Letter from the Dean | Anthony Vidler 2001-2013

Cooper Union Stock Photo

In over ten years as Dean of the School of Architecture, I have many times been presented with the question of the relationships between theory and practice. This conventional division, that emerges often in the debates around the nature of the education of an architect —should it be more directed towards practical or theoretical concerns? —is one that I have always thought to be entirely artificial. It is, after all, confounded by the very fact that any design, however hypothetical, is in itself a thought about architecture. Indeed the very practice of design is one of thinking architecture in the most fundamental way.

The knowledge that is essential for a critical understanding of contemporary professional practice, —whether of ethics, technologies, economics, business practices, or legal frameworks —is fundamental to the calculation of a project that is not to be consumed by the routines of practice. But these questions must be couched in terms that relate directly to the act of creative design—design that comprehends the problems of culture, society, environment, and technique—and that looks in a holistic way at the otherwise piecemeal solutions generally offered for sustainability, social responsibility, and ecological conservation.

Thus the curriculum at Cooper confronts local and global questions of environmental and technological knowledge, while holding close to our belief that the humanistic understanding of form and space is critical to the articulation of social and cultural solutions. The meaning of architecture and its urban cognates is in this way formulated as embodying structure and function in forms that resonate with particular force as condensers of community. It is for this reason that the act of thinking about architecture, through drawing, modeling, reading and writing has become the central occupation of what we call design: in these terms, seeing architecture as a theoretical design discipline par excellence.

With its deeply rooted traditions of social equity inherited from Peter Cooper’s vision of an institution that would prepare the citizens of tomorrow, the curriculum of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture faces the urgent conditions of the twenty-first century. Supported by vigorous studio courses in freehand drawing and descriptive geometry, the Architectonics studios explore visual and formal issues of projection and representation in the context of the studio while constructing ideal habitations at large scale, using all the resources of the Shop. The Design II studios address the complex questions of site, structure and program, in an brilliantly inventive three-dimensional transformation of the School’s own “Nine-Square” program followed by a semester of analysis investigating the programmatic and formal forces that shaped different scales of domestic space from the house to the chair. Design III, integrating design with the knowledge gained from building and environmental technologies and structures, has moved from the scale of habitat to that of the small institution, studying increasingly complex ideas in the realm of a material poetics. The Design IV studios first return to the scale of the detail, expanding out to the scale of the city, and then re-focused moving from the widest urban perspective to that of the single institution. The fifth year Thesis, exhibiting the most varied interests, investigates questions of the architectural environment from the global to the local with inventive intensity.  The post-professional Master of Architecture II graduate curriculum combines rigorous graduate level courses in design, history, theory, technology and urbanism with design research studios in urban and natural landscapes, probing fundamental questions about the roles of technology, the media, natural resources, and social conditions in contemporary architectural culture.

These studios do not exist alone. They stand at the center of a network of courses and experiences that introduce students to the knowledge of the historical, social, anthropological, philosophical, aesthetic, technological, and cultural disciplines that inform architecture and urban design. Supporting this curriculum, the School of Architecture Archive provides a unique resource for students to study the history of the school and for the mounting of our yearly series of exhibitions, themselves didactic and integral to the school’s pedagogy.

A unique characteristic of the school is its relationship to the two other professional schools, the Albert Nerken School of Engineering and the School of Art; all students interact socially and intellectually in the foundation courses of Humanities and Social Sciences, in a range of advanced courses, and share facilities – laboratories, machine shops, studios, libraries and reading rooms. While The Cooper Union is not known for being a sports school, a wide range of sports activities are offered – with successful tennis, basket ball, and fencing teams comprised of students from all schools taking part in local and regional competitions.

The achievements of our recent graduates have been nothing less than remarkable. Many have gained national recognition through Fulbright Fellowships that have led them to South Africa, Tunisia, Kazakhstan, Korea, Japan, Italy, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, and France; more have been awarded Benjamin Menschel Fellowships to research, travel and develop individual exhibitions. More have been recipients of the prestigious Lotos Foundation Prize in the Arts and Sciences. Several have won fellowships offered by professional firms; one went on to study in the British School at Rome, and many go on to prestigious graduate schools. Since its establishment by the family of William Cooper Mack, the Thesis Research Fellowship supports students in the travel and preparation of their Thesis projects.

As a school, we prepare students for a full breadth of careers in architecture and the allied arts and professions. Some have forged partnerships among themselves, entrepreneurial and inventive, winning competitions and constructing new forms of collective practice. Others have joined small and large firms, quickly earning recognition as important contributors to practice. Others again have then begun to teach with the experience of the pedagogy they learned at The Cooper Union.

This pedagogy, a precious inheritance from the generations of teachers under the leadership of Dean John Hejduk, has been developed and sustained by our professional and scholarly faculty, who, as they practice, gain recognition in their diverse fields, continue to push the envelope of design, and, in their research, inspire their colleagues and students in the creation of an architecture that can hold its place in a world of rampant commercialism and environmental decay.

Peter Cooper considered The Cooper Union student already to be a citizen of the world, and accordingly he instructed that  “Instruction in the science and philosophy of a true republican government formed, as it should be, of the people and for the people” be “continually taught.” With this foundation, the professional education of an architect, an engineer, and an artist could begin. And with this education, Peter Cooper hoped that, as he wrote, “the students of this institution will do something to bear back the mighty torrent of evils now pressing on the world.” In every way, Peter Cooper’s ideal of public service is sustained by an architectural community forged at Cooper, as its young professionals enter a society now, more than ever, in need of the most creative solutions to its increasingly intractable problems.

Anthony Vidler
Dean and Professor

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.