The William Cooper Mack Thesis Fellowship
The William Cooper Mack Thesis Fellowship program was established in 2008 by John and Harriet Mack at The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture in memory of their son William Cooper Mack, class of 2006. Cooper, as he was known to all, first entered The Cooper Union in the School of Art, where he studied for one year before transferring to the School of Architecture. His work to weld tradition and research, technology and science, art and architectonics in the search for new answers to longstanding questions in architecture was recognized through awards and prizes that included the American Institute of Architects Henry Adams Certificate of Merit, the Peter W. Bruder Memorial Fund Structures Prize and the Bert L. Stern Architectural Award from the Lotos Club Foundation.
The Thesis year affords each student in the School of Architecture the freedom to shape, in every sense, a project that stands as a culmination of the design sequence. Thesis students are encouraged to deeply examine personal as well as broad cultural, social and environmental concerns toward an architectural solution incorporating program, site, technologies and poetics. William Cooper Mack Thesis Fellowships are awarded each year to support primary research and inquiry in the development of significant and original thesis projects.
Over the past four years, the William Cooper Mack Thesis Fellowship program has had a significant impact on many thesis projects. Eighteen students have received the award, with research conducted in thirteen countries, at locations as diverse as Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; the disputed territory of the Bakassi Peninsula; the Jabalia Refugee Camp, Gaza; Zarazoga, Spain and Cuba. Students have conducted site surveys, oral histories, research at local archives, photographic documentation, studies of indigenous building practices and interviews of community leaders, as integral components toward the making of architecture.
We invite you to support the efforts of our thesis students to broaden the reach and impact of architecture through a contribution to this important program. To make a donation, please click here; make sure to select Named Endowment and specify William Cooper Mack Thesis Fellowship in the additional comments / preferences box.
Projects & Links
2013-Jeremy Jacinth, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
I began my thesis project by thinking about the issue of water distribution in California; through this investigation I realized the importance of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to California’s struggling water infrastructure. Through my research, I began to grasp the sensitivity of this ecosystem, specifically looking at it from its time as a marshland to its conversion to an agrarian landscape and now a vital means of water export for 96% of all Californians. During my initial study I realized that the Dutch have faced very similar issues, the only difference being that they were much further along in terms of mitigating disaster, and are now the most referenced example for water management infrastructure. It is for this reason that I proposed to travel to the Netherlands, specifically Rotterdam – a major port city – to immerse myself within a delta culture where the issues of flooding, subsidence and brackish waters are common knowledge and the infrastructural systems play out as active cultural monuments within the landscape.
I traveled to The Netherlands in order to obtain a better understanding of a way that a landscape completely below sea level deals with the issues of water management, as well as urban and rural inhabitation. The majority of my trip was spent riding a bike through the countryside and documenting the everyday life of its inhabitants. I also took the opportunity to visit exhibitions that discussed the Dutch relationship between water and the landscape. The observations gained during this trip have become an integral part of my Thesis project. Through conversations with author and architecture critic Tracy Metz and others, I was able to gain a new understanding that pushes for systems that are passive and dynamic, rather than rigid and static, in managing landscapes.
2013-Teddy Kofman, Houston, Texas
With the future expansion of urban centers around the world, my project hypothesis is that a new equilibrium between nature and human habitation must be achieved in order to adapt to a changing climate, environment and society. My thesis project proposes examining the possibility of reorganizing the urban form of Houston through the restoration of the prairie and the creation of a continuous urban forest. I intend that these two ecosystems will be integrated within the urban fabric and used as an environmental, social and architectural tool to create new spaces in the city and improve existing ones, both private and public.
I chose the city of Houston, Texas, as it has one of the harshest climactic environments in the country and yet one of the largest growth expectancies in the US. As a major Sunbelt city, located on the Gulf of Mexico, Houston suffers from high temperatures most of the year, constant flooding, hurricanes and extreme air pollution. It is also the only major city in the US that has not instituted zoning laws. With no limitations of this nature, Houston's forceful economy and dependency on vehicular travel have shaped its urbanity, giving preference to commercial spaces and highways over public spaces and pedestrian pathways.
In an attempt to study Houston in the most intimate scale, I tried to construct a daily routine that enabled me to become immersed in the city. Among other tasks, such as grocery shopping and filling gas, this routine included daily site visits and interviews with local professionals from different fields. Through photography I documented the physical relationship between the different components of the city such as roads, streets, parks and buildings of different types and programmatic uses. Understanding these components and the way they relate to one another was a means of exploring how they form the city, and by this understanding I identified the procedures and locations for my intervention.
The nine interviews I conducted with architects, academics, planners and environmentalists had a large influence on the research and design proposal. Each of the interviewees, from the perspective of their respective profession, broadened my view and understanding of the sociological, urban, economic and legal aspects of the ways in which the city is operating at the moment – and how they might be developed in the future.
While conducting active research and gathering information, the most fascinating discovery for me was experiencing the culture and city life of Houston, and realizing the direct relationship it has with the form and grain of the city. Through my different explorations and conversations with locals, I found cultural centers, cityscapes and trends that revealed to me the city life that was hidden from the maps and reports I had been reading. Moreover, I was able to experience some of those discoveries in the parks, museums and streets of Houston. These experiences helped me to thread the pieces of information I had been gathering into a complete story. From this I was able to start drawing conclusions and forming my own idea of Houston, ultimately allowing me to form a design approach that addresses the most meaningful issues of the place.
2013-Eze Eribo, Bakassi Peninsula
How do you speak of political oppression when you’re not allowed to speak of politics? How can you lend your voice, when that very act could cause your demise? Oftentimes, the problem of addressing the larger issue lies in the fact that foreign means or (mis)conceptions are employed to solve local problems. Such was the case during my travel to the Bakassi Peninsula, a disputed 665km 2 piece of land surrounded mostly by water, between Nigeria and Cameroon, whose inhabitants have witnessed identity loss, displacement, loss of territory, death of the Bakassi natives, maltreatment, restrictions, and unmentionable states of violence and terror.
I arrived at the height of the annual carnival, on December 28, a public holiday. The festivities in Calabar have become a celebration of the central core of the peoples’ belief systems and systems of order. Their main masquerade, known as the Epke Masquerade, dates back to pre-colonial times is considered their highest form of government, despite the presence of political and judiciary institutions. An integral part of my thesis is the rewriting of conflicts into myths, tales, and adages. These are not just pieces of entertainment, but codex’s on ways of life, lessons on being, and markers of shared communal knowledge. My project engages the old and the inherent expressions of self, as foundations for the new.
I met with my contact, Mr. Paul Umoh, a businessman and lively Calabar native, and through him I was fortunate enough to meet with Chief Ene Cobham, a prince from the Ikang area, who is also a historian, educationalist, and lawyer. He granted me an interview on the subject of the detailed history of Bakassi; the culture, political conflicts, and other topics of interest. He also introduced me to other Chiefs including his brother, Eyo Cobham, who eventually became my guide while traveling within the Bakassi Local Government Area (about an hour drive from Calabar). The market areas really tell the tale of the occupation of these people. By virtue of its close proximity to the water, the sole means of livelihood in Bakassi is fishing, with a coastal diversity unseen in many other parts of the world. The market attracts myriads of people from across Nigeria, as well as greater Africa, and the realization of the importance of the maintenance of this economy, even within a conflict, became apparent.
My most beautiful discovery was to find the people so welcoming, creative, and determined. Even in the midst of their conflict and identity loss, there was an intuitive sense of strength and awareness that radiated through. The depth of their hospitality was humbling, even while threatened with displacements from their own homes and ancestral lands. The biggest lesson learnt was my own undoing; I thought I was going to find a people traumatized and at their wits end. Instead, I found a people, though at the cusp of continual instability, still finding roots deep enough to mandate their permanence through self and livelihood, and whatever small hope lay in routine and mundane tasks. Of course the conflict is real and almost overwhelming, but yet they’ve chosen their own way of carrying it; standing bravely, like stilts on water.
2012-Daniel Wills, Cuba
The William Cooper Mack Thesis Fellowship granted me the opportunity to travel to Cuba to study and map the urban agrarian culture currently thriving in many Cuban cities, in order to bring back lessons and models of invention to the U.S. agrarian system. The Fellowship not only granted me the financial ability to make this study possible, but also the legal ability—without this educational grant, official travel to Cuba as an American citizen would not have been possible.
Originally my plan had been to travel to Havana and Cienfuegos, two of the largest urban farming cities. While this goal was still accomplished, my travels took me all over the island, studying not only the dense infrastructural, agrarian fabric of cities, but also the more rural, traditional farming communities like Vinales. With this rich travel schedule, I was able to see all aspects and degrees of agrarianism in Cuba.
Traveling around these various cities taught me about the infrastructure of food and how it produces new patterns of community organization and economies based entirely on the many varieties of land production. By patterns of community organization, I refer to the multiple scales of urban farms, markets, cafeterias, mobile food vendors and family-run restaurants. By land production, I refer to the farms that both produce and sell, but also everything from produced soils, compost and humus, to seeds, animal feed, oils and herbs – even the technologies of organic farming.
During my trip I had the opportunity to volunteer on an organoponico (organic urban farm) in Alamar, a Soviet-designed housing block community outside Havana. For three days I worked on various tasks, from planting seeds, to harvesting vegetables and plowing the soil for the next planting. The organoponico is completely efficient in the way it handles all resources across the 11 hectares of land. The farming system does not rely on any external inputs and produces an economy from its productive landscape, at the same time striking a balance with the resources.
My experiences in Cuba had a direct impact on my thesis, which focuses on industrial agrarianism in the Great Plains of the United States, a region threatened with the cumulative adverse effects of resource extraction. With Cuba able to do so much with so little, my hope is that the U.S. can begin to strike a balance with its own resources, before it’s too late.
2012-Jessica Russell, New Mexico
During my trip and investigation into the Pueblo communities of the North West I visited the Tewa Pueblos of San Ildefonso (Po-Who-Ge-Oweenge – Where the Water Cuts Through), Santa Clara (Kha’p’oo Owinge – Valley of the Wild Roses), San Jaun (Ohkay Owingeh - place of the strong people), and Laguna Pueblo (Ka’waika – Lake). I slept in an Adobe style house where the mud, brick, and stucco coated walls were so thick and insulated that all the warmth generated from the house was kept within and the cold from outside was kept at bay.
Throughout this trip I gathered source material in the form of photographs, writings, and books (mostly all out of print) that I gathered from second hand books stores scattered throughout New Mexico as I followed the Rio Grande and crossed the state from west to east and then again, from north to south.
Throughout my journey I pursued the question I had begun investigating through my thesis in Australia—of the nature of an archive. What should become of valuable cultural information, which documents generations of memory, of histories and traditions that are stored, safely yet out of view and out of reach from all those who stand to benefit from the lessons they hold? The past offers not a retreat from the present but can offer resolutions for the future.
Looking at the pueblos of New Mexico and their relationship to the Rio Grande, I was able to identify an issue that had always seemed to me a problem with the Australian conception of space and built form. Without a strong tradition of permanent inhabitation and built typologies (although there were some) it is hard for contemporary architecture to not only build in relationship to a unique tradition, but to have the friction between past and present – for a break in continuity is equally dependent on a past as is the continuity of tradition. With no architectural past to rub against it is hard to carve out a future. I felt that in taking all the lessons and inspiration I gained from New Mexico I was able to go back to my origins and begin to ask the question that I believe holds a key to addressing these issues in Australia; the relationship between site, program, and structure. There is no richer case study of this method of architectural investigation and inquiry as the Pueblos of New Mexico.
The Cooper Mack Fellowship, not only enabled me to focus my thesis investigation but it opened the door to future investigations I intend to pursue beyond my time at Cooper Union.
2012-Jae Won Chang, Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea
My thesis involved an in-depth analysis of Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea. The island is located off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula, only 3.6 kilometers from the internationally regulated Limit Line between North and South Korea. In order to pursue constructive research, I had arranged a meeting with an associate from the Republic of Korea Marine Corps before my departure, as the island is a designated military surveillance territory for the Korean government. The marine soldier who greeted me became my escort for the rest of my stay.
Though my survey of the Marine Corps base camps, I was able to witness the actual destruction and damage that occurred during the 2010 North Korean bombardment of the island. The punctured walls and ceilings, along with shattered windows of the buildings, spoke silently of the countless explosions caused by the missiles. According to the marines, some portions of the buildings were excluded from the reconstruction plan in order to preserve that historic moment.
Having seen the significant presence of North Korea through this tragedy, I also had the opportunity to learn about the ongoing dispute between the North and South over the island's coastal border. This included accounts of northern fugitives who had crossed the North – South border via fishing boats to land on the island and take up residence there. Although the island falls under the jurisdiction of the South, the ongoing attempt by North Korea to redraw the Limit Line has created a permeability of the island's boundary. This understanding helped me realize the potential for redefining the identity of Yeonpyeong Island through my thesis.
As part of my research, I made visits to several restricted areas, including closed beaches that were only accessible by military personnel. Likewise, certain regions—especially the northern shores of the island—were strictly controlled by the military, and mostly inaccessible by civilians. Such restrictions created a rather unusual demographic distribution, concentrating the settlements within the southeast part of the island, which is protected by the adjacent mountain range and far from the military sites.
Overall, surveying Yeonpyeong Island and studying its unique nature led me to ultimately redefine the island in a larger context, and articulate an architectural proposal. Unlike the existing identity of the island as South Korean territory, I began to reconstruct it as a neutral territory, an extension of the Demilitarized Zone. The analysis of topography, demography, major circulation and restricted spaces, as well as the aftermath of tragedy, became potential factors for a new architectural intervention of neutrality.
2011-Jesus Yepez, Salton Sea, California
The site of my research was the Salton Sea, a lake in Southern California located 70 miles away from the Mexican-American border, adjacent to an agricultural area worked by Mexican immigrants during the warmer months. In the middle of the 20th Century, developers saw the potential of the newly formed lake to start the development of cities and towns along its edge. As the salinity and toxicity of the water increased, the residents of these settlements began to abandon them. The basis of my research was to analyze the conditions that led to the development of the Salton Sink and the Salton Sea and how today its perimeter is comprised of abandoned cities that are inhabited every winter by recreational vehicles that occupy the spaces where actual homes should exist.
This investigation took place during the first week of January 2011, the time when people who own motor homes from the southwestern United States gather around the lake. I believe that the recreational vehicles and the trailers, although a temporary presence, do not comprise a form of mobile architecture. Instead, the presence of recreational vehicles brings forth the questions of why and how previous attempts to build homes around the Salton Sea have failed.
Renting a car and driving the four hours from Los Angeles to the Salton Sea was a way to participate in this event. I documented my journey through a series of films, photographs, and drawings. My intent was to study these areas of abandonment to consider how I could design a way they could be reconstructed without making the lake more toxic or cause an increase in salinity. As I drove around the Salton Sea, the rapid rate at which the lake is drying was very clear; it’s important to understand these consequences when the rate of incoming water is the same as the rate of evaporation. Ultimately, the lake will continue to shrink until it reaches a point when the water has become extremely saline or brine. These conditions informed my thesis in allowing me to consider alternatives that would prevent a shock to the natural environment and that might help ease the transformation of the lake.
2011-Janice Chu, Macau
The William Cooper Mack Thesis Fellowship allowed me to travel to China. Through my research of the city Macau, I was able to understand the city and broader questions of urbanism in a much more nuanced way. I explored two neighborhoods–the North Area and Camoes Garden.
Like many other Asian cities, Macau is on the cusp of great change. In the North Area of Macau Peninsula, the answer to the need for development has been generic housing blocks. The North Area is a catalog of how the city has grown, with 8-story buildings from the 1970s and 16-story housing estates from the late 1980s and early 1990s, where each block measured 125 meters by 125 meters. The newer 40-story luxury apartment buildings adjacent to the water’s edge pose a marked juxtaposition to the older buildings with lower income tenants.
Camoes Garden is located in the mid-west zone of Macau Peninsula. It is an older area of the city that tourists seldom visit, but it exhibits a real sense of character and history. There is a diversity of architectural scale in this neighborhood; 6-story residential buildings, temples, structures dating back to the Qing Dynasty and the occasional 40-story building.
The Venetian Casino and the luxury high-rise buildings in the North Area demonstrate the new amount of wealth and the enormous growth that Macau is undertaking. Yet, they both deny the history of the city and what it already has to offer. The housing estates in the North Area feel like any other Asian city. Through my primary research of this condition, I saw the need to resist this generic approach to building, which seems to plague many growing cities.
The scale of the blocks in the North Area offer some advantages in that they have more organized streets that allow for ease of transportation, although the attempt to bring a local character to these housing estates through street level storefronts was not successful. The North Area and Camoes Garden seem to stand in opposition to each other, but in traversing these parts of the city, and, upon further reflection, I realized that there could be a hybridization of the two. Macau should be able to grow while retaining its cultural history.
My thesis project provides an alternative to the conditions I found in Macau through the introduction of 125 meter by 125 meter housing blocks, grafted onto the urban fabric of Camoes Garden. This proposal breaks the isolating nature of these blocks creates continuity with the smaller streets, while at the same time maintaining the density of an enclosed housing block.
2013-Oliver Antoniu, Venice, Italy
I stayed for nearly two weeks in Venice, Italy, traveling through the city and the lagoon in an inflatable kayak, in which I could move freely through high and low tides, day and night, the lagoon and the open sea, and various abandoned islands. The city also hosted many opportunities for research, particularly the Museum of Naval History and the Biblioteca Marciana. A naval bookstore I discovered early on in the trip became ‘home base,’ the owner frequently advising me throughout my stay.
A number of architectural revelations crucial to the reframing of my project were documented through photography, video, and drawing:
- Structures and landforms can assemble/disassemble the horizon. On grey days the sky and sea bend in continuum, erasing it.
- Tidal currents, asynchronous with the solar day, provide a pendular rhythm and directionality of movement within the city. Waves provide a truly topological spatial medium in aural, visual, and kinetic terms.
- The high tide fills and floats the city; massless, it reads in terms of surfaces. The low tide reveals a continuous ‘base’ element which structures sit on, rather than floating against the water. This allows the city to become readable in terms of mass.
- Algal vegetation that grows on surfaces exposed to water emphasizes this base. The color and density of the vegetation varies due to the amount of time it is exposed to air and sunlight or submerged underwater. This allows an observer to read the behavior of the tides outside the temporal realm.
- Between low and high tide, elements such as stairs, ledges, walls, etc. measure the datum of the water and merge into one another. Certain spaces and passages become accessible or inaccessible depending on the tide. The ground of the city is this indeterminate zone between high and low tides.
What has always been of key importance to my thesis is the way that edges between land and water are articulated. Being able to observe this site first-hand has supplemented large-scale geological phenomena, swathes of history, suppositions of science, and telescopic hunches with an architectural repertoire of parameters. These parameters were used to relate my utopian project with the spatial medium of water, the tide mediating between the two.
2011-Emily Nguyen, United States Monuments
A monument has been defined as a structure erected to commemorate an idea, person, place or event. Or, it is a site that is marked and preserved because of its importance to a group of people. In both cases, the making of a monument requires a mental leap. A community must collectively project meaning onto a structure or place in order to define it as a monument. In America, these monuments can range from sites made significant by tragedy, natural beauty, cultural movements or historical events. In some cases, the construction and artifice made in order to signify a monument is elaborate. Monuments can be indicated by signs, promenades or entire structures. However, in some cases, the demarcation of a monument is invisible and the monument is identified through a collective consciousness.
The William Cooper Mack Thesis Fellowship allowed me to further investigate many American monuments and it also led me to unexpected discoveries. Through the fellowship I was able to travel to Appalachian country, Washington, D.C., and Plymouth, Massachusetts. In the Southwest I visited the Hoover Dam, the Vegas Strip, Route 66, Grand Canyon, Navajo Nation, the Four Corners, Topaz Internment Camp, an Indian reservation, the Great Salt Lake and the Salt Lake City Mormon Tabernacle. In San Francisco I saw various sites like Coit Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Cable Car Museum, Mission Dolores, and Tanforan.
From my travel experiences, I began to envision the monument as part of the American collective unconscious, represented in my project through an archipelago of models. These objects and dissections of icons led to the design of four spaces that investigate American memory and contradiction. The series of models and the four proposals represent the Hall of Record, and examine the idea of the index, the relationship between the souvenir and the monumental, and the hand-held and architectural scale.
2011-Fabio Alvino-Roca, Alcañiz, Spain
THE FRAGILE HOUSE
My site was the Spanish desert – rural, now abandoned, a site of nothingness. For three weeks I lived in a cabin made of stone. As I lived in this modest dwelling, no larger than a small room in a Manhattan apartment, I studied the enormous site and put my building methods to the test. This is a short narrative of the things I built with my hands.
In the desert, the present becomes the past; these structures are both witness to and evidence of such a process. My site visit yielded a proposal for the appreciation and regeneration of this process—the exploration of a fragile culture of obsolescence, varying in function, form and history. Each structure audits the role it will have at a new point in time. Each structure is essentially a literal ruin, devoid of function. They are seen, therefore, not as objects in the landscape, but as objects becoming the landscape. And as landscape, they are ready to be claimed and possessed by the individual. The structures stand alone, each of them presenting a program, function, philosophy. They are not created to last an eternity, but only as long as the materials they were constructed will allow. Collectively, the structures comprise the program of house, ‘The Fragile House.’
To smell, hear, taste, see and feel what the chosen site had to offer was essential for these creations to be more than just forgotten dreams. I have come to realize that for a project to be loved by its creator or persecutor, it cannot just be a study. It needs to be sensed, to become a marriage of the body and mind. My travel experience allowed me to fall in love while continuing my pursuits.
2010-Angelique Pierre, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
As a means of arriving at a more critical and focused view of the dense capital city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti I sought to define a tangible image of the social and spatial conditions around the infrastructural systems linking the city through water distribution, the program of the latrine, and, subsequently, that of the market.
Upon arriving in Port-au-Prince the greatest challenge was to read the internal logic of the city, as there were seemingly a number of systems operating simultaneously and without resolution. Traveling along any major route, moments of complete desertion suddenly yield to moments of dense commercial activity. In the commercial centers, various informal programs, often incompatible, flow into contiguous spaces as a means of adaptation to allow new merchants to enter the commercial sphere and compete to survive in a market where the merchant class is rampant. These abrupt transitions reveal the volatile state of the city as a result of transformations in the aftermath of civil unrest.
While conducting research at L’Universite de l’Etats d’Haiti, I came across a dissertation that explained the history and social construct of the lakou. The lakou is the term used to describe the domestic territories and safe havens of any one extended family or small community of related or adjoined houses occupies. Once I became aware of the lakou I took notice of it in a multitude of scales and realized that it articulated the principles of Haitian culture at any social class level. This space, an apparent social core, seemed to be the ideal spatial condition to implement programs at the basis of human necessity as an immediate appendage to the home. This recognized potential has become the intent of my thesis, to define a new infrastructural system that will take on the decentralized and self-sustaining qualities of the lakou while responding to the shortcomings of the existing infrastructural systems of water distribution, the latrine, and the marketplace within this typology of gathering space.
To carefully consider the shortcomings of the existing urban infrastructural systems I had to acquire firsthand accounts of the operations and failures of these systems. I was fortunate enough to have had access to valuable members of many of the key infrastructural units of the city. Among the people I interviewed was the Mayor of the city of Petionville, La Madam La Mariesse, and Lydie Parent, an unassuming but bold political figure. I also received a guided tour of the modest water system that fuels the city. Through my many conversations I was able to gather valuable information from the perspectives of the professional agencies as well as that of the citizens interacting with these infrastructural systems, both at work and at home. Each conversation left me understanding that, among all of the people I had spoken to, there was both frustration and reluctant hope for change.
Upon my return from Port-au-Prince, I was overwhelmed by all the information I had gathered and was anxiously anticipating returning to see the progress of the hopefuls I had spoken to. Unfortunately only five days after my return a 7.0 earthquake hit the city, striking and devastating the very places I had visited. It then became even more important, in real time and not simply as an architectural thesis, to consider how a new infrastructural system could be the start of new, better functioning communities in a society desperately needing critical intervention. My travels have critically re-contextualized and reshaped the thesis and have inspired and ongoing personal and hopefully professional endeavor.