about discourse as learning to see

with Dean DEBORAH BERKE, GENTLEY SMITH (M. Arch ’18), MISHA SEMENOV (M. Arch/M.E.M. ’19)

YSoA Dean’s Office on a snowy (!) Thursday morning, 10/27

G+M: From your first speech, you have encouraged us to foster and embrace discourses outside of our studio spaces.  We want to know where this desire stems from. What would you say is a productive discourse? How do we learn to have beneficial conversations as architects?

D: I would say my interest in discourse comes naturally out of my whole life story and experience, both the house I grew up in–my mom was a fashion designer and my dad ran a small business but he was an amateur historian, so there were already two different ways of seeing the world. This wasn’t about disagreeing on, say, local politics, but much more about how you see the world, how you understand, how your mind is wired. Every dinner table conversation was a revelation for me as a kid.

When I went to RISD, we all had to take Freshman Foundation–no matter what you were going to study, everybody took the same classes: life drawing, nature drawing, graphic design. You had a sense that when you were with your classmates, they were seeing the assignment and interpreting the assignment and making their work in different ways, and that exchange of ideas seemed so valuable to me.

As you may know, my husband is a surgeon, so he jokes sometimes that he’s on the structural engineering side of medicine as an orthopedic surgeon. So we can actually talk about moment diagrams and stress ratios! So part of the value of discourse is where there’s overlap and then you can perceive somebody else’s… I don’t want to say point of view, because that makes it sound like politics: left, right, liberal, conservative. I mean seeing, understanding, perceiving, absorbing things differently and how you learn another way to see something from the other person’s articulation of how they think about it. I think it’s important for us because we are only an architecture school. That’s a good thing–we are small and really focused on what we do and doing it as well as we possibly can, but we only talk to each other. You are going to learn from talking to each other, yes, because you think differently and you work differently, but outside of this building are artists, scientists, doctors, sociologists, psychologists. Talking to them broadens the conversation in a way that I think the conversation needs to be broadened and it’s a balance to the fact that we are only architects in this building.

G+M: If we do embrace diverse discourses, especially those from other disciplines, how do you think that will change our culture, especially given that we are a freestanding architecture school, not attached to a planning or landscape department? Will it dilute it?

D: My sense is, absolutely not, or I wouldn’t suggest it. I think it will enrich our culture. These resources, these other people we can have discourse with, are here. We are at Yale. Having people here from outside the discipline come here is fantastic, and they like it too. Discourse is exchange, so we’re not just receivers and we’re not the only beneficiaries.  Over the next couple of years you’ll see the type of studio critics change a little bit, especially when it comes to upper level studios.

G: It’s true, we had a painter on our review. It was such a different point of view. I feel like we are in an echo chamber. We know each other’s voices, and there’s nothing new to be said.

M: I think often as soon as someone outside the discipline starts talking about architecture, we tend to say “oh, you don’t know. you just don’t understand.” isn’t that a major problem?

D: Well, I think that’s true in every discipline. and what I think is important is to still recognize how you can benefit from a discourse even with someone who doesn’t know your discipline. This is now ancient history, but I remember when Tom Wolfe the writer was very popular, and I was getting all these social and political insights from his work, and then I read From Bauhaus to Our House, and I thought “What? This guy doesn’t know anything!” And then he wrote The Right Stuff, and I realized he didn’t know much about the space program, and he probably didn’t know much about New York City hierarchies, either. But that didn’t mean I didn’t get anything out of it.

So Elaine Scarry is one of the leading thinkers of her generation. She doesn’t know about architecture, and that’s ok. It was wonderful to listen to her, and even if you hated her commentary on beauty or think of beauty as a completely different thing, the way she shaped a sentence, the way she shaped a paragraph, the way she used adjectives and verbs, there’s benefit there.

M: Beyond simply saying we should listen to people from other schools and disciplines talk, what are some ways we can create events and formats for discourse?

D: Well, I’ve been to two events at the art school and both were interesting. One was this film screening about race in the big gallery in the sculpture building. One interesting thing was who was in the room: it was the most ethnically and racially diverse room I’ve been in at Yale. And the other was that there were no chairs–Marta had put rugs on the floor and people were just sitting on the floor. And I thought this was great. This is part of what I think discourse is. I was witnessing discourse in a group of people and I was a passive presence listening to the exchange, but I was also learning as an architect what a room feels like when a majority of the people are sitting on the floor. So you never know where the exchange will impact your thinking as an architect.

G: We talk about pluralism a lot. There’s so much discussion in our theory courses about whether pluralism is just diluting the conversation, or if it’s letting us fight for our ideas. In this era of architecture, it seems like we’re under no one big idea…

D: When was the last big idea?

M: PoMo? Deconstructivism?

D: Is Starchitects a big idea, where we’re just feeding a brand?

G: Well, it’s what we’re fighting against

D: I’d say that’s the last “Big Idea:” brand. I think it feels a little hollow right now.

G: So do you think pluralism leads to discourse?

D: I think the intention and broad thinking that use of the word “pluralism” represented in describing YSoA is correct, and was a distinguishing characteristic compared to other schools of architecture with a particular point of view or particular master. I think what has happened in a world in which we are trying to embrace diverse ways of thinking, broad differences in cultural backgrounds, pluralism has lost the meaning it had in the latter half of the twentieth century. I don’t think the intention or the education it fosters is at all wrong, I think the word has become so diluted that we need a new word.

G+M: What new conversations have you noticed in the school and in the field recently?

D: I am thrilled that in architecture school today students are once again interested in social issues, social justice, political, built environment, environmental responsibility. This is good. I think we have to remember that we are still the people who determine what things look like… I want to make sure that the social, economic, political, environmental concerns, all of which are valid, are wedded to architecture, to building design, appearance and function inside and out.

G+M: Students have been asking for some time for a more private meeting space and lunch location. There is a feeling that the pits and studios are not private or intimate enough. Do you think this points to a larger lack of “safe spaces” in the studio culture at SoA?  

D: The need for smaller venues for conversation is actually part of the discourse question. If you met a student in Public Health and said “come on over because three or four of us are working on a hospital project and we’d love your opinion,” where would you go? Would you sit on the floor in the pit? So I think the fact that those spaces are missing does get in the way of more discourse. I’m uncomfortable with the expression “safe space. ” I know it’s important to a lot of people, but I think it’s so politicized that it’s not what we’re talking about. We are talking about the ability to discuss architecture with other architecture students and with people outside of architecture in groups smaller than studio and significantly smaller than Hastings. And I would say that this building, as affectionate as I am for it, reflects a 20th century way of teaching architecture that’s studio or nothing, and other forms of discourse and working are limited by the spaces we have to offer. I’m going to try to make a few changes, but it’s difficult.
I mean, look at us! I can’t have a private conversation in my own office. All these people are going to hear! What if somebody came in here crying and wanted to talk to me? Where would I go?

G: It’s one reason I love architecture so much, that these things actually affect the environment for someone…

M: Even if we had a special room for lunch though, would people still eat lunch at their desks? Isn’t this a cultural issue as much as an architectural one?

D: One solution, and we tried this in the office, is once a week to get lunch for everybody. My daughter works at Pentagram and the firm has a chef three days a week, and they all eat lunch together.

I wish people got up from their desks more, but that’s a hard habit to change. At least you play badminton, right?

Myself, I have a lot of good conversations over dinner. So to get back to the beginning, the discourse, exchange of ideas, learning from others outside the discipline of architecture: dinner, lunch, breakfast. We all have to eat!