In conversation with AN’s editor-in-chief, William Menking, Mark Robbins reflects on his time as Dean of Architecture at Syracuse University, the role of architects, his artistic practice, and his plans for the International Center of Photography, where he is taking over as Director.
The Architect's Newspaper: Is there a common thread that holds the many facets of your professional life together?
Robbins: For me education is a through line. As an artist, the work that I do has to do with critical practice; understanding space as a place where there are intense social interactions and multiple forces come into play. As a curator, I had to think differently about the way in which work could be presented so that it was available to disciplinary audiences, to professional audiences, people who are interested in architecture, in design, but also to non-specialized audiences. That sense of speaking to people who are not like us or like, you know, artists or architects, was intensified by my time in government.
You know, I think when you live in New York or if you are within an arts organization you have certain assumptions about what the kind of general field of conversation is or the general field of shared knowledge, and then when you are in government you are dealing with people who come from vastly different backgrounds.
I think part of what I was hoping to do at Syracuse was to think about the ways in which a school of architecture could perform like a cultural institution. To do broader education, not only for young architects but for the region and a broader population. I wanted to let people in the other academic disciplines know that we existed and could overlap with issues of public policy, with issues within the humanities and the social sciences, that we were kind of part of that academic discourse but that we could also have an impact on the physical form of the city, that we could also participate in the market. So I wanted to educate students to perform in such a way that they could communicate to audiences of non-architects. If a student didn’t know what a pro forma was, he couldn’t make a case to a developer.
Tell us more about moving from a cultural institution to government?
When I was at the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and they would say, well, you know, “Look, we’ve been able to do these six over six double hung windows with clip on mullions and they’re just a little bit more expensive.” And I would say, “Well, why do you want to spend all that effort of doing six over six, I’d rather get another 100 square feet into the kitchen and get more glass so that I can get a view out.”
I’d rather think about issues. Now the rhetoric surrounding sustainability is another way out of all of our discussions being about style and more about performance, but my sense is beauty is part of the performance criteria.
At Syracuse we’re doing a series of five books with help from the Rockefeller Foundation on American Housing. It’s a survey of in-fill reuse and towers, and so it’s a way of looking both at market and non-market rate housing and senior citizen housing. Koning Eizenberg’s work is in it and Stanley Saitowitz’s work, Della Valle Bernheimer’s, and ARO, and others.
What will be your continuing legacy at Syracuse?
There are programs that were set up which will now roll out. There was setting up the program in London to work with a program in New York and in Florence, the idea that students would be exposed to urbanism. So you could live in Florence for six months as a student and understand a kind of traditional urbanism and the medieval city, then you could come to London and look at the city, which was rebuilt after Wren, and you could come to New York and look at the mercantile city, the kind of graded and rationality of the commissioner’s grid, and then go to Syracuse and quite authentically begin to study Syracuse as a type of the postindustrial city.
One of the books that we’re doing is called the American City X: Syracuse After The Master Plan. In that we will publish the 24 projects or so that we did, both on campus and off campus, and then the infrastructure that connects the two.
They created this position for me called the University Senior Adviser on Architecture on Urban Initiatives. Students were able to see architecture as having greater agency in the public sector but also to build demonstration models for the way architecture performs. We also brought in Barry Bergdoll because we have the Breuer archives and we were able to do an exhibition of some of the work in these archives. Barry has continued to work on his book, which the students helped to work on.
So we do that kind of work but then we also built those high performance houses by Della Valle Bernheimer with ARO, Onion Flats, Cook + Fox. And then there’s the connective corridor, which was originally by Field Operations, who won the competition, and then we brought in OLIN to do the work of connecting the downtown to the campus.
Are you still using the building downtown? (The university hired Gluckman Mayner Architects to renovate an old warehouse in Syracuse’s Armory Square as a temporary home for the School of Architecture. The project was part of an initiative to revitalize downtown.)
We use part of it and the university uses the rest. So it’s still the School of Architecture and the Fine Arts.
But that has local spillover. There are ways in which this benefits the city. A private developer developed one site close to it, which is now a 300-person engineering firm, and there’s a new development for Marriott Hotel going in on another development parcel. You do an anchor with a strong tenant and then it makes a neighborhood newly attractive to other developers. So, there have been three or four major parcels developed since the warehouse was revamped. You want a single investment to have multiple outcomes.
Let’s talk about your vision for ICP.
ICP is a place that I've known about since I was a little kid. My mom was involved in the exhibitions. Oddly enough, I met Kenneth Anger in their galleries. So there's a kind of full circle. While I was still in undergraduate school, still at Colgate doing this film work, I met him. For the past ten years or so my work has been certainly as much photographic as it has been installation based, which you can see in the show at Colgate.
ICP is an institution dedicated broadly to the image or to the image broadly. It's really both. I want to expand the notion of the way we look at image making, and images as cultural currency, as a currency for communication, and to make ICP the hub for discourses about the image, and also for commissioning work as well as exhibiting work. And so my sense is to make a cultural institution that has that as its legacy is kind of critical, especially in this century. I would like to look at the image in a more Catholic way, in a broader way.
To be an institution that’s based in New York, but that has global reach–-it is the International Center of Photography—I want that to be really critical to its ethos.
ICP was started as The Fund for Concerned Photography. The Founding Director was Cornell Capa, whose brother was Robert Capa, who did those fantastic images of the Spanish Civil War. So its roots are in documentary work, and work that was explicitly about social commentary. But the institution has grown to include what would be seen as work that’s as much about personal expression, as about social documentation. I'd like to see ICP as both an agent for having work occur in the world through commissioning, but also exporting and being catalytic both locally and through collaboration with academic institutions, with other cultural institutions, and also to be engaged in a more international sphere with other cultural institutions, but also perhaps in unexpected ways, with academic institutions.
At ICP we have a remarkably talented curatorial staff and I think one of the best schools of photography in the world. ICP has been doing phenomenal work for close to 40 years and it needs to have a broader impact both within the constellation of New York cultural institutions, and in the international and global sense.