that the American South is a very different region historically. The physical landscape along with the cultural, racial, and political landscapes will present a whole set of new challenges—some I’ll be able to anticipate, others not.

What would you say is the general pedagogical approach to architecture and urbanism at UNC-Charlotte?

The Urban Design program at UNC, in particular, was founded on a series of New Urbanist principles and later evolved to include a more international focus. It may be obvious that my own work and pedagogical foci are anathema to New Urbanism. Regardless of the mandate for change with which I enter the program as Director, I intend to continue the parts of the program that work well (international connections, local/regional application, etc.) while decisively confronting those that don’t.

You practice architecture through sekou cooke STUDIO—how have your professional experiences informed your approach to design education and administrative leadership?

I’m finding new clarity in my studio these days with the redefinition of a sweet spot between research and practice. This means that I’m uniquely positioned to professionally execute projects that begin as academic speculation and I’m also able to find particular research interests in each professional commission. These attitudes and specific research agendas naturally lend themselves to shaping pedagogy and administrative policy.

Given the intersecting crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and racial violence in the US, what shifts would you like to see during your tenure at your new institution?

I’m looking forward to creating a program that is a model of free, uncompromising investigations into the biggest challenges that affect contemporary urban environments. The list of challenges may seem finite and easily prioritized in this current moment—social justice, environmental justice, mobility, economic sustainability. However, we can all agree that these issues and their priority levels can change more rapidly than we can anticipate. As those challenges shift, the program has to be nimble enough to respond using human-centered value systems.

Mark Ferguson, Catholic University School of Architecture and Planning

black and white portrait of a middle aged man
Mark Ferguson, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at Catholic University of America. (Courtesy Mark Ferguson)

Alongside Oscar Shamamian, Mark Ferguson is a practicing architect and founding partner of the New York-based firm Ferguson & Shamamian Architects, LLP. Specializing in residential architecture “guided by traditional design principles,” Ferguson has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and served as a visiting critic at the University of Miami.

AN: What would you say are the primary differences between the institutions where you have studied or taught and the one you’re entering as dean? What excites you most about the new context?

Ferguson: The replacement of pencil, paper, manual shop tools, physical presentations, and a library of books with a keyboard, mouse, monitor, robotic fabrication tools, video presentations, and the internet, is a profound difference between my experience as a student in the late ’70s and early ’80s and today. The relative ease with which software allows a designer and her/his audience to virtually experience a work of architecture in 3D, at actual size, in context, in real-time, and to make changes on the fly, is a giant leap forward in our ability to share what we think and do.

What would you say is the general pedagogical approach to architecture and urbanism at Catholic University?

CUA is one of the very few schools of architecture that includes classical design in its entire design studio sequence. This instruction familiarizes students with the origins of western architecture, teaches them literacy in the lingua franca of our built environment, opens a vast library of precedent for instruction and emulation, and offers them an approach to design using time-honored principles of composition and character. Teaching classical design helps students position their careers in the continuum of history. It develops in them the judgment required to be effective stewards of our collective inheritance of knowledge, buildings, and cities. Regardless of the aesthetic preferences the students ultimately develop, this foundation teaches design thinking applicable to all buildings.

You practice architecture through the New York-based firm Ferguson & Shamamian—how have your professional experiences informed your approach to architectural education and administrative leadership?

Architecture is an art and a business. Both practices require seeing the world as it is and imagining it as it could be. Both require working with people of diverse skills, talents and experiences; bringing them together around shared values in an organization where they can collaborate to serve other people and continuously improve themselves. Our firm was founded as a learning environment and a place where people build their careers. I have coached many young architects over the years—some are my business partners today. This made the transition from practice to academia relatively seamless. My professional development from a student of modern architecture to a practicing architect of traditional and classical buildings instilled in me a distinct preference for an academic setting that teaches both traditional and modern design.

Given the intersecting crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and racial violence in the US, what shifts would you like to see during your tenure at your new institution?

The threats we face today—climate change, a pandemic, systemic racism, and social inequality—are a few of the perennial problems we face as human beings. They are profound and require constant attention. The School will continue to participate in and lead efforts to make the city, the country, and the world a better place where every person can enjoy the respect of their neighbor and the opportunity to pursue a full life with dignity. Architects, in particular, can advance these goals by becoming better stewards of the public realm; the streets, squares and parks where people live together. This is where architects design, one building at a time over many generations, the neighborhoods that orient people, keep them safe, support diverse needs, and uplift their spirits. We do this at CUA by teaching architecture through the lens of urbanism, by showing architects how to heal existing places and pioneer new places. We help them appreciate the importance of acquiring literacy in the traditional, classical, and modern languages of the places they are invited to build.

Stephanie Lin, The School of Architecture

Stephanie Lin, dean of the School of Architecture. (Courtesy Stephanie Lin)

Previously an assistant professor adjunct at the Cooper Union’s Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, Stephanie Lin is the founder of her own studio Present Forms and a member of the design collective Office III, alongside Sean Canty and Ryan Golenberg. Her work focuses on “uncovering the complexities of geometric and material optics as the mediums for new perceptual frameworks.” Before her appointment as dean of the School of Architecture, Lin had also taught at UC Berkeley, Pratt Institute, and Columbia GSAPP. 

AN: What would you say are the primary differences between the institutions where you have studied or taught and the one you’re entering as dean? What excites you most about the new context?

Lin: The School of Architecture has the strongest culture of hands-on and experiential learning that I have encountered, augmented by the intimate scale of the school’s community. Students, along with a number of faculty and staff, live on campus together which fosters a real sense of closeness between different roles at the school where typically there is more distance. This in turn produces many more informal contexts for sharing knowledge and resources within the school as well as with the larger community of Arcosanti where the school is located. I am most excited about how these conditions can inspire new, fresh formats for learning and making. For example, this year our Teaching Fellow Leah Wulfman with Bika Rebek organized Shelter World, a virtual and social environment to explore our students’ built thesis projects. This became our end-of-year showcase of graduating student work incorporating many forms of contributions, as well as a platform for participation that will continue to grow.

What would you say is the general pedagogical approach to architecture and urbanism at the School of Architecture?

Our pedagogy is centered around learning-by-doing, and this has carried through since the school’s founding by Frank Lloyd Wright. Much like our previous locations at Taliesin and Taliesin West, our campuses at Arcosanti and Cosanti are teaching tools, both in their built forms as well as in their environment and landscape that students learn to build with. Most prominently, our M.Arch program culminates in a design-build project in which students design and construct a shelter to be lived in as a built proof-of-concept for their thesis work and research. They gain a new understanding of their project by confronting the process and constraints of construction. Outside of the thesis program, we continue to develop opportunities to teach studios and courses through projects and formats that encourage interactive approaches. In particular, this includes projects in and for communities where students interact with local stakeholders and professionals on design-build projects, in collaboration with community-serving nonprofits.

You practice architecture through both Present Forms and the collective Office III—how have your professional experiences informed your approach to architectural education and administrative leadership?

My practice Present Forms has developed through an exploration of process-oriented tools and techniques for material experimentation that can lead to new forms of architectural knowledge and craft. This has developed in tandem with Office III (a design collective with Sean Canty and Ryan Golenberg) that embodies an openness to alternative forms of collective, nomadic work in an evolving contemporary context. Both share core values with The School of Architecture, which is deeply rooted in material understanding and fosters multiple scales of collaboration. Because of the small scale of both the practice and the school, I have also found a common mindset between the two of taking on responsibilities that are not typical to the role, such as teaching studios and seminars in addition to administrative leadership. It’s very exciting.

Given the intersecting crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and racial violence in the US, what shifts would you like to see during your tenure at your new institution?

We have some significant adjustments ahead to further the school’s commitment to addressing social inequities elucidated by these ongoing crises. As a school that fosters a hands-on approach, we will be enhancing our efforts to ensure that our program and projects are inclusive and accessible to a diversity of participants that are a better reflection of our social landscape. The school has initiated a series of service-learning projects carried out in collaboration with Land Rich, an organization working on land loss issues and heir’s property connected to historically African American family property throughout the southeast. This includes a suite of courses called Usonia 21 and led by Chris Lasch, dedicated to a multidisciplinary exploration of land rights issues in communities marked by historical racism, and to providing accessible solutions to the housing crisis endemic to so many of these communities. Finally, the school will be initiating a requirement for students to organize and participate in semesterly discussions around decolonizing design education in order to gain the necessary language and tools for enacting change.

Igor Marjanović, Rice University School of Architecture

a headshot of the architect and educator Igor Marjanović
Igor Marjanović (Joe Angeles/Courtesy Rice University School of Architecture)

Igor Marjanović is entering Rice University after ten years as the JoAnne Stolaroff Cotsen Professor and chair of the undergraduate architecture program at the Sam Fox School of Design at Washington University in St. Louis. An experienced educator with a PhD from the Bartlett School of Architecture, Marjanović has also practiced with Osnova Projekt in his native Belgrade, Serbia, as well as firms in Fortaleza, Brazil, and Chicago. He is the co-director of the design practice ReadyMade Studio, alongside Katerina Rüedi Ray.

AN: What would you say are the primary differences between the institutions where you have studied or taught and the one you’re entering as dean? What excites you most about Rice Architecture and Houston?

Marjanović: Houston is an amazing urban laboratory with a confluence of many pressing global issues: climate crisis, urbanization, globalization, and migration. Yet despite these universal trends, Houston has some very specific conditions, too. As the most diverse city in the country in terms of its demographics, Houston is the center of a new multicultural world. This positions Rice Architecture at the forefront of global discourse on architecture and identity, allowing the school to engage the universality and diversity of Houston—and the world—all at once. With its generalist approach that fuses practice and theory and defies specialization, the school moves swiftly between scales, paradigms, and modes of working, and I look forward to joining such a dynamic group of faculty members.

What would you say is the general pedagogical approach to architecture and urbanism at Rice?

Rice Architecture has many forms of engagement for such a small school, and although I have a lot to learn about my new academic home, one thing seems clear: the school has constantly invested itself in situating architecture in the larger world. These engagements include local outreach through Rice Design Alliance and the Construct design-build projects in the community, as well as the international ambit of Rice Architecture Paris. The Preceptorship program places seniors in architecture offices worldwide, while the legendary publications Architecture at Rice situates the research by architects within the public realm. As such, the school produces both practicing architects and public intellectuals—or, what I would call “scholar-practitioners,” who are equally inspired both by artifacts and arguments of architecture.

You have studied for both a masters and a doctoral degree in architecture—how have your past educational and professional experiences informed your approach to architectural education and administrative leadership?

I loved being an architecture student, so I stayed in school for as long as possible. I pursued a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree, always savoring the immense breadth of architectural education—be it in Belgrade, Moscow, Chicago, or London. In Belgrade, I studied at a time of war when students led many anti-war protests. As architecture students, we made posters and roadblocks that prevented police movement. I was lucky to have mentors who encouraged me to bring this political angle into my own work, teaching me that the worlds of architectural and political imagination are not separate, but indeed one; that our ability to draw can help visualize both beautiful buildings and more just societies.

Given the intersecting crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and racial violence in the US, what shifts would you like to see during your tenure at your new institution?

There is no question that we live in a historic moment that is ripe for social, environmental, and cultural change. Yet, history has taught us that change is a multi-generational process: emancipation was halted by segregation; the Great Society was eclipsed by neoliberal capitalism, and so on. As I reflect upon the shifts that we need to make today, I think that we need to build intellectual and political stamina so our institutions can be true agents of change over many years and generations. This, I believe, is a challenge not only for Rice Architecture but for educational and cultural organizations worldwide.

Stefanos Polyzoides, University of Notre Dame School of Architecture

Stefanos Polyzoides, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Stefanos Polyzoides entered Notre Dame University’s School of Architecture as dean last year, bringing a wealth of experience as a practitioner of both architecture and urban design. In 1990, Polyzoides and his wife Elizabeth Moule founded the California-based firm Moule & Polyzoides, going on to design institutional, residential, and commercial projects at a wide variety of scales. Polyzoides is also a co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), a non-profit that advocates for walkable cities.

AN: What would you say are the primary differences between the institutions where you have studied or taught and the one you’re entering as dean? What excites you most about the new context?

Polyzoides: Architectural education has gone in very diverse ways since the time when I was educated. I entered Princeton in 1965, which was a time of extreme uncertainty and major societal shifts. We underwent a mediocre, confused education in which resources and requirements were compartmentalized. Through 25 years of teaching at USC from the 1970s to the 1990s, and later through professional practice, I learned to embrace more integrated approaches to instruction in theory, history, design, technology, and so on. The actual process of teaching architecture should not separate the field from landscape architecture and urbanism because, to be an architect, you should be all three. Students should engage with all design fields in everything they do—it’s a way of seeing the world. So the environmental side, the urban side, and the psychological side are absolutely interconnected and the architecture is just the project element or the instrument of change.

What would you say is the general pedagogical approach to architecture, landscape architecture, and urbanism at Notre Dame, and would you say it reflects that integrative model in its current state?

These changes don’t happen in one year, but the faculty is remarkably focused on this issue in a very collaborative way. When one thinks integratively about instruction and pedagogy, one necessarily has to look at classical traditions: What are the objects, crafts, and methods of execution that have led to the most extraordinary ways of expressing ourselves and describing our various cultures? At the core of Notre Dame’s architectural pedagogy is an understanding that there are high traditions that operate in the world—on every continent, not just in the Greco-Roman world—that are meaningful and still worth pursuing. Traditions change, of course, but the most painful development of the last century has been the destruction of culturally unique cities and natural environments for the construction of the same buildings everywhere, propagated by dissimilar forms of capital production and education. Our pedagogy is political, environmental, and intellectual because cultural continuity allows us to experiment and emulate rather than repeat. Inventions without an understanding of where one comes from and where one is going are, after all, completely hollow.

How do you think your professional and past collaborative experiences with other architects and urbanists have shaped your approach to architectural education and administrative leadership?

To collaborate in architecture and in education, all we need to do is understand the true meaning of architecture, which is to make a permanent and unique place. Architectural education allows artists of various kinds, including artists that have an expertise in various technical fields, to come together and define the direction of work. And even if we all move in a commonly defined direction, we can still produce distinct buildings that diverge in their finite details. 

I decided at an advanced age to pursue this deanship because I wanted to see Notre Dame’s unique pedagogical approach prosper and advance in particular ways. I wanted to make sure that people understood that no great school is a monolith perpetuated in the same way it was originally established. We will see the School of Architecture develop components of education—including learning by doing, extending service to the world, and conducting research in a great variety of areas—that will advance the recovery of historically rich traditions and experiences.

Given the intersecting crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and racial violence in the US, what shifts would you like to see during your tenure at your new institution?

From my point of view, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. [In my first year as dean], I was able to connect with the university and do a lot of things that might otherwise have taken two or three years, including improving the graduate program and regenerating the preservation program. More broadly, I think this experience is going to accelerate trends that are already prevailing in a society that has a long trajectory of change. For instance, designing streets and understanding the spaces around buildings will accelerate in the future, and architecture and urbanism will likely become much more about refining what we have, as opposed to slashing and burning. 

Notre Dame is [also] making a great effort to become a fuller reflection of society. We’re working to expand diversity [of the student body] and hire more broadly and retain faculty of color. We are also setting up two labs—one for providing architectural services to our region and city, and the other for providing services to the Mediterranean region, both north and south. We are educating architecture students to understand themselves not just as technicians, but as leaders and transformative figures in society. We are trying to move away from hero worship and narrow positions about what design is, unveiling the destructive social and architectural policies that got us the kinds of problems that we’re dealing with now. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and we’re on our way.

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