In June Bernard Tschumi stepped down as dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, ending a hugely successful fifteen-year run. Under his leadership, the school’s forays into digital technology helped transform design education. On the eve of his departure, the outgoing dean sat down with Toshiko Mori, the current chair of the architecture department at the Harvard GSD, to talk about the state of architecture education. Metropolis editor in chief Susan S. Szenasy moderated the discussion:
How do you see your roles as educators?
TM:We have to create an atmosphere and a space where students and teachers can do their most creative work.
I compare it to being a film producer instead of a director. That’s the task shift from architect to chair. You
produce a body of work—which may or may not be architecture—by putting people, ingredients and stories together to make things happen. Education is invisible really. So you have to make certain intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual investments.
BT:This is a great time at the academic institutions. Rafael Moneo, one of Toshiko’s predecessors, was one of the first people to realize that after many generations of students looking to established practitioners for inspiration, a shift had occurred. Now it was the practitioners looking to what was being done in the schools for inspiration. This took a number of forms. The first one had to do with design parameters and processes, including the computer-driven one. Today it has moved toward issues such as materials, where Toshiko is playing an important role. There are other issues as well. The return of the social—the idea that architects are not simply form-givers, but also play a role in the cultural impact of society. This discussion is just beginning, but it’s a very interesting moment in architecture.
On that multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary note, we hear that the Harvard GSD now has an industrial design studio.
TM:It’s a Master of Design program, a one-year concentration in product design. Technology has quickened the fabrication process, making it important for architects to understand the material sciences and industrial processes. Teaching students how that works will help them understand manufacturing, but also give them other professional alternatives.
BT:Here I would use a slightly different approach. Since the fifteenth century the architect has not produced buildings. The architect produces ideas. Even today—when you can short circuit the production process through the use of technology—architects are present
at the beginning of the process. They still produce the idea. What we teach at school is not to produce objects. It is to produce ideas that will lead to objects or social frameworks or buildings or whatever you think the role of the architect is. This emphasis on ideas is crucial. It’s our strength. There will always be someone who will be better at producing objects.
What are students looking for today? Where do they see their futures?
BT:The other day we were going through the portfolios for the awards and one of my faculty members said: “We find the Columbia student is someone who is stubborn, esoteric, but very smart.” In other words they know what they want to do. They are not afraid of exploring uncharted territories and they are quite clever about finding ways to implement their ideas when they leave school. When they graduate they don’t think, “Oh, we have to go and grind at KPF,” which once upon a time they did. Now they are quite inventive in finding alternative roots.
TM:I find students strangely optimistic. They believe they control what they can do as architects, and they want to go out in the world and make ideas. They’re very much idealists, and I feel very touched that they think they can make a difference.
Toshiko, did you have a mentor? Was there a place, a time, a series of events that formed you as an architect and educator?
TM:I have a direct mentor, John Hejduk, from Cooper Union. He taught me the ethos that teaching is an architect’s birthright. It’s part of the social contract. You receive education, then you give back. It’s part of what you practice, but also an essential activity. So there is something about my continuing to teach and practice that has to do with him. Architecture education is very fragile. Everyone is carrying this fragile legacy, trying to keep that alive because it’s the essence of the art. John’s passion about architecture was something we felt as students. And that’s why lots of us who studied under him are able to impart to others how exciting it is. He created the beginnings of this alternative way of carving out a profession, and that gave a lot of young architects hope and empowerment.
Bernard, how did you maintain a balance between teaching and practice?
BT:The official answer? (Laughter) OK, the official answer was very simple. I was in the office in the morning and at Columbia in the afternoon. What made it possible is the fact that I ran time. It’s the same as an architecture office: you have many different projects, and Columbia was one of them. Sometimes they needed a lot of tender loving care. Other times I could let a project ride—it was doing fine by itself, just like in real projects. What you also discover is that you have to be unbelievably attentive. You can never let it alone for too long. You need to carry a small bottle of sick pills and a small fire extinguisher, because if you let people fall asleep too long you won’t wake them up. If you let fires become too big, you won’t be able to extinguish them. As you know, I like to drive fast cars. The best ones are the unstable ones, because they can move very fast. But you have to correct all the time. They’re just like fighter jets, which are very unstable, dynamic objects. You always need to be on top of everything, otherwise they’ll go into a tailspin. Architecture schools are simultaneously complex and light. Toshiko talked about the fragile nature of education. Schools are fragile too. It takes very little to make them great, but also very little for them to collapse.