News
06.07.2011
Comment> Ben Prosky
The role of architecture schools in catalyzing conversations.
Stefan Sagmeister designed the poster for the 2008 fall lecture series at GSAPP (left) and the poster designed by 2X4 for the Columbia Building Intelligence Project held in Tokyo in 2010 (right).
Courtesy GSAPP

The fact that schools of architecture repeatedly pull off great events is nothing new. Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous 1951 lecture at Columbia has been meticulously archived; Harvard’s annual Walter Gropius lecture has been given by one of the most established practitioners in any given year since 1961. Nor is it uncommon for schools to deliberately organize provocative conferences as when Yale fostered a real ideological battle in a public forum between Peter Eisenman and Leon Krier in 2002. As recent history has demonstrated, interesting debates and critical experimentation are no longer the purview of agents like the IAUS—established in the 1960s as an alternative to the institutions mentioned previously—which are again returning to university culture. As Rem Koolhaas insists at his academic lectures, architectural ideas have a broad audience beyond captive student audiences conven-iently dwelling in studios adjacent to the university auditorium.

At the same time, I believe that the production of architectural events in universities is more and more of a curatorial act. In addition to the professors and deans traditionally involved, more engaged administrators are not only coordinating and organizing events but also giving input and direction. The need for additional curation is clear, these events are occurring at a sometimes dizzying rate, with a typical week consisting of a Monday night panel discussion on sustainability issues in China, a Wednesday evening architecture lecture by Richard Rogers, a Friday lunchtime debate on urban zoning policy, and a Saturday conference on African cities. Furthermore, the ability and desire of these ambitious events to draw outsiders—practitioners, retirees, artists, policy makers, students from other schools and faculties—has an indelible impact upon the school’s students, faculty and discourse at large. In producing programming, not just in the form of events but also exhibitions, publications, and relevant web content beyond that with an academic link, a school can instigate discussion and inspire collaborations that reach beyond the existing culture of the place.

What does it mean for schools to have such overactive public programs? It seems obvious: to serve the students and faculty and to give them avenues in which to communicate about their work. However, public programs should not simply replicate the school’s agenda but also help to produce it. By creating venues, forums, and mediums, schools can explore what it they are curious about outside the classroom. In turn, ideas that come out of an academic event should influence the school, shape its pedagogy, and sway its discourse. By inviting other interests in and producing friction with diverse ideas, the school can better define how it thinks about itself.

At Columbia GSAPP, where I have directed the events program for the past six years under the direction of dean Mark Wigley, we have strived to create such conditions by blurring the lines where classroom, practice, industry, and professional development can meet, as in the conferences on materials, including glass, concrete, metals, and plastic, chaired by professor Michael Bell.

Of course, it has been a challenge for design schools that have departments in addition to architecture, such as urban planning, urban design, historic preservation, landscape architecture, and real estate development to produce public programs that address the interests and concerns of all included. Architecture departments tend to take a minimum of three years to complete and therefore have the most students. But a well-curated program can facilitate interaction amongst all departments and instigate curiosity about other disciplines, mirroring the cross-disciplinary approach currently favored by the profession. For example, the architecture student who comes to developer Douglas Durst’s talk may begin to understand that convincing his peers in the real estate development program that good design is a good investment may someday lead to a commission—just as listening to Steven Holl discuss housing projects in China might lead a research trip to Shenzhen to examine the existing urban fabric, or a discussion with Amanda Burden about New York’s planNYC might inspire a debate among urban planning and architecture students that could lead to a proposal for a joint design-development studio.

Crafting a communications plan for announcing and informing diverse publics within and beyond the school is a constant challenge. Whereas museums have long-term planning in their DNA, schools have not been traditionally accustomed to organizing themselves this way. Their fluid and experimental nature can throw this process. Attention to mailing lists and email listserves is not often a priority, undermining the programming or outreach ambitions.

Schools tend to be omnivorous when it comes to their visual identities. They have a wonderful way of promiscuously working with a host of graphic designers. Whereas cultural institutions aim for consistent branding, a school can choose a sober design approach for one exhibition, while the same school’s lecture series poster might be outrageously bright. These posters, programs, and postcards are sometimes the only traces remaining of significant events and become somewhat collectible. A well-detailed program for a conference can essentially become the Cliff Notes for the audience or the table of contents for the symposium publication.

The events program that I directed at Columbia was well received but did not go unchallenged. I noticed that event fatigue can set in. Complaints came from professors that there were too many programs on too many nights with not enough time to think in between. Students created their own rogue series advertising that they would invite the people “they choose” rather than the speakers chosen for them, and they sometimes stopped attending even the most compelling school lectures. The effort to produce creative and graphically stimulating communications materials was also met with contentious remarks from faculty and students who felt that the designs were sometimes too confusing or too colorful, while others considered them not bold enough. Then again, alums sometimes write to tell me that they are using past posters as decoration on their office walls!

No matter how ambitious a series is, it cannot satisfy everyone’s interests. An embarrassment of riches and offerings is not a bad problem to have. One can only hope that by offering up such a diversity of ideas that there is always something with which to engage. Sometimes an event on a particular scholarly subject that draws a modest audience of 25 engaged attendees can be just as worthwhile as a lecture by a famous architect filling the auditorium with 300 people.

Having recently been appointed the Assistant Dean of Communications at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, I step into a role with a communications mandate at its core. The position oversees an already creative and experienced team running the departments of events, exhibitions, publications, Harvard Design Magazine, and web content. Under the direction of the Dean Mohsen Mostafavi, the goal is to give more possibilities for interdepartmental collaboration and broader reach and impact.

In a time when museums have dwindling departments of architecture, curatorial positions in architecture are few and far between, and cultural institutions are cutting back on architecture programming, it is more important than ever for schools to take their role seriously as major producers of architectural discourse. To produce material that is accessible within academic walls and also reaches out to the profession not only serves the school, but the entire community.

Benjamin Prosky

 

Benjamin Prosky is the out-going Director of Special Events and External Affairs at Columbia’s GSAPP. He was recently appointed Assistant Dean of Communications at Harvard University, GSD.