After nearly two decades at the University at Buffalo (UB) School of Architecture and Planning, Omar Khan is taking up a new position this fall as head of the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) School of Architecture. Khan spoke with The Architect’s Newspaper about his tenure in Buffalo and how ideas he forged there have translated to his vision for CMU.
AN: You were with the University at Buffalo for close to two decades. Which aspects of its program are you particularly proud of?
Omar Khan: I am particularly proud of the Graduate Research Groups, which are a fundamental part of the M.Arch curriculum that I helped initiate. I started the Graduate Research Groups with Kent Kleinman and Mehrdad Hadighi when I was still an assistant professor. The idea behind the groups was that the graduate program should not be about architecture as an autonomous field, but should frame architecture as a way to connect with pressing topics in society.
During the seven years when I was chair of the architecture department at Buffalo, we expanded the program from four to five groups: inclusive design, ecological practices, material culture, situated technologies, and urban design. We wanted to unapologetically align architectural design to specific societal and design concerns.
UB’s Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART) lab was founded in 2015 and is a place for interdisciplinary experimentation, with frequent collaboration with leading regional manufacturers. You have also codirected UB’s Center for Architecture and Situated Technologies for the last 15 years. Do you envision pushing for similar programs at CMU? And do you foresee collaboration between the two universities in such initiatives as the Architectural Ceramics Assemblies Workshop (ACAW), which UB helps organize?
SMART’s focus was to bring together disparate industries working in metal, concrete, stone, and terra-cotta under a single umbrella. My participation in that program focused primarily on the research of terra-cotta manufacturing and the transfer of digital techniques, workflows, and so forth into craft-based industry. At CMU we’re going to have a similar opportunity to reach out to manufacturing within and around Pittsburgh, as we did in Buffalo.
Both SMART and the Architectural Ceramics Assemblies Workshop demonstrate that we can have a significant influence on the kind of direction technologies and industries take. ACAW will continue to be at UB with Boston Valley [Terra Cotta], but CMU will try to develop a collaboration there.
Situated Technologies started in 2008, when most architects were just interested in computing as a tool, but Mark Shepard and Trebor Scholz and I were focused on understanding computing as an environment, in the same way as the built environment. CMU, which is at the cutting edge of AI technology, offers an opportunity to immerse myself again in that kind of research.
What do you perceive to be the greatest challenges facing the CMU School of Architecture?
Any program that’s not dealing with climate change is not dealing with reality. I’m hopeful that CMU will become a leader in this area, and the school has worked on sustainability for a long time at the Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics. What I will bring is a material focus on sustainability, and how the industry uses construction technologies and building systems. This is a situation where CMU is the leader, and I am just there to foster it.
Another challenge that we’ve had since the 1980s is academic capitalism, or the reframing of American academia as a product to be purchased by consumers in a competitive marketplace. Universities frame their programs and brand them as exclusive purposely to raise their price tags.
Another challenge is institutionalized racism within the university system, which is tied to a larger question of how we framed and branded education with Eurocentrism. These kinds of things are in front of all of us, especially at elite universities that have for the longest time perpetuated this in their admissions processes.
The worst is the experience of the students at your institution when they are made to feel inadequate. We can’t continue to be deaf to this reality: If we don’t take an antiracist position right away, then this rot at the root will continue to run systematically through every aspect of our program and shape the kinds of attitudes we have toward communities.
What are you most excited about in your new position at CMU?
As head of the School of Architecture, I’m part of the larger College of Fine Arts. The other schools are design, art, drama, and music. It’s incredibly exciting for me to be part of a college of arts within a technical university. It aligns with much of my own research across architecture and design media, but also the sense that within the context of this very influential and elite technical university that you have these arts programs that are maybe not consciences, but interrogators of that whole endeavor.