Interactive Education

In June, after a 15-year tenure, Bernard Tschumi stepped down as the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. On the eve of his departure, he sat down with Toshiko Mori, the current chair of the architecture department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), to discuss why architecture education is, and should be, a bundle of varying viewpoints. Following are excerpts from the discussion, which was moderated by Metropolis editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy and conducted at the magazine’s New York office.

Bernard, Columbia is frequently associated with initiating the paperless studio. You are given huge credit for bringing architecture education into the 21st Century. Could you comment on the development of that program?
We initiated the paperless studios during the 1994-95 school year. When it happened, the school took off at an extraordinary pace because suddenly integrating computers within the studios generated a number of ideas very different from one another. In the same semester, or the same year, we had instructors like Greg Lynn, Stan Allen, Hani Rashid, Scott Marble-people who had nothing to do with one another in terms of their architectural attitudes. But the computer forced them to clarify certain strategies and made them take off both in terms of education and their own activities as practicing architects.

What was it that brought all this together? Was it all these voices together? The technology? The understanding of it?
All of the above, plus a couple of others-being in New York City, being with a new generation of younger architects who, for the first time, were able to establish experimental practices. All of this was in the air. My role was to recognize and encourage it, to prop it up, but all the ingredients were there.

Toshiko, you seem to be in a similar situation now, where you’re exploring materiality at Harvard, creating a very energetic moment there. How are you approaching this?
Architecture is always evolutionary. I taught at Columbia in ‘95 and saw it evolve from one era to another. Before that I was at Cooper Union at a similarly creative time. This issue of digital media has evolved into a fabrication process, so issues of materiality came up. These ideas are ancient and progressive. And I’m using materials as an interesting pedagogical issue, because you can [create] manually or mechanically or digitally. It becomes an amazing intersection. We also are introducing in anthropologists and social/cultural critics [to develop] a mixed way of looking at architecture. It seems to be the right time to explore this issue once again.

Are you using the resources of your university to bring in these anthropologists and social scientists?
The university is a great resource, but we also have the choice of getting the best from everywhere. One of the great attractions for Columbia is New York. People live and work here. The young faculty is the engine of the city-actually working and contributing. It doesn’t quite happen that way in the Cambridge/Boston area, so we draw people from all over the world.

Tell us about the new industrial design studio at the GSD.
We want to explore and expand the conceptual bases for industrial design. The problem with industrial design today is it’s either craft or mechanically based, and that’s incredibly limiting. Our program is not really end-product-based, but potential-based. When we think of a product design methodology for architects, it’s not only about how to produce an object, but also what else you can produce with it.

So you’re blurring the boundaries?
Not really, because if you blur them then you’ll end up with a strange hybrid, which doesn’t have any characteristics. You’ll have multiple disciplines always going by each other. We want a discourse among them, so they can learn from each other. This is a very complex society. It’s not a good time to have a singular pedagogy.

And how is the profession reacting to this kind of a program, which broadens the interests and viewpoints of the field and brings in a new dialogue?
Bottom line, it increases the job bases for architects. I think a lot of architects who came out of Columbia have gotten jobs in the film industry. Why? Architects receive a fabulous education. It’s very broadly based. When they come out of school, they can do anything.
BT: Because architecture is about dealing with so many contradictory forces, the education you receive recognizes how to take advantage of those contradictions. It allows someone who has had training to become a filmmaker, a philosopher, a writer, a scientist. It’s very interesting. Architects always need a project. Hence, they have to project into the future and to come up with something. You don’t learn by reading theory and then applying it. You learn as you go along. And that’s what all of us do.

How do you motivate students?
You have to keep provoking them. Even if you have brilliant people, if they don’t have a dialogue among them, it’s not interesting. Engage them in dialogue and debate. If they don’t agree, it’s fine: That’s what academia is for. You discuss the ideas and students learn enormously from different points of view. And then keep bringing in new ideas, come up with something which might be counter-intuitive to throw them off a little bit.

How exactly do you do that?
I brought in a textile engineer from [clothier] Issey Miyake, who has invented a digital weaving technique. He put on a fashion show at school. But the patterning of clothes is very much like the fabrication method of anthropomorphic or blob buildings. There’s a relationship with how that technique is done and its digital representations. The presentation was fun for [the students] and also a stress release. And as they are laughing, they were learning something new from a different discipline. Who knows? I might bring in a perfumer or a cook. Architecture is about life. It has to do with everyday things-clothing, food, a sense of smell. It all relates to architecture.

Bernard, who were your mentors: French philosophers, artists, teachers? Who made a lasting impression on you and your architectural values?
You mentioned French philosophers. I would also mention filmmakers. I always used to say that I learned more about architecture theory by reading Eisenstein’s film sense and theories of montage. I was in my 30s when I did my first competition, which I won. So I had to learn on the job. And I realized that there were concepts and ideas-and then the materialization. In other words, architecture was the materialization of concept. Form was never part of it. So I cannot say I have a formal mentor.
That’s why I’m so interested in what Toshiko is trying to do with some of the courses at Harvard. In working on buildings you discover that any materialization can weaken an idea or concept. Hence, it’s on the buildings that I’m working on now where I’m learning the most important and interesting things — from the most abstract and esoteric to the most practical and material.

Toshiko, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as the head of your department?
I haven’t looked at the lessons yet. I feel like I’m still swimming aroundOne has to be really tolerant, open to many ideas and people. This is something I’ve learned-it’s really a shared position. We have to deal with human beings and not with sticks and stones, steel and concrete. That human element is very humbling and you need to learn about it.
BT: I use a different analogy. It’s the city. The school is a city and you ought to take advantage of the contradictions, differences, conflicts, and antagonisms. The best cities-if you look at New York, for instance-are the ones that are able to transcend all those conflicts in order to make it a fertile and productive organism. So as dean, you’re taking advantage of all those divergent forces, making sure that the system never freezes. As long as you’re able to keep it in motion, then good things happen. Because you need a lot of confidence and arrogance to be an architect, but you can’t let this arrogance become a frozen set of values. So you have to be simultaneously full of confidence and at the same time, questioning everything, everyday of your life. That same balance is also important in education.
TM: It’s interesting. Both schools-Columbia and Harvard-could easily ride on [their] names. But that’s absolutely what we can’t do. We’re obliged to make new frontiers and push forward. We can take risks that perhaps other schools may not be able to. You can’t be completely reckless, but at that same time without that risk, one would just be on an ocean liner for retirees.

What are those new frontiers that you want to conquer?
The issue of technology is interesting because it has the potential to be both beneficial and destructive. How do we assess the role of it from a theoretical as well as technical point of view? Architects seem to have a much more holistic grasp of what’s going on. And then there’s the role of history in architecture. This is an old one of course, but I think this is time to really bring theory back up and question again the relationship of history and theory.
BT: The day you stop believing in dogma, you better know about your history. You better understand. You cannot afford to be naïve and innocent. If we have technology on one side, the other side of the coin is programmatic. In other words, what happens in those buildings, cities, habitats? Architects have an incredible power to determine interactions between people and what they do, thanks to the way that they organize activities in buildings.

What sort of programs do you put in place so that you have more articulate, historically informed, culturally connected, humanistic persons coming out of architecture schools?
It’s not about just giving them a bag of new theory. It has to come from within. And I think something important happened with the architecture selection process for the World Trade Center. The public expected architects to perform. They bestowed upon the architects more power than we thought we had. They expected architects to perform that task of writing a program and providing a vision, giving them much more in fact than we might have even been traditionally educated for. So I think my task now is to tell students the architect’s role is much larger than what we think it is. We have a real effect on society. We’re expected to be leaders. We have to behave like that. It’s a responsibility, but also a privilege. I think architecture is a life-affirming discipline.
BT: It is also about a certain type of urban society, a society of exchanges and interchanges. As an architect, you can either prevent or help these exchanges to take place. There’s nothing worse than architecture that sort of compartmentalizes and starts to create frozen relations. The reason why it’s so exciting to be involved with education is generally, the younger students and faculty will always be on the side of change. Occasionally in situations these days, when we can see that things are pretty dismal, being around them fills me with hope, because I know that there is a lot of room for life-affirming architects.

Columbia is planning a fairly big extension of its campus. What kind of role do you have in helping the school? Did you have a hand in helping select a short list?
No, but I’d like think that my past statements [about how] we had to look internationally lead to a larger picture. But there are no written rules. It’s determined by the president and trustees. And the role of the dean is to use as much convincing power as possible to try to have an influence.

In picking the new dean at Columbia, what was your process?
It was an open process. Some said it should be a practicing architect, but soon it was clear that it should be open to scholars and historians and theorists who had the ability to see the big picture.

Can we expect an announcement soon?
I hope so. (Laughter) I hope that by the time you go to press you can have a name. [Editor’a Note: As of today, no dean announcement has been made.] Let’s put it this way, the search committee has finished its job.

Did the search committee define a new direction for the school?
Yes and no. In reality, when the new person comes in, he or she will do that. The search committee went through a long process, selected three names, which have remained secret, and now it’s in the hands of the administration.

How do you choose faculty members? What do you look for?
You generally want someone who is talented, active, inventive, and a good teacher. But there’s something that makes it easy for us, probably even more at Columbia than at Harvard. In architecture, you start to get a lot of work when you’re in your late 40s. When you are in your 30s, you have a lot of talent, a lot of energy and very little work, so you can put a lot of energy into teaching. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but it has benefited our institutions.

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