Farewell — 2022
POSTED ON: May 24, 2022
Dear Students, Faculty, Alumni, and Members of the Cooper Community:
As I prepare this message, I am very much looking forward to the End of Year Exhibition tonight, marking the first time we come back together in person for this occasion in over two years. Looking back on my seven years at Cooper Union, this has been the one event to which I have looked forward consistently, in great part because of the vast array of people it brings together in celebration. It is also the moment where I got to meet most of you who do not have the occasion to walk our halls on a daily basis. So, I welcome you again, and hope that many are joining us for what promises to be an extraordinary exhibition.
For me, this particular address departs from the annual ones of prior years because it is the last I will deliver in this capacity. It has been an immense honor to have served as the dean of The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture, and now the time has come for new leadership, an expanded vision, and another set of challenges. These have been important but transitional years in many ways. Each year has projected new demands, all while we tried to introduce new opportunities for the program.
With a legacy like no other, the program I inherited had a significant history to honor. Even those of us educated in other institutions invariably revolved around some of the pedagogies to which John Hejduk gave birth, and even fifteen years after his passing, the school maintained his ethos with depth and breadth. At the same time, with over a decade of productive evolution under the leadership of Tony Vidler, it was becoming clear that the school required the confidence of moving forward without the fear of losing its past. If anything, time has allowed us to historicize Hejduk by calling on our faculty and alumni to develop a scholarship around his work that would transcend the particularities of that time. The efforts of Jim Williamson, with the re-installation of the House of Suicide and the House of the Mother of the Suicide, the dissertation of Lisseth Estrella of ETSAM, and the seminars of our own Guido Zuliani have all touched on varied episodes of Hejduk’s long journey, and the intellectual focus of these exercises has allowed our community to revisit this important work, beyond the emotions they conjure.
As such, while our faculty have a deep sense of the culture of our school, each brings a new element to the discussion. With the introduction of four new faculty members, Lorena del Rio, Michael Young, Nora Akawi, and Lydia Kallipoliti, we have been able to address significant areas of pedagogical focus in the arena of unorthodox building technologies, representation within the digital age, the spatial ramifications of social justice, and the looming climate crisis.
Many other faculty have also contributed to a new surge in productive work, from Ben Aranda’s collaborations with the School of Engineering on Artificial Intelligence to the pedagogical work of Mersiha Veledar on foundational studies, which received the top studio award from Architect Magazine just a few years ago. As we look to these progressive pedagogies, I’m reminded of the experimental and speculative culture that has always been at the heart of our studios, as exemplified in the pedagogy of longtime faculty member Diana Agrest. The list goes on, and many faculty, adjunct and visitors, have contributed to the unique character of these seven years, but these are just a few of the significant areas of development that have enhanced the strength of the program I inherited.
My own focus at Cooper Union has been on several pet projects. With a deep commitment to the foundational years, I invariably gravitated around the re-scripting of the first three years of studio, revising them annually, and advancing them incrementally. While probing deeply into our own history, especially in the analysis studio of third year, and the general broadening of fabrication with the expansion of the workshop into the AACE LAB, I have also attempted to expose Cooper Union to the world beyond. With projects taking students all around the world, for analysis, fabrication projects in exhibitions and biennales, these have all been important to widen our perspectives: taking students to Mexico to study Felix Candela, to Chicago to discover an American brand of modernism, to Shenzhen to collaborate with students on large pavilion for their Biennale, to Montpellier for the Festival des Architecture Vives—extending our structures speculations into the summer months—and eventually to Venice, where a number of faculty and students responded to the question, “How will we live together?” These were just some of the ways in which we not only learned from the world, but also gave back to it.
Closer to home, we developed a few important collaborations that set out to give back to New York City itself. Working with HELPUSA we developed prototypes for affordable housing that could contribute to the culture of urbanism in the five boroughs; we engaged dieFirma Gallery to showcase student fabrication work to a broader public; collaborating with MoMA we developed a seminar that gave birth to two major exhibitions, one on former Yugoslavia and one on South Asia, still up as we speak. Among others, we also engaged Governors Island on its artist in residence program, hosting a series of events, with art installations by students as part of our contribution to its programs.
It is hard to look back and try to capture the intensity of some of the transformations of the last seven years, in part because we explored a lot and sometimes to their yield point, we tested to failure. The sheer amount of lectures, exhibitions, book launches, and symposia are a testament to the energy of the faculty, whose served as key collaborators, as well as Steven Hillyer and his team in the Archive, who were consistently patient as I put more things on their plate. Needless to say, none of this would have been possible without the genuine partnership I had with associate deans Elizabeth O’ Donnell and Hayley Eber, and equally so the almighty presence of Monica Shapiro, who patiently tutored me over the years.
Of the many things that drew me to Cooper Union—its history,¬ its pedagogies, and its commitments all important—the initiative to go back to full-scholarships was something I followed in the news, long before I had any connection to the program. As I stepped into the deanship, I was lucky to inherit a new president who pledged to bring the fiscal rigors back into practice. Laura Sparks has been an immense advocate for our school, and between the two of us, we have had to revisit both the short and long-term commitments from which we wish the program to benefit: namely, a plan to bring us back to “free” in ten years on one hand, but also the cultivation of endowments that will see special programs supported long into the future, on the other.
The history of our school has not had to contemplate these challenges before, and for that reason, this was also an important aspect of our dialogue in the past few years. In collaboration with alumni, we have created the Sue Gussow and Diane Lewis endowments. In support of academic programs, we developed the Fariba Tehrani Lecture and the NADAAA Endowment for visiting professors. We have expanded the William Cooper Mack Thesis Fellowship program on an annual basis. With the generous support of Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, we now have a fully funded Student Lecture Series. Through the generosity of Art Thomson we initiated The Art Thomson Thesis Fellowship. The YC Foundation vigorously supports the school’s public lecture program. Now, with the immense leadership of Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto, we are on the verge of receiving a new endowment, the Zeke Foundation, in support of programs at the intersection of Architecture and the Humanities.
Finally, as my last act, I have pledged to contribute the full foundation for what will be the John Hejduk Endowment, dedicated to the establishment of an annual faculty scholarship in support of diversity and minority voices. And with that, my hope is to call on you as alumni to help advance it even further, to double and triple the funds, not only to honor Hejduk’s legacy, but to advance a curatorial intuition he had for new talent, here refashioned to address the urgencies of our time. With an immense effort to diversify our curriculum, our students, and our pedagogies, we also need to advance that in support of young faculty with great futures ahead.
With this, I bid you farewell as dean, and I look forward to returning as a professor, with the capacity to contribute to the school in a way that the last seven years never allowed. It has been an immense honor to be bestowed with this responsibility, and I look forward to the next chapter with equal weight on my shoulders.
I am forever indebted to you as a community for having welcomed me with open arms some seven years ago, and I have benefited from your ongoing support since then. For this reason, this is also a gentle reminder that before long, we will have a new dean to welcome; I hope that each and every one of you will join me in making that transition seamless while allowing our next dean to benefit from the very same warmth you bestowed onto me.