Q+A> Sarah Lorenzen
New architecture chair at Cal Poly Pomona talks about changes at the school and renovations at Neutra's VDL House.
Neutra's VDL House.
Courtesy Cal Poly Pomona

Last month, Sarah Lorenzen replaced Judith Sheine as the chair of the Architecture Department at Cal State University Polytechnic University–Pomona, otherwise known as Cal Poly Pomona. Lorenzen has been a professor at the school since 2005. She is also resident director of Richard Neutra’s VDL House, which Cal Poly Pomona owns, and is overseeing the home’s renovation, which is scheduled to be complete in two years. She founded her own practice, Plasmatic Concepts, which focuses on multi-media design, in 2004.

Sarah Lorenzen.
Courtesy Cal Poly Pomona

AN: It seems like things have been changing quickly at Cal Poly, with many new professors, and now your promotion to chair. What other changes are coming?

SL: That’s a big question, change. There was a whole group of us hired between 2003 and 2006, part of a hiring initiative before the economic crunch. Probably right now it’s about 50/50 between people that have been there for many years and those who are relatively new. So I would say there is definitely an interest in change.

At the same time the change has to be incremental and gradual. There are a lot of things we’re doing well, so we don’t want to change that part. It’s more how do you change the direction to invigorate the school and keep the students interested and move forward with what’s happening in terms of technologies and interests in architectural form making and also what’s happening in other schools in southern California and around the U.S. Certainly we want to look at where we want to make changes without making them too dramatic.

One of the things is to look at how we can increase the professionalism of the school. It’s something we’re already known for: educating students that are well rounded, technically savvy, and that have an understanding of the profession in terms of construction and methods and materials and professional practice. My idea is we should go with where our strengths are; take what we are already know for and increase that part of the program. What are the classes around the studio that reinforce and feed into the studio? So for example, if they’re taking structures, the surrounding courses are helping what they’re doing in studio; learning about environmental controls or new technologies.

Also I’d like to use faculty from the outside to serve as consultants for those classes. So you’ll have a studio dealing with long-span structures, and other classes would help you work out how the structures are plausible and make sense for that type of building. That takes an incredible amount of coordination and means looking to outside groups to help with each of the studios. There’s already a health care initiative where we get people from the health care industry to help students understand the changes in that industry. And there’s a NASA project, with consultants from JPL helping with that studio. We started a new initiative with the modular building institute. We have an instructor, George Proctor, who’s interested in new modular technology, and we have another one with the Precast Institute. I think that model of education works really well. It raises the level of professionalism within the departments and it brings in resources and lets us show the work that the students are doing through collaboration with outside firms or with building institutes. It’s part of the goal of the school to showcase the work that students are doing.


These are things that you’d like to do more of. Is there anything you’d like to do less of?

One of the problems we’ve had is not embracing the digital revolution to the extent that we need to. Students are good at picking up a lot of that stuff on their own, and we teach a lot of digital classes. But there’s been less of a connection between the making and a kind of abstract set of classes that teach people how to use new technologies. The idea is, you don’t just teach a whole set of digital tools and not deal with how you make things with them. I think a lot of schools are looking at integrating those two things. It has to do with making sure the digital classes are always tied into a particular studio problem. The studio is the center and everything else feeds into it.


Would you say the new guard is taking over at the school?

I wouldn’t say that. I would actually say that the people who have been there a while are often the most eager to see transformation. In a lot of ways they’re more interested in the professional and practice side, which is not always an interest of younger faculty. I think there’s a return to this.

For a long time architects suffered from the economy, and there was an infatuation with form making and representation that took over the making of architecture. Hopefully there will be a resurgence in construction as we get a better economy. By now everybody can produce a compelling rendering and new formal gymnastics. They can make something that is incredibly formally driven and complex. I think everybody is now interested in seeing how these projects can be realized at the scale of a building and not just at the scale of a small intervention that’s not so much connected to program or use or things at the urban scale. The faculty that was often sidelined are the people that actually have the experience with building. How can you bridge that with the digital world to find out how this impacts the built world? I’m very close to the senior faculty. The reality is we are educating architects, not digital designers.


Another huge issue in architectural education is accessibility. Is that something you’re working on as well?

The strength of the program is that we have unbelievably good students. The demand is driven from the excellent tradition, the cost of the university—less than a quarter of most architecture schools—and that we’re a bachelor of architecture program, which is typically more accessible to first-generation college goers. We have between 2,000 and 2,500 applicants for 90 spaces. I don’t think there’s any school that has that kind of demand. The students who are coming in are certainly top of their class, incredibly ambitious.

Still, we have a large amount of diversity. We’re a minority-majority program. We have a lot of disadvantaged students, which you don’t get in most places. There’s a kind of incredible work ethic. I think the new chancellor of the Cal State University (CSU) system is very interested in keeping that. That’s the mission of the CSU—affordability is a huge part of the CSU system. I think that that’s one of the most important reasons that I’m at a CSU. I’d rather work in a school with people who are there because they really want to be and not just because they couldn’t think of anything else to do.


One thing you can’t change is Cal Poly Pomona’s long distance from Los Angeles, which can keep you off the radar of things going on there. How are you dealing with that?

I think we are sometimes seen as being disconnected from the other schools. One of the incredible attributes we have here is the fact that there are these other really great programs in the area that we can have conversations with. There is a desire to have a greater exchange of ideas; and sometimes we’re left out of those conversations. We want to participate in those and take advantage of the incredible wealth of talent in the city. One of the venues we have is the Neutra VDL house, which is very central. We’re also looking at informal reviews in different venues around Los Angeles.

But the reality is that the region is much more than Los Angeles. There’s the Inland Empire, Orange County, San Diego, Palm Springs. We’re actually more central to the larger Los Angeles. A lot of our students come from the surrounding counties. And we can think about larger problems. People are interested not just in the urban issues in LA. But the bigger problem is what do you do with the exurban and surrounding areas? What do you do about water issues and transportation issues and the suburban environment? We’ve looked at Whittier and El Monte and different areas that are not just the traditional urban areas.

You grew up in Mexico City. How does that influence your teaching and your perspective?

My parents are American. I grew up in Mexico and came to school in the U.S. I think the fact that I’m a native Spanish speaker and part of that community is very important. LA is a majority Latino city. We have many at our school who are first generation Mexican and Central Americans. I think it’s important that you have faculty that can relate to where you come from too. So having a huge increase in women studying architecture, and being a woman architect is important. And having a background in Latin America in a city that is largely Latin American is important. We still need more of that representation. Our students are much more diverse than our teachers. I had a student ask me, I’ve been here for two years and I’ve never had a teacher that looks like me.


Will you still direct The VDL House?

I will. At least for the next two years until the restoration is completed. We’re about 50 percent there. Hopefully in the next two years we can finalize most of it. The house actually looks amazing. The roof will be done in the next few weeks and then the house will get painted, and it will be quite a dramatic transformation.

What do you think of architecture professors who don’t practice architecture?

I would say we have a mix of both. I think for any new hires our goal is to hire more practitioners. We have a very strong history of people who are strong in practice. Even though we’re a professional program there is a need to hire more practitioners.