Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Conversation with U Michigan's Architecture Program Chair

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Mar 4, '11 10:19 PM EST

    Hello Archinect!

    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?

    JM: Yeah.

    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—

    JM: Exactly.

    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.

    JM: Exactly.

    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.

    LC: Right.

    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!


    • 10

      changing the title wont make this an interesting interview

      Mar 8, 11 1:17 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      I'm new to the interview format. Please bear with me as I get used to it!

      Mar 8, 11 9:49 pm  · 

      No I think your technique is great, it's the subject that needs a refresh.

      Mar 9, 11 10:12 am  · 

      That he has been given the reigns to a department is the biggest mystery to me. He's a historian and "theorist" who hasn't written a book, not to mention any article of any length; a designer without any designs. Sorry to be so harsh, to be full of hater-ade, but I don't get it; academia thrives on itself sometimes.

      Mar 9, 11 2:54 pm  · 

      thrives on itself always. we're talking about architecture here, not economics.

      Mar 9, 11 5:07 pm  · 

      This interview incites many interesting and valuable discussions which too often are either avoided in the interests of academic expediency or else debated from the most esoteric polemical positions which often yield nothing substantial other than the reification of position. Here, Lian has managed quite successfully to extract from John McMorrough some of his concerns even if some of his solutions are not as clear as he would like them to be seen.

      I would like to comment on just two of the many main points. The first is incited by McMorrough's statement that "...basically what you learn in school is what you repeat in practice." I would argue that at the average school what you learn in school has very little to do with what you do in your practice. Most of these student's are pleased to get any kind of a job regardless of its proximate affinity to their interests while in school. Perhaps at a school of U-Michigan's stature, the student's can be more selective of their career path. This discussion however is born of the constant debate between architecture school as training or conversion. There is no doubt that schools must address their role in the training of future architects for the architectural profession in its current and future forms. Not incidentally, there is also no doubt that schools must address architecture as an artistic and cultural where the context of academic allows for a broader discourse and experimentation that is immediately unrelated to the current state of professional practice. The very best students (and architects) know how to engage both sides of the polemics in the same moment, if they choose too. But this is not something that is necessarily trainable as most student's simply have a gut reaction to one or the other side and respond accordingly with directed criticism of the other position.

      Mar 9, 11 7:49 pm  · 

      Secondly, and related to the first comment, John McMorrough describes an occasion last semester where an engineer met with students about their studio projects. McMorrough readily admits that the students learned not so much about the engineering questions and answers to their projects, but rather the experience was the opportunity to begin to learn how to have a conversation. Herein lies the 50 million dollar disciplinarity question. Are the ideals of disciplinarity to have a collaborative knowledge in the pursuit of excellence, or is it just to make us feel like we could have collaborative knowledge in the pursuit of excellence. For instance, architectural education has always consisted of a wide range of courses which allows for no expertise but is supposed to allow for the student to have basic understandings of the issues that inflect themselves onto the profession. So this is nothing new. What is clear from the provided example is that disciplinarity, in its most ideal form, requires much more commitment than a single afternoon of learning how to conversate. This is commitment that Architecture should be wary of, but only because it does not leave time for traditional architectural experimentation which has typically been quite introverted. Wariness is not the same as total avoidance.

      Mar 9, 11 7:49 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Thanks, Jeffry, for opening some of these issues up!

      Mar 11, 11 4:20 pm  · 

      Jeffrey I would say in re: to this Are the ideals of disciplinarity to have a collaborative knowledge in the pursuit of excellence, or is it just to make us feel like we could have collaborative knowledge in the pursuit of excellence.

      Not necessarily collab knowledge but knowledge of a collab process? Wherein each player knows how to dialog with other disciplines and has some sense of their strengths/weaknesses.

      Mar 13, 11 3:00 pm  · 

      Nam, thanks for your response to my comment. My comment was suggesting that to say that framing a one-afternoon meetings with an engineer as a means to breed students who can collaborate is like saying that architecture students take international trips in order to learn how to fly. This is a thinly veiled critique of the disiciplines historic tendency to spend energy in creating appearances as opposed to investing in actually "being." I do think that what we should be interested in and invested in IS a collaborative knowledge as a result of a collaborative process. Any interactions with other interests and disciplines are valuable only if they are more than training exercises in the mechanics of empty appearance.

      Mar 13, 11 8:15 pm  · 

      Jeffrey good point...

      Mar 14, 11 11:34 am  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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