The Deans List is an interview series with the leaders of architecture schools, worldwide. The series profiles the school’s programming, as defined by the head honcho – giving an invaluable perspective into the institution’s unique curriculum, faculty and academic environment.
For this issue, we spoke with Sarah Whiting, Dean of the Rice School of Architecture in Houston, Texas.
Rice flourishes as a tiny university in the very large city of Houston, reaping rewards from both direct student-faculty collaborations and amicable access to civic institutions. Its cozy tally of just 180 students (undergraduate and graduate) makes for a community as tight as it is demanding, an essential atmosphere for the rigorous challenges within the “speculative practice” pedagogical model pushed by Dean of the Architecture School, Sarah Whiting. Rejecting a simplified “theory v. practice” model of academia, Whiting favors the analogy to a natural science laboratory, where students engage theory to effect the architecture profession of 10-15 years in the future. For the Deans List, Whiting discussed Rice’s unique location in Houston, and its role as an instigator within architecture’s global applications.
Amelia Taylor-Hochberg: How would you characterize your architecture school’s programming? Briefly, what is your own pedagogical stance on architecture education?
Sarah Whiting: Essentially I would characterize the school’s approach and my own as an interest in “speculative practice.” Speculation here means theoretical conjecture, architectural intelligence and a desire to advance practice, rather than conform to existing modes of practice. Usually, schools will swing in one direction or the other: they’ll promote pure pragmatism, with a focus on practice as it is defined by mainstream offices, or schools will aim for an all-out theoretical approach, where practice is essentially disdained for its constraints, its pace, and its capitalist taint. Either option is like cutting down a tree while you’re perching on one of the highest branches. Letting education be defined by existing models of practice makes a school into a service provider, but not addressing practice at all leaves graduates powerless to implement change.
I see the school more like a science lab. Over in the natural sciences here at Rice, students are doing experiments that might lead to a vaccine or cure fifteen or so years from now. In the same way, our students should be developing architectural projects, urban projects, ways of designing, ways of representing that will become viable in ten, fifteen years. So they aren’t focusing on practice today, but they’re also not entirely utopian or so visionary that they’re not going to help change the game in the next ten years. Speculative Practice is the best way to characterize that ambition of near-utopianism. If you read my conversation with Peter Eisenman in Log 28’s “stocktaking” issue, you can learn more about how we think here at Rice.
In reference to the relationship between our B.Arch. and M.Arch. programs, we treat the school as one. Obviously the undergraduates have a different culture – there is a strong residential college system on campus – but within the school it’s a very integrated program.
AT-H: What kind of student do you think would flourish at your school, and why?
SW: That’s easy: if you want to blend into the crowd, hang back, listen, and not be in the center of the conversation, do not even apply to Rice. All of our students are expected to engage, participate, and be part of the collective conversation going on in the school. If you want to be challenged to push your ideas, your projects, and your points, this is the place for you; we are constantly working to advance the intellectual ambitions and design innovations of every project.
AT-H: What are the biggest challenges, academically and professionally, facing your students?
Letting education be defined by existing models of practice makes a school into a service provider, but not addressing practice at all leaves graduates powerless to implement change. SW: One often unspoken challenge that students face today stems from the steady decline of American education. Students are less and less prepared for college and graduate school: they are not being taught how to write and they often have shockingly limited cultural exposure. We have the challenge, then, of teaching students how to read culture, including art, cinema, literature, but also including economics, politics, ecology… We have to teach them how to pay attention to the broader world. Students have to learn that their projects don’t exist in a vacuum: if you situate your project in a larger context – historical, economic, political, technological – you are engaging in the broader conversations that constitute a discipline. In order for students to step up to that conversation, it’s our job to teach them how to communicate verbally as well as visually.
Second, and this relates to my point about speculative practice above, the biggest challenge faced by any architect today is how not to get squelched by ridiculously low budgets and a lack of understanding of architecture’s value. We have to teach in such a way that students and graduates believe that there are ways of practicing and doing architecture that don’t fall victim to the crappy status quo. Some students will find “ways out” via exploring new formal typologies that generate new programmatic relationships; others will push at how a project can redefine technological or zoning norms. Invention has to be focused in order to have an impact.
For me, I’d say that our biggest challenge is teaching students how to situate their particular focus. I have personal interests in the relationship between architectural form and the collective subject – these interests have formal, programmatic and political repercussions. I don’t expect everyone to be interested in this issue, but I do expect all students to gain enough knowledge of the discipline in order to graduate from school with a clear understanding of their own interests and focus. Students should not graduate thinking that their role is to be a “problem solver”; we want them to be the ones articulating and redefining the problems.
ATH: How do you provide for employment after graduation?
SW: One of the greatest strengths of our undergraduate program is the Preceptorship year. Our undergraduates graduate with a BA in architecture after 4 years and then we place them in offices for a 9-12 month paid internship, called the “preceptorship.” The offices range from Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, SHoP, and others in New York to Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and SOM in San Francisco; we also have one student at Renzo Piano’s Students should not graduate thinking that their role is to be a “problem solver”; we want them to be the ones articulating and redefining the problems. workshop, a couple in London offices, and one in OMA’s Hong Kong office. The students rank their choices and then John Casbarian, Director of External Programs, works with those ballots and with faculty input to place the students in specific offices with which we have longstanding relations. They are assigned a mentor in the office and because it’s such a long internship, they really get immersed in the office: their experience ranges from concept to design development. The students then return to Rice for their “5th year” and graduate a second time with a B.Arch. It’s a fantastic and unique set-up; it also means that the undergraduates are almost all guaranteed jobs upon graduation -- oftentimes they’ll return to their preceptorship firm, but they are attractive to any employer because they combine a strong education with a full year of experience. It helps that they’re getting a certain breadth of professional experience in offices that are very high caliber and that take the mentoring very seriously. In short, our B.Archs have it made. We are working to set-up a version for the graduate students as a paid internship following graduation (the graduate program is too short to have it interrupt): some of them would be fellows either in offices or have a fellowship here at the school, where they would have a paid semester to a year to get some of the experience that the undergraduates get through their preceptorship.
The other way we help students with employment is simply by knowing them: because we’re so small and we have a strong reputation, offices will sometimes call me or other faculty and say, “We’re hiring, do you have good fits?” And because we all know the students so well, we can say “I know who would be perfect in your office”. Our success rate at matching the student to the office tends to be terrific, so employers trust our word when we send our graduates their way.
AT-H: How do you research and familiarize yourself with trends within the architectural profession/academia? How do you adapt these observations into programming and student policy for the 21st century?
SW: Rice’s small size makes us very nimble. Architecture is a generalist discipline. At the end of an education, every student needs to have a sense of all that architecture entails, but no one is going to be an expert in everything. Architecture deals with issues of new technologies, of materials, but it also deals with history, politics, economics.... You don’t need to know all of that in depth, but you need to have a clear understanding of that breadth. At the same time, by the time you graduate, you need to have some sense of what you’re really passionate about: your focus, to return to the point I was making above. We can’t teach twenty different individual passions. But we can help each student figure out what they need to do – what projects they should pay attention to, what books they should read, what they should do over the summer or when they graduate – to engage. Our small size means that we don’t have a gazillion courses, but we have an amazing range of courses, of faculty, and of other students. The combined resource of the faculty, the numerous visitors, and the student body means that the students coming through have a wide variety of role models. Finally, given the challenges that architecture faces as a field that is wrongly perceived to be a luxury rather than a necessity, our small size allows the students to really understand and pay attention to urgent matters.
ATH: Do you collaborate with other departments or schools when designing programming?
SW: We have some collaboration with other institutions. We have good relationships to the Menil Collection and the MFA Houston, the two big museums here. We also have a longstanding relationship between our Rice Building Workshop and Houston’s Project Rowhouses: RBW has built several projects for Rowhouses over the past decade or more. Within the university, we have some relationships to the School of Engineering and we are working to further those ties now that they have a new department of material science. We’ve had a collaboration this year with Rice’s School of Music, with a studio that focused on questions of acoustics, aligning architecture students with a faculty member in the school of music who organized a symposium on acoustic issues. We probably have the strongest ties with Rice’s School of Humanities – the Humanities Research Center is even run by one of our faculty members: Farès El-Dahdah. In short, we are constantly forging relationships across the university and the city.
AT-H: What is the relationship between the school and local businesses/government?
SW: Just a couple of weeks ago, the mayor of Houston gave a lecture at lunchtime, and the 26-year old mayor of Ithaca gave a talk that same evening. Our fall lecture series focused on the topic of the citizen-architect; is there a way of engaging by foregrounding architecture on its own terms, as opposed to constantly back-seating ourselves to policy or development interests? You can watch the whole series by going to the link on our website. The fall lectures are tied to a seminar that I teach, called the Cullinan Seminar, which has the students read in preparation for the lectures and then interview the speakers in seminar the following day. Additionally, each of these lectures has a follow up roundtable lunchtime discussion, open to the entire school. So the topic of political engagement was at the heart of the school through the lectures, the seminar, and the roundtable lunches.
More generally, Rice is very well-placed in Houston. There’s a good relationship between Rice and the city and even the state, unlike most universities and their towns. There’s surprisingly easy access to people of power in Houston; the city is unusually open and welcoming. Formally we’ve created relationships by setting up internships for students within the city, encouraging students to be engaged at different levels. We’ve had a long-standing relationship to a series of nonprofits through Rice Building Workshop.
It’s a very accessible city, unlike many. It’s also an environment that encourages experimentation, even failure. Houston’s an extraordinary place – you can get a little glimpse of its DNA before coming here if you read Lars Lerup’s One Million Acres and No Zoning, or Bryan Burrough’s The Big Rich (on the oil families that founded Houston) or Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man (a biography of Donald Barthelme) or the Art and Activism catalogue from the Menil. But you really have to visit to get a sense of it.
ATH: What would you like to accomplish as dean? How would you like the school to have changed in your tenure?
SW: I’ve been here four years, almost exactly, and this thought has been much on my mind. Like every other school, I would like to see our facilities expanded. We are trying to further push Speculative Practice by establishing a think-tank on design and practice. One of the things that we’ve just done in preparation for this think tank, is we’ve launched a one-year Master of Arts in Architecture program called Present Future. It’s an interesting experiment If you want to be challenged to push your ideas, your projects, and your points, this is the place for you. because it is open both to B.Archs as a post-professional program, but also to post-Baccalaureates as a program to do architectural research without committing to a professional degree. It should appeal to potential critics, curators, journalists, planners, as well as architects and general designers. A group of students with collective expertise will come together under one topic, under the guidance of a specific faculty leader. The research project for this coming year will be coordinated by Professor Albert Pope; it focuses on the New Town of the 21st century, specifically Sha Tin on the outskirts of Hong Kong. How does the contemporary New Town differ from the New Town in Britain in the 60s, or France in the 70s or from post-war American suburbia? There’s a different model of urbanization that’s happening right now at that scale.
Present Future will advertise its theme and faculty director every year in order to curate a research group for that topic. While it will be an independent stream, the program will not be isolated but will be entirely integrated into the school. It’s kind of a crazy experiment from an administrator’s point of view. It means we constantly have to have someone in the pipeline. We have to bank on that person attracting students and applicants who are strong enough to work together. But I think it’s an experiment that a small school can do and I’m really excited about it. It’s the kind of focused research project that we can pull off, because we’re small and because we have a high intellectual bar. Present Future will further foster our collective intelligence.
Editorial Manager for Archinect. I write, go to the movies, walk around and listen to the radio. My interests revolve around cognitive urban theory, psycholinguistics and food.