On October 1, Alejandro Zaera-Polo abruptly stepped down as dean of Princeton's School of Architecture—a resignation that put an end to his embattled tenure of two years. While the circumstances surrounding his sudden departure have not been officially clarified, speculation is rife that conflicts with students and colleagues may have played a role. Whatever the reason, the situation spotlights the challenges faced by the leaders shaping architectural education and the schools looking to fill those positions. Zaera-Polo's predecessor, Stan Allen, will serve as acting dean and chair the search for a replacement. Finding a new dean may not be easy.
Princeton is just the latest top-tier architecture program embarking on such a mission. In June, MIT named Mark Jarzombek acting dean of its School of Architecture + Planning, while a search committee to replace outgoing dean Adele Naude Santos hoped to conclude its work this fall. In May, Elizabeth K. Meyer was named dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, where she has been widely respected as a professor for decades. Her two-year appointment, however, rather than the standard five-year contract, gives U.Va. some time to look for a more permanent replacement. Hernan Diaz Alonso will succeed Eric Owen Moss as director at SCI-Arc next year. At the once tuition-free Cooper Union, which has been facing annual budget deficits in the tens of millions, a year-long search continues since Anthony Vidler stepped down as dean after 12 years. The process has been made more complicated amid unconfirmed reports that former Harvard architecture chair Preston Scott Cohen turned down an offer.
The job of dean, like the practice of architecture itself, has become increasingly complex. It's not enough to be a well-regarded academic or a capable administrator; deans are expected to be visionaries, diplomats, and, maybe most important of all, superb fundraisers. Having a big name appears to be desirable as well, since the architects filling deans' shoes these days often have high-profile reputations in design, research, teaching, and lecturing.
Of course, leading architectural figures have run schools before. But unlike Mies van der Rohe's postwar transformation of Chicago's Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) or John Hejduk's quarter of a century as the first architecture dean at Cooper Union, the one thing schools today are not looking for is someone with a single distinctive orientation. As dean of the Yale School of Architecture for 17 years, Robert A. M. Stern has been extremely successful thanks to his dynamic curriculum, which provides students with a wide range of design perspectives, despite the traditional nature of his own architecture.
Deans today need to manage programs that are nimble enough to prepare students for the global nature of practice, the increased emphasis on sustainability, and the integration of digital design and fabrication, among other things. At the same time, they must address such pragmatic concerns as tuition costs that are outpacing starting salaries in the profession and the slow path to licensure.
Many schools have embraced interdisciplinary education to anticipate the future of practice. At Harvard's Graduate School of Design, there has been a recent emphasis on collaborating more systematically across departments and with other schools on campus. 'We are working hard to bring together thoughts and ideas from different design disciplines and understand that relationship to other disciplines including medicine, public health, education, and law,' says Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the GSD since 2008. 'The practice of architecture can't just focus forever on purely being a service sector, waiting on clients to come to us. If we're going to be effective, we must gain greater importance as designers. A key component of that is the capacity of architecture to have greater influence'to matter more.'
Mostafavi, overseeing ongoing work at the GSD's Gund Hall and additional renovations at newly acquired facilities, explains, 'The traditional studio space may not be sufficient.' A proposal is in the works to build a research tower too. State-of-the-art facilities obviously help attract faculty and students, and Mostafavi has experience spearheading building campaigns: in his previous post as a dean, he helped bring Rem Koolhaas to design Milstein Hall, the first new building at Cornell's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning in over 100 years.
His successor at Cornell, Kent Kleinman, battled to get Milstein built during the depths of the recession and mounting opposition to spending money on its construction. Since its completion in 2011, the building'with its open studios and absence of formal classrooms'has been transformative for the school, according to Kleinman. 'Every student can see what others are doing,' he says. 'This oblique form of pedagogy is very powerful.'
Other schools with new facilities include Marlon Blackwell's addition to the University of Arkansas' school of architecture and Thomas Phifer's architecture school addition for his alma mater, Clemson University in South Carolina. Such buildings underscore a university's commitment to its architecture program, but location and opportunity to travel may play an even greater role in preparing students for today's international scope of practice. A challenge for Peter MacKeith, the new dean at Arkansas, is spurring the place-based architectural legacy of Fay Jones (for whom the school is named), to evolve from a local and regional level to an increasingly global one.
And while Cornell's remote campus in Ithaca, New York, has the advantage of producing 'an intensity, focus, and type of thought process that is almost monastic,' according to Kleinman, he adds, 'I don't think you can be a well-educated architect today and not be grappling with the question of the city.' Cornell's program in New York, begun eight years ago, has grown to be as popular as the school's nearly 30-year-old Rome program.
Since Wiel Arets became dean at IIT in 2012, some people wondered if the Illinois school would get enough of his attention because of the demands of his international practice'he has offices in Amsterdam; Maastricht, Holland; and Z'rich. But according to Arets, his focus is Chicago. He wants to bring big thinkers into the school, as he did when leading the Berlage Institute in the Netherlands. He also looks to the legacy of Mies'whose birthplace in Aachen is just 7 miles from where Arets was born'as an example of how to play a role in the city and the discipline at large. 'Mies was an architect, but also a speculator and a theorist,' says Arets. 'Like Mies, I want to develop ideas that can be implemented in our urban context.'
Despite the interest in metropolises such as New York, Rome, or Chicago, there is a shift in focus from the capitals of Western civilization to the centers of contemporary building activity. At the University of Southern California School of Architecture, dean Qingyun Ma looks to the vitality and cross-disciplinary nature of the Rome model but applies it to his mobile American Academy in China. Studio-X Global, an initiative of former Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation dean Mark Wigley, encourages students and faculty to explore the future of cities with labs in changing locations from Beijing to Johannesburg. His replacement, Amale Andraos, is a practitioner who works globally, currently in Africa.
Monica Ponce de Leon, dean of the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning since 2008, has also put an emphasis on introducing students to the world at large. More than a quarter of the students enroll in travel-abroad courses, although a new urban design program focuses on one city'Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, and Mexico City thus far'for an entire year, engaging local institutions and government.
De Leon also understands that the practice of architecture 'is messy' and feels students should be given the space in school to think about an alternate future for the profession. She is one of several deans interviewed for this article opposed to the recent announcement by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) considering the creation of an alternative'and optional'path to architectural registration that would permit candidates to be licensed upon graduation. 'To embed the Intern Development Program (IDP) in schools would damage the profession profoundly,' says de Leon. 'We already struggle to fit everything into two- and three-year programs.'
At Rice University School of Architecture, the unique preceptorship program offers real office experience in top architectural firms to its small class of Bachelor of Architecture candidates. While Sarah Whiting, dean of the school since 2010, calls her B.Arch. graduates 'eminently hirable,' she also recognizes that offices do not have a lot of time or money to innovate. 'Schools need to push architecture forward,' Whiting explains. 'We need to see how ideas developed here can become manifest in the field.'
Schools like Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, also look for ways to advance the profession through the curriculum, particularly in the area of sustainability. Its Center for Architecture Science and Ecology, located in Skidmore Owings & Merrill's offices in Manhattan, has graduate students collaborating with material scientists and engineers, to further what RPI dean Evan Douglis says is the challenge for the 21st century: 'how to get off the grid.'
From new facilities and global studios to cross-disciplinary study, sustainability, and real-world experience, students are given every opportunity to excel at a rapidly changing kind of practice. But can these programs fill the needs of a future they can't entirely predict? The recent upheavals at architecture schools and the drawn-out searches reflect the difficulties of finding deans: they need to have professional and academic knowledge, building experience, and even the charisma required to articulate a larger vision for the profession, while being accountable to university leadership, students, and the discipline itself.