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June 23, 2016
by April Greene
Speakers of “The Education of the Architect: Incorporating Social Science.”

The AIANY Social Science & Architecture Committee was formed in January 2016 with the goal of bringing professionals and students of architecture and social science together to discuss, collaborate, and facilitate programs for the community. The committee recently hosted “The Education of the Architect: Incorporating Social Science,” the second of a three-part series focused on the ability of social science research to shape the building of livable, equitable, and resilient cities.

The program on 06.08.16 was introduced by Melissa Marsh, co-chair of the committee and Founder and CEO of PLASTARC. It was moderated by Fauzia Khanani, Assoc. AIA, founder and principal of Foz Design.

Architect and educator Emily Moss, director of Architectural Design BFA and Urban Design BS, Parsons School of Design, referenced the vision statement of The New School: “We are a university where design and social research drive approaches to studying issues of our time.” Moss noted that her commitment to this vision begs a definition of “research,” and that many variations of the word exist. She also posed the question of whether the definition of education itself is to teach or to draw out, and cited the importance of community engagement in every educator’s effort to include a social science component in their design curriculum. She concluded by saying that she herself has become involved with many more social science-based projects in recent years, as she has begun to realize the necessity of social awareness in good design.

Architect Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, founder of Normal Architecture Office and co-founder of School of Missing Studies, began by asserting that social science is as wide a field as architecture, making the knowing of both virtually impossible, though an admirable pursuit. He described his personal interest in power and the new ideologies it is capable of projecting, and discussed his involvement in the 2015 New School exhibition “Romancing True Power: D20.” Weiss and his co-curator Nina Khrushcheva (granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev) illustrated how  “every dictator is eventually surrounded by design” – in the form of parades, photographs, currencies, statues, pop culture memorabilia, and media outlets like websites, newspapers, and magazines.

Weiss spoke about wanting to replicate these inquiries into power and design with his architecture students at Columbia University, as “architecture has the power to transgress any boundary.” These issues present great opportunities to connect spatial and research practice in creative ways.

Caitlin Cahill, Ph.D., an associate professor of Urban Geography & Politics at Pratt Institute and coordinator of the school’s Social Justice/Social Practice Minor, remarked that her architecture students are “always exhausted” from their very demanding coursework. So how can social science-based material fit into their overall curricula? She suggested that teachers look for ways to include interdisciplinary tasks and approaches in every class, regardless of its subject.

Cahill also relayed statements from students who had articulated how meaningful they found a social science approach to be in the midst of everything else they must learn. They saw that, to be successful architects, they would need to understand not only the users they would be designing for in the present, but also the complete historical context of every project.

Concluding the presentations was Scott Francisco, founder and director of Pilot Projects Design Collective. He used the movie Star Wars to help answer questions like: What do the tools we make do for us and to us? For example, the Death Star is a model of sheer power and efficiency, while the lightsaber is personal and requires practice and skill to wield effectively. Francisco brings this challenge to his classes: the planning and making of particular physical things that necessitate personal investment and mentorship.

According to Francisco, this kind of socio-spatial immersion is not happening enough in architectural education today. Recently, his students at Kean University learned how to build a passive solar straw bale building that will be used as a conference room. They became invested in the challenge because it affected them directly: they would have to use it. “If we believe in this,” he said, “we have to learn how to teach it.”

Following the presentations, Khanani posed the question raised by Cahill to all four speakers: As architecture programs are already intense, how can teachers endeavor to include social science education in their classes?

Weiss offered that structuring classes so that students are conducting more of their own research and reading less existing research can help. Francisco agreed that research is important, but that it often involves an agenda, but an agenda will always color the work.

An audience member posited that the panel was speaking to “the wrong crowd,” as they were talking about programming, not design. He said that architecture is about designing something that will get approved by a client, and that a social science education doesn’t give an architect the ability to make a project happen, or to sell it. Francisco replied that design is rhetorical, and that every architect has the opportunity to shift a client’s mind about what they want. He described the educational environment as an exciting and effective place for students to learn how to have conversations that will change the picture of what gets done.

Moss and Khanani concluded the conversation by inviting professionals to speak to classes about what their companies want in the architects they’re hiring today. If professionals, teachers, and students all insist on social science education as part of the architectural curriculum, we will see real change.

April Greene is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn who specializes in providing editorial services to nonprofit organizations and social enterprises. She holds a Writing, Literature, and Publishing degree from Emerson College, and contributes to the neighborhood blog Bushwick Daily.

Event: The Education of the Architect: Incorporating Social Science
Location: Center for Architecture, 06.08.16
Speakers: Caitlin Cahill, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Urban Geography & Politics, Pratt Institute; Scott Francisco, Founder and Director of Pilot Projects Design Collective; Emily Moss, Director of Architectural Design BFA and Urban Design BS, Parsons School of Design; Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, Founder, Normal Architecture Office; Co-founder, School of Missing Studies; and Fauzia Khanani, Assoc. AIA, Principal and Founder, Foz Design (moderator)
Organized by: AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee

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