The Dean at Syracuse

This layout from the October 1986 issue of Metropolis was designed by Helene Silverman. Photo by Kevin Lein, from left to right: Peter Pfau (now Pfau Architects, San Francisco); Mary Pepchinski (winner of a 2010 Grant Award from the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation); Mark Robbins (dean of architecture at Syracuse University); Thomas Hanrahan (now dean, school of architecture, Pratt Institute, New York); Victoria Meyers (now partner, Hanrahan Meyers Architects, New York); and Neil M. Denari (now principal of NMDA in Los Angeles and New York).

1986 was a very good year. It was the year Metropolis Magazine turned 5, as did the influential Young Architects Forum, an annual program of the New York Architecture League. To celebrate our joint anniversaries then associate editor, Victoria Geibel, conducted a round-table discussion with 14 of the New York-based winners, chosen from 259 entries. Among them was Mark Robbins, featured this month in our story, “Urban Intervention,” about one Rust Belt town and how an activist architecture dean can make a big difference in bringing it back to life. Robbins calls his work in Syracuse “opportunistic urbanism,” a practice in which he’s supported by the school’s chancellor, Nancy Cantor, and the many stellar architects and planners he invites to come and visit to lecture, design, and build.

Robbins’ activism and social consciousness come as no surprise to us, or to others who knew him back then, and later as director of design at the NEA, among other posts. In these days of growing social consciousness among architects, and especially architecture and design students, it’s worth reading what one young architect told our reporter nearly a quarter century ago:

“As we know, most of the projects in big firms are not low-income housing. They are either for very well-off private clients or they’re for corporate clients. Both provide architects with the possibility of design. And we all like to design. But we also, I hope, think about the current state of affairs socially.  So there has to be some sort of disjunction when you think, ‘Well, I really want to design, but it seems that I’m only designing $375 kitchens.’ And you think, there are too many people starving without homes for me to be doing this with a good conscience.”

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