A Message From the Dean | April 12, 2020, Looking Beyond the Pandemic: Lessons, Translations, and Projections

POSTED ON: April 12, 2020

Image Credit: Mario Morgado

Image Credit: Mario Morgado

Dear Members of the Student, Faculty, and Administrative body:
We are now one-month into physical isolation, and two weeks have passed since we have all immersed ourselves into online teaching and learning. The days have been long, the teaching hours much more arduous than one could imagine, and certainly the learning curve much steeper. Still, some positive aspects of this extraordinary situation do emerge, and as the normalcy of the daily rituals set in, it is worth rehearsing what this will all mean for the foreseeable future.
The mere fact that classes, courses, and meetings have been ongoing is a testament to your resilience, stamina, and sheer determination. I thank you all, not only for enduring, but in engaging positively in this moment and trying to make something productive out of our unprecedented circumstances. Much remains fluid in terms of future plans, but please rest assured that the Cabinet meetings with the President and the senior leadership of The Cooper Union, are focused on the summer programs as well as the Fall 2020 semester.
Beyond the four walls of Cooper Union, much has developed in the United States, and New York City is at the epicenter of the crisis; sadly, many lives have been lost, and startling projections predict still more ahead. This is reason to heed the alerts regarding safe practices and effectively planning your individual daily rituals. As the arc of the virus crests during these weeks, we hope to see the dramatic numbers relent, and yet this will not be an indication of our ability to congregate in person again. Rather, it will simply be a testament to the fact that physical distancing has been effective, and with more discipline we may yet see those numbers decrease further. What is certain is that for the foreseeable future, this is will be our “new normal.” In order to face this semblance of normalcy, we will also need to redefine it; accepting it according to old rules will not suffice. We will need renewed energies and creativities to address the exceptional  state of affairs. Certainly, engaging the virtual may be a part of it from an immediate perspective, but we must also look beyond online platforms to imagine what actually matters to our discipline, and to act on those urgencies with more deliberation; in part, the formal, spatial and material ramifications of this crisis are deeply architectural as they attend to protocols of health, public safety, and the endurance of a public realm.
With the beginning of Spring amongst us, we come to celebrate Passover, Easter, and Ramadan within the next two weeks. Building community is our first task, looking beyond cultural, religious and ethnic divisions. The pandemic has flattened most all differences, but certainly it has also sparked an unfortunate recognition that our communities have not all weathered the storm on even terms; it has proven to further articulate the widening gap between the privileged and the economically deprived to catastrophic results.  We should find ways to better understand how our field can engage in questions of equity and vulnerability under the duress of such circumstances.
Certainly, architecture’s presence in the urban realm is a reminder that we do not design buildings alone, but also the network of relationships that urbanism entails, the public spaces that tether things together, and the infrastructure that binds civic entities into a larger whole. Anyone who was able to listen to Andrea Bocelli today could not have missed the haunting silence of the cities that served as a backdrop for a voice that has been heard by over twenty million people. Curiously, with the evacuation of the people that animate these vital cities, one is able to see design for what it projects forth: architecture enables, it unleashes, it prompts, and it awaits human intervention. As we draw on our tables and screens, that is exactly what we anticipate, drawing on our imagination to find ways in which architecture can cultivate human interactions of the most productive kind. And yet, as we looked at Milan, Paris, and London among other cities shown today, the fact that we have seen these urban realms already occupied for centuries, we are reminded that they, too, had to be invented. We stand in a historic turning point to reimagine the city, the house, the family, and its communities at this juncture.
Curiously, the pandemic has brought forth other patterns of life we had imagined long behind us. I suspect we all share many common rituals these days, and may they be a reminder that once things change, that we will not forget the opportunity that this pandemic has allowed. We see friends we thought we had lost, and we have reconnected with myriads of family we may have taken for granted. Most have reinvigorated their culinary techniques, if not out of necessity, out of sheer pleasure and passion; despite the imminent dangers of shopping, a new health has emerged for those whose appreciation of great produce and fruits have demonstrated a wider latitude in the architectural alchemy of cooking. The drastic reduction of traffic has given new definition to skylines that were long lost to smog, and the visibility of stars in certain cities might have seemed like a long-lost memory. Though the pandemic was not designed around these motives, our ability to reimagine the city and community as a result remains a salient quality not to be dismissed. If these qualities of your daily rituals do, indeed, have a vitality to fight for, then this pandemic is a spark to the imagination that things do not need to be as they were prior. And certainly, this is where the ingenuity of the designer is able to translate the challenges of the moment and the discoveries it has yielded into a projective force.
I look forward to seeing you all for the 2020 Virtual Open House this evening at 7pm. We have a great audience of prospective students, and everyone I have spoken to so far has displayed a deep admiration for the uniqueness of Cooper Union. Many have targeted Cooper Union as their first choice, and yet many others have substantive other choices beyond our culture. Thus, it is important for us to best communicate our qualities, and I cannot imagine a better group of students, faculty, and staff with whom to do exactly that!
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.