Message Saturday, May 30, 2020:
Dear Spitzer School of Architecture Community,
This has been a terrible, tragic week for America. I will ask you in advance to forgive the observations of an outsider and newcomer, on the one hand, and the dean of this institution who is black, on the other. This rare duality makes for an uneasy balance. I’m speaking to you today publicly, not privately, but the duality of being a black leader in a moment like this means I cannot adhere to the usual professional and polite separation of private/public. I have been writing this letter to you all since 6:30am. At 10:08am, Prof Marta Gutman e-mailed me, asking me if I intended to make a statement. It’s now 12:11pm.
Over the past week, as a community, we have come together several times to celebrate and honor each other’s resilience and commitment. In those celebrations, we’ve largely steered clear of overt critique or self-analysis, ostensibly out of etiquette. In response to statements or presentations made, I’ve been gently reminded several times that this not the time or place to be critical. Support is what is required and the best way to support Americans in times like these is to cheer them on, cheer them up. This is a society of winners. What’s required is a focus on the good times, not the bad.
Over this same past week, however, I’ve also been party to an entirely different kind of conversation that’s been taking place largely within black America, privately, in Zoom calls, phone calls, through WhatsApp messages containing links to other messages, chat groups and articles. What emerges from these conversations is not a society of winners, but of survivors. Winners and survivors.
The image burns my retina: is basic and brutal survival the price of success?
At the risk of repeating myself, I want to share with you two things I said at the Spitzer Summer Show on Wednesday, May 27:
“There is the appetite for change here at Spitzer—perhaps not quite as much as I imagined—but there’s also a great deal of hesitancy, some of which has to with wider questions about education, the economy, and so on, which have been exacerbated by COVID. I believe the hesitancy on the part of our students has to do with questions about our disciplines, about its relevance and whether what and how we teach either prepares students for the ‘world outside’ (which is no longer quite as ‘outside’ the academy or the university as it once was) or resonates meaningfully with them in the first place. The Brazilian philosopher, Roberto Mangabeira Unger once wrote, ‘the trouble with contemporary architecture has three sources: one is artistic, the absence of any canonical set of forms; the second is in engineering, the failure of physical constraints to determine the shape of buildings and the third is social; the inability of any one group in society to get its anxieties recognized as the ones that count.’ I read that as a student of architecture in 1991. His last point was true then, and I believe it’s still true now. What matters now?”
“I’d like to end my bit this evening by quoting T’Challa. ‘Now, more than ever, the illusions of our division threaten our existence. We all know the truth. More connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.’ Kindness and tolerance may be old-fashioned and perhaps even naïve but they’re the tools for bridge-building that generations before us have used to construct lives worth living. Cynicism and disdain may be but they build little other than mutual mistrust. I hope 2020 will be a better year, not just because we overcame the threat of COVID, but because we overcame the threat of each other.”
I have neither the capacity nor the patience to end this message on the usual high notes of optimism and cheer. In the many responses from many leaders that I’ve seen recently, I note the long lists of resources, links and further readings; the pre-packaged, corporate statements on diversity and inclusivity, which I read whilst watching Killer Mike, a black man and the son of an Atlanta city police offer, address a crowd: ‘I have nothing positive to say in this moment. I don’t want to be here. But I have a responsibility to be here because it wasn’t just Dr King and people dressed nicely who marched in protest to progress this society. I am duty-bound to be here today to simply say, “it is your duty not to burn your own house down. It is your duty to fortify your house so that you may be a house of refuge.”’
Watch it here.
Our school is our house. What will we do to fortify it? How can this school be a house of refuge?
Toni Morrison, on whose words we ended the Spitzer Retrospective on Wednesday night, says it simply and so clearly.
go to work.
Please begin by building with me a Schindler’s List of resources. E-mail me your recommendations. Readings. Films. Articles. Books. Drawings. These can be as extensive or as short as you like.
This is the second “open call” in a month. Mail your suggestions and recommendations to Erica and We will build this list on social media, in our library, in our offices, in classrooms and on our website. We will archive and structure the material. When we reopen in August, we will have found ways to use the list productively, privately and publicly.
It will not change the world.
Professor and Dean
The Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture
March 2020 Message to Students:
Dear Students of the SSA,
We have now well and truly made the transition to remote instruction and administration mode, a move that even two weeks ago would have seemed unthinkable. However, as we are all discovering together, our capacity to adapt to the ‘new normal’ is remarkable. Global leaders are quick to make dire historical comparisons but the reality is that now, more than ever, we need to think on our feet, using all of our considerable faculties—imaginations, hearts, heads—to overcome this challenge with grace, humility and optimism.
As students of architecture, landscape architecture and urban design, the challenges before you are simultaneously intellectual, emotional and political. For the most part, we are used to working alone, crafting and re-crafting an idea with single-minded purpose to allow it to shine. The studio, workshop or classroom, with varying degrees of thrilling messiness, are the places where we come up for air, to share a sketch or a work-in-progress with classmates or instructors, before returning to that mysterious space inside our minds where creativity takes hold and flourishes. Overnight, those shared spaces have vanished and we must all now find ways—often unexpected ways—to fill the void.
I have been in the role of Dean for less than three months and have yet to meet many of you. However, in the past week alone, through platforms I’ve only just learned exist, I have experienced first-hand the indomitable Spitzer Spirit. Reviews are being held from bedrooms, living rooms and offices across the city, a giant spider’s web of creative connectivity that enables the precious sharing of ideas to take place. Meetings are held, solutions are found, challenges are slowly overcome. New York is a tough city, in the best possible sense, and cannot, will not, be ground down.
In years to come, you will likely look back on this period as being one of the most challenging of your academic careers, if not your lives. You will also, I hope, look back on your own reserves of stamina, kindness and resilience with a sense of awe and pride.
We, your dedicated faculty and staff, are right here alongside you and will continue to stand by you to ensure we all adapt and thrive. In a school of this size, we are fortunate enough to know one another by face, if not by name. In the coming weeks, I look forward to connecting those faces with the work I see on social media and on the various screens—desktops, laptops, phones and tablets—that, more than ever, are the windows of our lives.
Thank you all for your spirit and determination. To the students who immediately self- quarantined without a murmur—thank you. Your level-headed and calm approach to the situation was a lesson in grace under pressure.
This is not the end. It is the beginning of a different reality, hopefully a better, more thoughtful and compassionate one. In one of the many messages I received this past week, one stands out in particular. ‘As you stock up on provisions and prepare to take your family as far away from the city as possible, when you next see someone fleeing from famine, persecution or war, remember how it felt to face the fear.’ #BeKind. A motto if there ever was one for the time to come.
March 2020 Message to Faculty and Staff:
Dear Faculty and Staff of the SSA,
It is now nearly two weeks since most of us left the Spitzer building on Friday 13 March and I imagine none of us dreamt it would be weeks, perhaps even months, before our return. Now that we have made the full transition to remote instruction and administration and are now into our second week of #wfh, please allow me to share some thoughts with you on our upcoming Spring Break, the Recalibration Period for Educational Equity and the remainder of this semester.
We are a public institution and answer to many paymasters, from tax payers to the myriad levels of city- and state-wide educational leadership. As we’ve seen in the past week, these layers of authority bring with them additional challenges as we navigate different sets of information and accountability demands. For the most part, we’ve kept pace, and have navigated these with good grace. But the difficult part—perhaps the most difficult part—is yet to come. Psychologists speak of the ‘curves’ and ‘waves’ of extended periods of stress and uncertainty. What works in the first ten days is no longer required or as effective at the end of thirty. We will all go through these curves and waves as this crisis deepens, levels out and then, eventually passes. There are two knowns, not four: it will pass and we are already changed. And all change brings with it a cauldron of conflicting and sometimes contradictory emotions.
Last weekend, I shared some of the most insightful readings I’ve come across on the differences between sympathy and empathy; between information and communication and between community and cooperation. These differences are both small and significant. In our weekly Zoom meeting (and one wonders when we’ll officially drop the preface ‘Zoom’), a poignant question was raised, ‘ How do I start an e-mail? Saying “I hope you’re well” seems pathetically trite.’ As I wrote the previous week, paraphrasing Sennett, ‘very few of us are going to have the time or energy to become adept at cooperation. We need shortcuts. If you want to know how to cooperate, good manners would be a start. The problem is what happens at times of dramatic social change, when these rituals fall apart.’
Like Sennett’s example of “the great unsettling” that took place at the Reformation, when the old ways of living together began to look hollow and manipulative and were undermined by a new individualism. It took a long time for people to work out how to behave and cooperate with one another again, without being crude and disruptive. In this Time of Covid, as memes around the world are calling it, we are going to have to work out how to be with one another—in front of screens, down wires, across radio- and airwaves. This will not be easy. Apart from anything else, architectural schools—particularly studios—are centers of public life, of social interaction as well as instruction and learning. We will have to learn how to communicate elegantly, empathetically and appropriately in these new public fora, where the difference between public and private, work and home, inside and outside are so blurry and blurred.
There are no easy answers, no links I can point to that will tell us, step-by-step, how to do this. Like many others, I imagine, I often referred wryly to the fact that ‘there’s nothing social about social media.’ I was wrong. For better or for worse, social media is now our only social space—irrespective of the platforms we use—and here I count Zoom, Blackboard, Instagram and WhatsApp as variations on a theme. In this space, which is not so ‘new’, what are the new protocols that we will develop to allow us to use this space both creatively and responsibly? These new ‘rules’ are also opportunities to weave some of the ‘lost’ skills of civility and chivalry (an old-fashioned and contentious moniker if there ever was one) into our individual assignments and briefs, perhaps even by way of assessment. The point is, this may well be another “great unsettling” but it may also be a genuine recalibration, a reintroduction of the very unique and highly sophisticated tools of communication that all of us, as Homo sapiens, possess.
In my home country of Ghana, West Africa, chiefs (royalty) may not be addressed directly. To speak to a chief, you must speak through an official linguist, irrespective of the language you both speak. The linguist listens to you, then turns to face the chief, relays what’s been said, either repeating or translating it. It took me many years to understand that the point of the linguist is not to translate or interpret, it is to grant the chief time to reflect upon his (yes, generally a ‘he’, although that’s changing) response, to allow him to measure his words carefully and respond judiciously. The linguist is a kind of screen, a momentary barrier that stands between authority and subject. In the West, these ‘devices’ have long disappeared from the public realm, at least in principle. But as we take up new technologies to mimic old rituals—think of the ‘virtual town hall’—so many of the same principles by which we’ve always negotiated communication are subtly finding their way in. As we enter into a working day where our only visual contact is via 13” screens (sometimes far smaller), it’s worth pausing every so often to reflect on how we’re doing what we’re doing… and what it might mean to do it differently, better.
These are enormous challenges, occurring at a moment of change within the school itself. We will all have to balance our appetite for change with the desire to stand still and stick with the known whilst the unknown surround us. I will be sending out a memo shortly to announce a revised timetable for curriculum change that should—I believe—navigate the choppy waters pragmatically without losing sight of the ambitions that I know we all—in our own, sometimes different ways—share.
As you all know, I respond quickly to emails and text messages, as does everyone in the school’s leadership. The two offices—Dean’s Office and Chair’s Office—and the Chairs are working tirelessly, both on the front line of student and faculty enquiries, and behind the scenes. Like everyone, we’re adapting as fast as we can to a new normal and, like everyone, we have good days and better days. In the weeks to come, may the latter far outweigh the former. If not, for whatever reason, please remember that a good day is still something worth celebrating.
Stay well, and please stay safe and healthy.