When the industry is slow—and even when it isn’t—the best work happens in the classroom, a safe space for architectural experimentation since at least the École des Beaux Arts. The problem is, except for a digitally generated blip in the 1980s, students have been stuck experimenting in a vacuum, changing the system on paper and computer screens, but not in reality. That’s the argument that Monica Ponce de Leon, founder and principal of Office dA, brought to her new job as dean of the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
Known for work that is both environmentally focused, like the eco-friendly LA gas station, the Helios House, and digitally informed, like the rippling wood GSD offices, Ponce de Leon just completed her first academic year at the school, where she has begun to implement a radical, interdisciplinary approach to architectural education. She spoke with William Bostwick about how new technology and a post-crash global consciousness should change the way we teach.
William Bostwick: What made you want to run an architecture school?
Monica Ponce de Leon: The field of architecture is stagnating—we’re at a crossroads. First, the issue of environmental degradation is really prevalent in other fields, but not in architecture school. We should be leading the conversation, but we’re following. Second, I think we’re entering a second digital revolution. When I started school in the ’80s, everything was done by hand, and when I left it was all digital. It changed the way we design—it enabled all those dramatic geometries of the last 20 years. Now, digital tools are affecting manufacturing. Mill shops use digitally guided tools; classical moldings are cut with lasers or water jets. We should be preparing our students to build with these methods. I hope we don’t repeat the ’80s, arguing whether it’s a good thing or not.
WB: You’re proposing an interdisciplinary program. How does it work?
MPL: Working across disciplines brings together experts from environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, sustainable technology. Take our environmental technology courses. Some of these classes don’t have a single faculty member, but are co-taught. For example, we have paired a pilot studio class with a lecture course in structures.