October 18, 2022Education of the Architect: Radical vs. Incremental Change
On September 27, 2021, the AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee (SSAC), the AIANY Emerging New York Architects Committee, and the AIANY Diversity and Inclusion Committee presented a virtual roundtable conversation, “Education of the Architect: Radical v. Incremental Change,” which brought together pedagogy and practice. Students, educators, and firm partners gathered online in conversation as participants and attendees to discuss the education of the architect.
Moderator Peggy Peña, an architectural intern at Ami Gross Architects, began the discussion by highlighting her experiences as a recent graduate from New York Institute of Technology. Bz Zhang, who teaches architecture at University of Southern California and organizes with Design as Protest and Dark Matter University, noted that while we think of the word “radical” as meaning “drastic” or “extreme,” etymologically it means “at the root of,” meaning that radical change means change at the root of an issue.As for “incremental change,” Peña and Zhang both proposed “getting the discipline out of the way”—merging independent and radical thought with current curricula in lieu of perpetuating colonial or white-centric ideology in day-to-day teaching.
Colin Koop, a partner at SOM New York, mentioned the importance of a methodical approach for any kind of change to occur. He spoke from his experience improving promotional cycles at SOM, pointing out how data collection and transparency are key in creating an equitable work environment. Dialogue with different groups of people is essential to bring change to education and the discipline.
The discussion touched on the calls for change spurred by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, placing conversations around inclusion and diversity the profession in the context of the current American zeitgeist. Koop noted how these systemic events highlight the need for radical change instead of incremental change. In response to the question of what kind of change, radical or incremental, is more effective, Zhang responded that such a question suggests an idea of “quantity of change,” while the real question revolves around power: Who can make necessary change? Catherine Cathergoon, a BArch candidate at Pratt Institute, advocated for a balance between both radical and incremental change, encouraging a feedback loop—looking at how small changes affect the larger systems.
The group also identified some fundamental flaws in architectural education: eurocentrism, limited outlooks, and a lack of communication. Peña noted how diluted the term “radical change” has become in the context of the Eurocentric model of architectural education, especially in light of the momentum required to make change in society. Speaking from their experience as a queer person of color, Zhang discussed the normalized nature of racism and how momentum for change must be rooted in community values to fully serve those who need it most. Koop spoke about the role of professional environments in investing, monetizing, and funding this kind of momentum. He went on to distinguish between low-hanging fruit—such as displaying the Pride logo in the workplace—and high-hanging fruit—advancing LGBTQ+ employees to the highest levels of leadership. both are necessary, one requires far more institutional change.
The meaning of change has shifted for Cathergoon during the pandemic, but she is able to find support in like-minded people that advocate for progress. She highlighted the need for more people of color in roles of authority in schools, as well as the need for studio work to engage more fully with the site and the people impacted by architectural development, rather than just focusing on form and function.
Zhang discussed their work with Dark Matter University, where they have sought to amplify voices of color and diverse perspectives with platforms of team-teaching and a course called “Foundations of Design Justice.” Dark Matter has a majority BIPOC faculty and a multi-university student base.
Meanwhile, Koop noted that his education largely focused on students becoming sole practitioners. This approach did not reflect the reality of the professional environment, where architectural designers primarily work in teams. As a student, he never engaged with a community during reviews or while working on a preservation project, which he found disappointing and felt would have rounded out his education. He later noted that as a practice, SOM strives to address community engagement by maintaining it as a part of their design fee, reiterating how positive change is happening—albeit more slowly than we’d like.
There is a lack of design education outside of university and a lack of understanding in the general population regarding the role of designers in the architectural process. This could perhaps be remedied by early architecture education in schools.
Zhang and Koop both experienced unhealthy work environments very early in their careers, which fostered a culture of long hours, all-nighters, and no free weekends. After Cathergoon noted how this mentality is fostered in university architecture programs, all panelists advocated for a healthier school culture to create a healthier office culture.
Many participants also proposed developing a more holistic approach to studio review formats so that they could include community members or potential inhabitants. There was broad agreement thatimplementing this change would make the design process more effective.
While Chattergoon lamented the disconnect between practice and pedagogy, she remained hopeful that equitable representation could allow younger professionals to thrive. She defined the role of an architect in two words: vision and sight, a dichotomous relationship between the imagined and the concurrent reality. Her hope for conscious and equitable change, was more than just a sentiment—it was a call to action.
Koop encouraged professionals to mentor rising professionals from completely different backgrounds to encourage diversity and inclusion at all levels.
The conversation concluded with the opening sentiment of reimagining the word “radical” and its role in architectural education. Through this conversation between students, educators. and working professionals, a number of strategies and ideas came forward to change the culture and education of the architect towards a more inclusive future.
Want to Join the Conversation?
The AIANY Social Science + Architecture Committee meets monthly. Meetings are open to the public and typically occur at 8:30 am on the last Thursday of each month.
Catherine Chattergoon, B. Arch Candidate and Student Advisor to the Dean, Pratt Institute
Colin Koop, AIA, Design Partner, SOM
Peggy Peña, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, Architectural Intern, Amie Gross Architects; Co-Chair, AIANY Diversity and Inclusion Committee; Co-Chair, NYCOBA NOMA Project Pipeline
Bz (Brenda) Zhang, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, Citizen Architect Fellow, University of Southern California; Core Organizer, Design As Protest Collective; Core Organizer, Dark Matter University
Colin Koop, AIA, Design Partner, SOM
Ekam Singh is an architecture student at Pratt Institute and a fellow of the New Voices in Architecture Journalism program (The Architect’s Newspaper/Pratt Institute).
Monty Rush is a Pratt student with an interest in construction and a fellow of the New Voices in Architecture Journalism program (The Architect’s Newspaper/ Pratt Institute).