See the Thesis Projects of Liz Diller, Daniel Libeskind, and Other Cooper Union Grads at New Exhibit

Archive and Artifact: The Virtual and the Physical at the Cooper Union showcases physical drawings, models, and the school's growing digital archive of student work.
Archive Artifact cooper union exhibit

Stanley Allen’s “The Theater of Production,” from his thesis (1980-81). Professors: John Hejduk, Raimund Abraham, Anthony Candido, Ricardo Scofidio, Robert Slutzky, Bernard Tschumi Courtesy The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive, The Cooper Union


Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the mythological phoenix, Gulliver’s Travels—all have been sources of inspiration for architectural thesis projects at the Cooper Union for nearly half a century. In fact, some of those theses were deemed notable enough by then-faculty to be included in the school’s long-running archive of student work. Now, with the Cooper Union poised to launch a publicly-accessible online portal to that archive, the school is showcasing a selection of those student works—both drawings and models—at the Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery, within its historic Foundation Building in New York.

The Cooper Union began actively archiving its students’ work in the late 1960s. According to Steven Hillyer, director of the architecture archive, that documentation was a major priority for architect John Hejduk, who joined the Cooper Union as a professor in 1964 and later ascended to the architecture school deanship in 1975. Hejduk wanted to use the archive to disseminate the students’ work and improve the school’s stature. His efforts met with quick success: The Cooper Union curated a 1971-1972 MoMA exhibition, Education of an Architect: A Point of View, which acclaimed the school’s architecture program. That show led to two books—Education of An Architect: A Point of View (1972) and Education of an Architect (1988)—that further helped grow the school’s global prominence. “That tradition of celebrating student work continued,” Hillyer tells Metropolis, and the school kept photographing faculty-selected student projects. (Starting in 2003, the school also started accepting students’ digital files of their work.)

Archive Artifact cooper union exhibit

Photo by Lea Bertucci, courtesy The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture Archive, The Cooper Union

With an archive of nearly 50 years of student work, the Cooper Union sensed the opportunity to showcase the breadth and evolution of its pedagogy. So, one year ago the school obtained funding for a major digitization initiative: All its archived analog works (including photographs of student works, transcripts of critiques, and student work descriptions) would be made available online.

To celebrate the digital archive’s progress, the school decided to showcase some of the physical originals alongside the in-progress digital archive (visitors can preview the archive using computers in the exhibition space). In terms of physical drawings—which the school had to obtain from its former students, as the archive is only photographic—there are some early works on view, such as those by architect Daniel Libeskind. His 1969-70 thesis is a series of collages accompanied by some heady ideas on materials, semantics, and the arts.

While there are a few recognizable names (Elizabeth Diller, Stan Allen, Laurie Hawkinson) the works were selected to highlight the school’s evolution and diverse focus areas: While the Hejduk deanship (1975 – 2000) saw the school focus on other disciplines, such as poetry, film, and painting, his successor Anthony Vidler, who oversaw the school until 2013, reoriented the studios toward global issues such as climate and sustainability. “[With] 40, 50 years of works, you’re looking at moments of time that are characteristic of a period,” current dean Nader Tehrani says “Sometimes exemplary voices that have gone viral, some that haven’t.”

By October 2019 all 534 of the 1987 – 2003 thesis projects are expected to be online and publicly available. Eventually, the entire archive will be available. “The archives are not a dead space,” says Tehrani. “They’re a way to have a conversation with a wider audience,” of practitioners, academics, and the public.

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Categories: Architecture

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