John McMorrough, Chair of the architecture program at University of Michigan Taubman College, visited our studio this week. I sat down with him to find out about the pedagogical initiatives underway there. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation:
LC: Thanks for talking with me.
JM: It’s no problem, I’m happy to do it.
LC: I saw your talk at the 2009 Future of Design Conference at Michigan and I’m wondering if part of the reason you were brought on as Chair of the Architecture Program at Michigan is this interest of yours in the changing nature of the profession?
JM: I would imagine so. They hadn’t announced the search when I gave the talk, so I didn’t know it was a preparatory talk, but then they announced the search and they invited me to apply, so I think there was an overlap between where they wanted to go and what I had put on the table.
LC: And you started this past September. How has it been?
JM: It’s good. It’s a big school, and one that is going through some big changes. Monica Ponce de Leon became dean there three years ago; she brought her interest in fabrication, and we’ve made a lot of investment in technology for that. There’s a longstanding tradition of this at the school because of its proximity to Detroit. And I think she’s very interested in opening up the issues of education to the world, as a mind; I think we come at it in different ways.
LC: In what ways do you and Monica think about these questions differently?
JM: I don’t know, I guess…just by dint of the fact that she’s a practitioner and she’s been associated with a certain kind of work over the past 15 years and I come out of doctoral studies and have a more theoretical perspective. We’ve never sat down and divided the pile that way, but that’s what I would say.
But what is your main curiosity about the program? I was happy to get your email and it’s very perceptive to look at the statement online and see that there was something implied there, but I’m curious what you’re looking for.
LC: I’ve been thinking lately about—on a personal level—about what I’m going to do, and then about the profession: what is the profession going to do?
LC: And when I read Monica’s blurb it struck a chord with me in terms of saying that we can’t continue practicing the way we have been. And it seemed like there is this very serious investigation at Michigan in thinking about how we can practice, and therefore about how we can teach in schools of architecture.
JM: Yeah, I think that’s very true. And, not to disparage previous regimes, but Michigan has in the past been very focused on an art school model—so, very interested in individual subjectivities, and—for lack of a better term—experimental approaches. The school is part of a state school, and it’s very large—75 faculty, over 400 students—so one of the things we’ve started to think about is its connections to licensure and the profession.
It’s a big school, and relatively well funded—we’re now ranked #1—so there’s a chance for some leadership. And one of the things, because of the way the previous regime went about it, is alternative models of practice. And the way we’re starting to argue now is—rather than thinking about alternative models of practice, which are always there—we’re starting to think about anticipatory models of practice. So, where could the profession go? Because basically what you learn in school is what you repeat in practice. So certain trajectories, certain values—so one of the things that are going on are simple things, like changing the terminology: the “mechanical systems class” to “sustainable technologies.”
LC: Is that just a matter of terminologies, or in what way does that--?
JM: Well, we’re using that to push interdisciplinarity, so that class is now taught by architecture faculty as well as engineering faculty, who weren’t there before. That’s something where there’s a big push at the university level. And we're bringing in different forms of expertise to change the conversation at the level of the students’ work. Not because these people will tell you what to do, but because this changes the nature of what’s being qualified. So we’re trying to open it up a bit. I think there’s something to architectural expertise in that it’s always shifting and we have to bring that expertise to different audiences. So that changes in the way in which claims are made.
LC: Relative to an engineer, or the community—
LC: We had something similar here last semester in which we had an engineer meet with us about our studio projects. And it’s true--more than anything specific about structures we might have learned, it was really valuable to just learn how to have that conversation.
LC: I’m interested in your comment that what we learn in school is what we replicate afterwards. Because there’s a potential risk in the focus on materials and fabrication research, that we develop things at a certain scale, and when we go into practice that’s the scale that we can control in order to make these beautiful things. So then people might stay at that scale they can control, just hoping that one day we’ll be able to scale that up and work on much larger projects.
JM: I share that concern. We’re trying to work it out. I think that the fabrication project has reached a certain level of maturity in which it can no longer be installations per se, but that it becomes a full-blown pedagogy with other residual effects. So in the way that we used to use the 9 square problem—it didn’t mean that everyone did a free plan, but there was a certain way of understanding architectural form. I think the fabrication project is now at the cusp of going from skin projects, into just general forms of having an imagination about systematicity, aggregation. I can’t point to an exact result of this yet, but that’s the general direction. Because at some point, one has to realize that we’re not training craftsmen, but architects, so it has to have a level of abstraction. It’s like how we used to have exercises where you’d just draw a series of straight lines, covering the whole page. The lasers and water jets fill that role now; it’s not that we’re going to ask you to do that out in the world, but it’s going to set up certain modes; and I don’t think the project has matured to that level yet, but that’s the next challenge. Do you know what I mean?
LC: Is it about learning how things get made?
JM: It’s not even about that per se. It’s about setting up a mode of thought about regularity and variation within a field. That’s one way of defining architecture in the same way that the point grid of free-floating partitions was another way to think about it. And it’s been ten, fifteen years that this project has been around and we’re at a point when teachers are setting up fundamental exercises that have to do with these things. So I think that’s the pedagogy.
LC: And within the culture of Michigan, is it easy to go with the students between “regularity and variation within a field,” and social concerns and sustainability?
JM: It’s a large program and school, and there’s lots of variety and lots of faculty interests. Personally, I think coming into a school that’s rich in that way, I’m thinking about how to make larger constellations. It’s not that we’re going to send a thousand architects into the world and they’re all going to do individual things. Systems of practice are more based on loose confederations of expertise that come together around a project, so we’re thinking about how bring that model into the school, so that you have a social team and a fabrication team. They don’t become one thing, but they’re held in the room, in the project together, in a way that we don’t have to see them as opposed strands.
LC: And these projects could hold each other accountable.
JM: That’s the disciplinary model. Architecture itself is already interdisciplinary, and it’s possible to exploit that in some way. The problem is that answers of any of these groups to their problems can become self-sufficient; that the answer to the green issue, or fabrication, becomes self-sufficient to the tool sets they have. Or the social thing. So the aim is to triangulate the problems to open up new factors. It’s exploratory but also trying to set up new methodologies.
I mean, if we knew the answers, we’d teach the answers. I’m not sure the answers are there. But if we can set up frameworks for work in its worldliness, in terms of actionable items, instead of random explorations. The interdisciplinary thing comes to us from the university. But at the level of the architecture program, we’re thinking of it in terms of mixing these kinds of expertise.
LC: In relation to coming up with actionable items, the other thing I noticed on the website was a statement that the expertise of architects is needed in research, education, government, and different realms. Is that something that’s being talked about openly at Michigan, that not everybody who studies architecture becomes an architect, and what else do they do?
JM: It’s something we’ve identified as a challenge. We have an undergraduate, a master’s, and a doctoral program. Those are three very different constituencies, and the middle one has the highest implications that you’re going to practice because you’re graduating with an M.Arch. And at every opportunity I tell students that they can go and do other things, but at some level, the confines of the discipline, of notions of building, are needed so that the education can be valuable. And you can take these skills and parlay them into other realms, but that’s different from saying that you can come and learn to be an architect, but at the same time we’ll teach you to be a policy maker.
JM: And part of it is cultural. That at the same time when we’re immersed in the culture of building, we want to send the message that a successful education doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get licensed. That’s not the bar that everything else gets measured to. Because I think that comes along with the culture sometimes, and that isn’t helpful for all the students.
LC: That makes sense.
JM: So we want to get at the core of the discipline. Although the discipline is always shifting so we don’t know what it is. But there is an aspiration to it, and I think that’s enough.
LC: And how are the students taking it?
JM: It’s going well. We lived through accreditation, and we’re starting to talk with them more overtly about these issues, laying some plans to put some of these things in place. The rhetoric that I have is that by moving into the world, it’s not that we’re becoming foot-soldiers to the profession. But by engaging the stuff, we’re going to give you the tools and techniques to do things in the world. And I wouldn’t describe it as activism, but it’s an active mind-frame that students really pick up on. It’s not so abstract, but when students can see the instrumental potential of what they’re doing, they really respond.
LC: In that sense, Michigan students probably have something in common with GSD students.
JM: Yes, I think that’s everywhere right now.
LC: Well, thank you for this!
JM: Thank you, and see you tomorrow.
And thank you, for reading!
P.S. The Boston Society of Architects has a colorful new website. Much of it--a calendar of local events, news on the BSA's activities, and awards--is primarily aimed at people in the Boston area, but they also have job postings, videos of lectures, and news and reviews of interest to a wider audience.
And--shameless self-promotion--I have some writing posted there. Check out my review of SsD's renovation for Clover Food Lab in Harvard Square!
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