A Message from the Dean

POSTED ON: December 8, 2021


Photograph by Ryan Brenizer

Dear Members of the Cooper Community:

We are back!

Some twenty-one months ago we went into lockdown, and we learned how difficult it would be to remain apart. At the same time, we could not begin to imagine the challenges of coming back together after all this time.

The Fall semester has been underway for three months, and the reverberations are becoming increasingly clear. We like to think of institutions as the foundations of continuity, and yet we have seen how in such a short span of time, institutional memory can wear thin very easily. Some fifty percent of our student population is entirely new to the physical place of The Cooper Union, and they are only now becoming familiarized with the spaces, programs, and events that are a central part our cultural experience. 

As our alumni know so well, beyond the presence of faculty, the lion’s share of learning happens in the liminal spaces between courses: in the after hours, and between students as peers. Maintaining and further developing our school of thought has proven to be a true challenge. The pandemic may have kept us apart, but the return to in person was marked by sufficient administrative protocols that ensured an experience that was anything but normal: weekly testing, limited access to workshops, mask mandates, and many other small details that would otherwise go unnoticed. These conditions have become the defining features of our daily experience. The mere recognition of each other behind masks is possibly the first obstacle of everyday communication, requiring our added efforts to overcome the inevitable anonymity that they enforce. Today, as I write down these thoughts, I acknowledge the delicacy of the situation, having overcome the isolation of the pandemic, only to face the Delta variant some months ago, and now the renewed uncertainties brought about by the Omicron variant. These are reminders of the new, ever-changing conditions under which we need to thrive.

Despite this, or maybe precisely because of it, there is no substitute for being back in person. It is a joy to be able to see people, and to reclaim a studio space that is so vital for speculation and experimentation. From an administrative perspective, we’ve had to take stock of what online learning has allowed, and in strategic instances take advantage of it. For one, it opened the doors of our school to professors and critics who would otherwise not have been able to join us. Mae-ling Lokko and Matthew Waxman have both taught this semester from different time zones, and they have genuinely transformed our intellectual reach. In turn, our lecture series has taken advantage of varied modalities to bring many people back into The Cooper Union in person, while advancing other voices online. In person, we had the pleasure of hosting Yung Ho Chang, Lacaton & Vassal, and our own visiting critics, Gary Bates, Susannah Drake, and Joshua Ramus within our own spaces. And we celebrated the work of Diana Agrest, The Irwin S. Chanin Distinguished Professor for the 2021-22 academic year, through her lecture The Wall and the Books. With Professor Nora Akawi as curator, we have also hosted another series of talks under the banner of “Pluriversal, Bewildered and Otherwise,” drawing in speakers such as Arturo Escobar and Mpho Matsipa, among many others. And in between, we have taken advantage of key accomplishments to celebrate faculty and friends whose books were just published, with Matthew Soules’s recent release of Icebergs, Zombies, and the Ultra-Thin: Architecture and Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century, as well as our own Michael Young’s new publication Reality Modeled after Images.

As much as we plan our semesters, friends and family have come to our support on many occasions, and this semester has been no exception. We were fortunate to take advantage of Fabio Gramazio’s sabbatical from the ETH, to host him as a Visiting Scholar at Cooper Union. This was serendipitous, but also strategically well-timed, as it aligned perfectly with the launching of the AACE Lab, designed by our own Professor Sam Anderson, a facility that expands our workshop towards new digital capabilities. After over a year online, many students yearned for the basic tactility of model making, mock-ups, and material explorations. This facility has radicalized our opportunities in the School of Architecture, and we were able to host several events to help foster a dialogue that helped to expand its discursive possibilities. We mounted an exhibition of the collaborative work of Mania Aghaei Meibodi and Wes McGee, titled Plastic Architecture, a theme that invited a roundtable moderated by Fabio Gramazio and Brandon Clifford of MIT. Beyond computation and digital protocols, the event was dedicated to questions of labor and the environmental impacts that such research could unleash, with recycled materials and 3D-printed cavity walls as the protagonists under examination. Looking forward, we are planning an exhibition curated by Anna Bokov and Steven Hillyer on the pedagogies of the Vkhutemas, the result of an extended research over a decade, and Anna’s recent book Avant-Garde as Method: Vkhutemas and the Pedagogy of Space. This is a brilliant case study that sheds light on modernism at large, as well as the intellectual cultures we have inherited through the meticulous compilation of exercises, prompts, and works across disciplines.

With all that has kept us together, not being able to gather the alumni community into our spaces over the past two years has been difficult. Our students and faculty were very proactive in setting up our end of year exhibitions, and with the special initiatives of Steven Hillyer and Farzin Lotfi-Jam, our 2020 virtual exhibition was particularly poignant in its reconstruction of the Foundation Building as the site of projection. Still, what it lacked was you, and the many that populate the opening at the end of each academic year, what I sincerely hope will be possible at the end of this coming Spring. It was in these events that I came to meet the Cooper community, and I would very much like to celebrate my last year as dean with the same ritual.

School of Architecture alumni have been exceedingly generous in their engagement with the school over the years, and it would be difficult to enumerate each and every one of you. In our small circle in school, it has been an enormous pleasure to bring back as faculty, such voices as Pamela Cabrera, Christina Yessios, and Dionisio Cortes Ortega. Others, such as Brad Samuels, are teaching elective courses here and building new histories in the process. Old friends such as Francois de Menil, Jesse Reiser, and Nanako Umemoto – as well as Edward Gormley, are repeat guests for Sue Gussow and Sam Anderson respectively. I hope to be able to expand this list over the course of the spring semester and bring yet many other voices. Indeed, with the help of curator Yael Hameiri Sainsaux and her colleagues, we will be soon hosting an exhibition in honor of the late Diane Lewis, titled Conceiving the Plan: Nuance and Intimacy in the Construction of Civic Space, bringing together the contributions of an even longer list of Cooper alumni, faculty, and former faculty back into Houghton Gallery.

The last six years have been an immensely enjoyable experience for me, and I hope with the completion of the seventh I can step down as dean with the comfort of having overseen a transition that has been volatile from many perspectives. The early years had significantly different challenges than those we have all been experiencing of late. We are truly in a different place now, and with new priorities – the most important one being the search for a new dean already underway. Soon there will be a formal communication from the search committee, which is working closely with President Sparks to define the mission and engage the community at large.

With the end of year upon us, I want to thank you for your generosity of the past years, and even more so the past two years. The pandemic has defined completely new needs for both students and faculty, and your support to us has meant a great deal.

Happy Holidays to everyone! 

Nader Tehrani

  • 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.