Intellectual Projects and Frameworks for Dialogue

October 04, 2016

As this semester begins to roll out, I will be joining not only the faculty in their efforts to speculate on the possible trajectories we might take at Cooper Union, but effectively, I will also become their student. In turn, I will be part of the events of each studio, not only the reviews and pin-ups, but also desk crits and the work that happens in the trenches—the only way I can see entering this school and addressing its potentials is from the bottom up.

As I enter into these discussions, I will bring with me certain debates, and certainly these too will transform as I engage you. They are in no particular order, but they imply an ethic with which I would like us to communicate.

First, while acknowledging that architecture comes in many forms—in drawing, models, writing and construction—that one of my areas of concern will be the art of buildings. As we look around us, there is much productive research being done on theoretical ideas, on the environment, on technology, but in fact very few are focused on ‘buildings’ themselves as a source of intellectual speculation and the production of knowledge. Even those working on buildings often get divided into two camps: the first becoming absorbed into the forces of the marketplace, and as such pragmatists at best, while the second group is so focused on the idea of the ‘new’ that they have absolved themselves of the disciplines that are part and parcel of the process of typological transformations, material innovation or the syntax of detailing. In short, I would like to see buildings not only as an end result of our research, but the substance of its process.

Second, I acknowledge that ideas come from many places—from history and culture at large, but also from the “medium” in which you may be working, and I would like us to inspect our way of working more closely. Accordingly, we come to appreciate the idea of depth within the space of a painting by Masaccio, inasmuch as we relish the idea of the flatness of a brushstroke in a Malevich painting, recognizing that these two paintings are not merely different, but also part of a discourse about the nature of representation. In that debate, the nature of the paint as medium is as central to the discussion as the externalities being represented within the painting. For this reason, in modernism, the paint could be argued to be the content itself of the discussion. As such, if some ideas are born out of a medium, others transcend the terms of the medium becoming translated into other media over time. In architecture, we work with ideas about form that are born out of the discipline of geometry, the study of typology, and the science of building technologies. Each arena offers a slightly different lens from which rigors may be extracted, and yet each may lead to different paths of study. To consider all of these areas of knowledge will require a process of reconciliation with the media in which you are working, effectively giving priority to one category over another, as you claim positions. For this reason, finding ways to establish a relationship between part and whole is as challenging as it is inevitable in the process of construction. If some buildings hide their means of construction, others might use the very DNA of its material constitution as the basis for its spatial and formal pliancy. But behind this lies an ethic towards the very medium within which we work, and at a minimum, I would like the forum of the studio to help articulate these predicaments as part of the creative process.

Apropos, the question of medium was brought up on several occasions this past summer, when varied faculty asked each other questions about drawing. Though it was not always apparent to them at the time, it was quite evident from my position as spectator that they were saying the same thing, even if arguing for different agencies. A chunk of charcoal, a carpenter’s pencil, the ink in a rapidograph, the mouse, the software: all technical devices for drawing, all with different representational capacities, but also all instrumental in different ways. While no medium trumps another, we will also need to come to terms with the question of what each medium achieves, if only to examine the relevance of each mode of production in a dynamic moment where many advancements are being made. Recognizing that all aforementioned instruments are pieces of technology, I think the time has come to articulate what each medium achieves in critical ways. Learning in one media does not guarantee an expertise over another, and for this reason, the skilling up of our studios is as much a confrontation with the complexity of our time as it is a dialogue with history.

Third, I would like to end with the site of architecture. We could once say with some safety that architecture’s relevance in great part emerged from its connection to the city, the site, and its environment. To this end, the study of urbanism has gained currency in its ability to bring a public and civic mission to the discipline of architecture. Today, inasmuch as we can recognize the impact of a building on a block, we are also coming to terms with the impact of the human footprint on the earth. The urban impact is no longer about the study of cities, but the study of the globe, the earth. The scale of impact is operating at the dimension of the state, the region, and the country and with no respect for political boundaries. How we find ways to document our ability to design for these scales is very much at stake in a conversation about urbanism today. For this reason, I would also like to open up discussions about the realm of infrastructure, the landscape, and the emerging city, recognizing that the speed of development and construction today requires an agility that is unprecedented for the architect.

These are merely some themes that are currently preoccupying me, and nothing more than the tip of an iceberg. I come to this semester with great enthusiasm to re-engage. There are exciting transformations that await us, and I look forward to working with you in some detail to advance the agendas of the school!

  • 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.