When Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen joined the Yale School of Architecture as a critic in 1994 under the deanship of Fred Koetter, her surroundings barely resembled what the school’s community and culture are today.
The school was late in adopting modern architecture design technologies and its faculty was heavily male-dominated, she recalled. But after Robert A.M. Stern assumed his position in 1998, the school began a transformation that has reshaped its role as an academic institution and a professional development program.
“[Stern] knew things were lagging behind,” Pelkonen said.
Stern fostered intellectual growth through exhibitions and guest lecturers and created a more diverse community that includes more female faculty members and more international students.
Now that Stern is poised to step down at the end of June 2016, he can look back on a long record of improvements. But many of the challenges that he has tackled over the past two decades remain.
“There will be many changes with the coming of a new dean, since there are new challenges with every year,” Stern said.
Stern said that in selecting his successor, the University needs to prioritize the school’s goals of promoting diversity and improving architectural design technology while preserving important traditional design techniques such as hand drawing.
CHANGING THE COMMUNITY
Stern said that when he first arrived at Yale, he believed that some of his main objectives were to restore the decades-old School of Architecture building, introduce digital design technologies into the curriculum and increase the diversity of the school’s faculty and student body.
“[My job was to] renew the school’s sense of self, which had gotten fuzzy, and to energize it,” Stern said.
According to Stern, the most important policy changes during his tenure have included an increase in female students and faculty, a balanced approach toward traditional versus modern design techniques and a heavy emphasis on the undergraduate architecture program that has provided undergraduates with vast resources and opportunities.
Stern added that he thinks his successor should aim to create a balance between traditional architectural methods and modern design technologies, noting that in spite of its educational importance, hand drawing is becoming less prevalent in universities’ architecture programs today.
“We were fortunate to fund traditional hand drawing, even though most architecture schools had dropped hand drawing,” Stern said. “Young artists can’t make a sketch. Hand drawing is what connects the brain to design by the hand.”
Architecture professors interviewed highlighted Stern’s focus on developing the undergraduate architecture program as an equal to the graduate school. Bimal Mendis, the director of undergraduate studies in Architecture, said that under Stern, the undergraduate architecture curriculum has drawn heavily on the broader academic and professional environment of the school.
Maru Filiba ’15, a designer at the New York-based architecture firm Hart Howerton, said that in many ways, she and her fellow students were treated like graduate students in the access they received to the school’s facilities and resources.
“We share common spaces with graduate students, we have access to all of the fabrication labs, rendering labs and, more importantly, we have access to the graduate students themselves,” she said. “Unlike an ordinary lecture class where you see your TA in class and section time, maybe office hours but that’s it, we interact with our TAs on a daily basis.”
School of Architecture professor Peggy Deamer said she thinks that one of Stern’s most notable initiatives was introducing experienced, graduate-level faculty into the undergraduate program. Stern made sure that teaching undergraduates was not seen as a second-class option for professors, she noted.
But Deamer also highlighted the risks of trying to model the undergraduate architecture program after the graduate program.
“Those things that are changing the profession are more technologically driven, more business-savvy and entrepreneurial — I’m not sure this is appropriate for the undergraduate program,” Deamer said.
Still, Deamer noted that she does wants the undergraduate program to be professionally focused enough for the school’s students to be competitive in the job market.
AN OUTDATED APPROACH
Students and faculty interviewed said that while the Yale School of Architecture has seen a number of reforms in the past two decades, the school still adheres to a traditional view of the architect as a professional whose sole purpose is to design habitable buildings.
Daniel Allen, adjunct assistant professor of architecture, planning and preservation at Columbia University, said the financial pressures and overall professional competition that young architects face today may drive them to be more concerned with mastering traditional forms of architecture in order to find employment.
“The school is not really looking at the way the industry is evolving or giving space for a student to become anything outside of a classically trained architect — like getting involved in technology or policy and planning,” said Kirk Henderson ARC ’16.
Henderson described a process in which students are pushed into a narrow mental framework that defines architecture as a discipline that only serves to create designs that will become real-life buildings. This classically oriented curriculum, Henderson noted, differs from that of graduate architecture schools such as Columbia’s, which emphasizes theory and writing, or the University of Southern California’s, which works extensively in 3D virtual modeling for video gamers.
Deamer said the school can also modernize by reforming its curriculum to explore the intersection of architecture with disciplines such as environmentalism.
“The program has had the reputation as a school that teaches students ‘how to build’ … but architecture now is about more than designing and building buildings,” Deamer said. “It’s about how materials, labor and resources are deployed at a much broader scale; it is about being theoretically and politically savvy in a global context.”
Deamer also added that increasing racial and economic diversity within the school will bring in students who may help to reshape the image of the Yale architect to be a less traditional one.
BUILDING ON STERN’S LEGACY
Although Stern’s term extends through the middle of next year, the University’s search for his replacement appears to be well under way.
“The search process is moving along, and we hope to have an announcement later in the semester,” said Martha Highsmith, a senior advisor to University President Peter Salovey.
Stern highlighted the importance of selecting a successor who will continue the school’s commitment to increasing diversity within its students and faculty, adding that there is a high chance that this successor will be a woman.
“With a woman dean, we will set a strong leadership example,” Stern said.
While the school had only 12 women in its 56-member faculty in 1998, the currently tenured faculty has six women and three men, including Stern himself. The school’s fall 2014 admission statistics also state that 92 of the 199 enrolled students are women. Stern noted that this year, there is a slight majority of women over men among first-year students in the Master of Architecture I program.
Stern explained that since many women become burdened with responsibilities that accompany marriage and motherhood, they may abandon the architecture profession — which requires a heavy time commitment and a large amount of traveling — because such a career places a great deal of stress on family life. But Stern noted that he wants the School of Architecture to train its female students to be leaders in the field instead of taking a secondary role.
Meanwhile, Pelkonen said she believes that the new dean should work to increase the number of international students within the school’s community. She added that she wants Stern’s successor to prioritize objectives such as investing in intellectual opportunities through additional seminars and visiting professors as well as building upon Stern’s efforts to reduce the financial burdens of students who must take out loans to pay for tuition.
Ioanna Angelidou GRD ’18 said she hopes the new dean will make an effort to reform the structure of the school’s administration to be less centralized. The school is quite large for everything to be handled and decided upon by a single figure, she noted.
“[A centralized administration] worked well during Stern’s deanship because he is a great multitasker and a strong personality, but I think the new dean will have to place emphasis on how the diverse aspects and requirements of the curriculum are managed efficiently while allowing for constant communication with the world outside Yale and the profession per se,” Angelidou said.
Pelkonen also emphasized the importance of having a dean who will be an advocate for the arts and humanities within the University.
“There has recently been a shift from the humanities to the sciences,” Pelkonen said. “One has to remind the people what makes life worth living are the values we learn from the humanities.”
But while Stern and other University officials remain optimistic that the new dean will meet the expectations of the student body, 12 of 15 current students interviewed expressed concern over the fact that there are no students present on the search committee.
Jessica Angel ARC ’16 explained that Salovey will make the final decision on who will serve as Stern’s successor, adding that the advisory committee that makes recommendations to Salovey is comprised solely of faculty members and administrators. According to Paprika’s May 2015 issue, the faculty advisory committee consists of Yale School of Architecture professors Keller Easterling, Michelle Addington, Steven Harris, John Jacobson and Mendis.
Correction, September 13: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the class year of Ionna Angelidou as ARC ’18. It is in fact GRD ’18.