A Conversation with Rosalyne Shieh
Q What are your first impressions of the architecture major?
A I can’t be super specific, but I think my impression is that the undergrads, broadly, are more in the world, as opposed to in the world of architecture. Their basic position is open. They’re looking for ways to grow, and they’re looking for things to grab onto, and they’re trying to make connections, and these connections are projective, they lead out. I don’t mean that the grad students are more narrow minded in any way. In some ways the grad students are very focused on getting their graduate school educations and understanding the conversations that are within the discipline of architecture. So it’s very focused. The conversations we’re having [with undergrads] are both deeper and broader in a way and less focused on the particularities of things that belong specifically to architecture. I love the idea that undergrads are moving through architecture to find different things. You may be moving laterally into something you didn’t know existed.
Q Going off of those impressions, what do you think are the values and goals of the undergraduate liberal arts degree, especially considering that many of our major will not become architects?
A I think it’s fantastic that people would study architecture and not become architects because I think architecture really is a form of knowledge, and it’s also a highly integrated one that cuts across different ways of looking at things. It produces a way of seeing the world in drawings and models. You’re able to express abstract things across many different criteria. It provides a kind of broad and unifying way of looking at things that is in direct contrast to specialized knowledge. And so I think we need more of that in the world. One thing is that, and this is a really specific example, but being able to draw a continuous section through a building and ground and understand the kind of movement through water using a single line–being able to draw through a roof line, through a wall, into a porous ground, is to be able to understand a kind of continuity that’s in an environment that’s not defined by material, but defined by its energy. I guess that’s how our studio is looking at typology, and how typology is a way of thinking in groups, which is very powerful.
Q How does your background, whatever you want that to mean, influence the way you teach or how you view your role as teacher?
A I’m a teacher because I’ve had great teachers who have treated me like a future colleague. It wasn’t an us-them kind of thing; they were able to make me feel like I was part of the conversation and that I could have a voice. Going to London really broadened my way of thinking of architecture. The conversation was different from how it is in the US. It always reminds me that there’s a flipside to the conversation that’s always around me, and it’s reassuring that there’s always an outside. That’s very important to intellectual discourse and conversations today. Just because they’re not represented in the space you’re in right now, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Q Do you have any advice for people moving into the field, specifically marginalized groups?
A Be open to it, but if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. That’s okay, too. I don’t think you have to fight the good fight. That’s not what this is about. I really think that our role as educators is to prepare you to go on to do what you decide to do. The most important thing for me is that I help you in your self-determination. To get to the point of self-determination/actualization I think you need to get to a point where you feel comfortable making decisions, and I think you have to be comfortable knowing you might be in a position where you might fail. I mean, not real failure, but there may be disappointments and you can walk away from things. I don’t know if my advice is very architecture specific, but it has more to do with being an educator. I would say be patient with yourself.
Q: Is there something you would like to see change in architecture? Like, within any aspect of it?
A: I think that there is a long history of a studio culture, a master-student culture, which I think is probably very different today than it was 50 years ago, but I think persists in some manner, which produces a kind of parental–or paternal–relationship between studio professors and their students. There is a culture of that, and it is repeated in the jury culture, it’s repeated in the way in which we give criticism, it’s repeated in the starchitect system. I don’t think that serves many people; I think that’s the kind of thing that serves the few, and continues to reassert the elite. What I would love to see is a broadening of the field. There are forces that tend to shape and narrow the field, which are related to the canon and having relevance in the conversation, and it’s really complicated because it’s also related to certain academic structures. Maybe the way to give value to the marginal positions is not to bring them into view, but to somehow allow there to be a system where there can be many marginal positions that can be effective, and relevant, but don’t have to be seen. In a way we also have to work to value the not-seen, but that’s very hard because what’s visible and what’s valued are still in a very strong relationship. I wouldn’t want to bring everything into the visible field, but I think it’s very important to figure out a different way of thinking about the margin that’s not a way of thinking about how it can be the center. And maybe it’s about devaluing centrality.
Q: If you were to do the monument assignment–
A: Oh my god, thank god I don’t have to do the monument assignment
Q: — what would your monument be for?
A: That’s a hard question
Q: We know.
A: These types of questions always make me stressed out. I guess I would go around the question a little bit, which is that I would like to displace the monument into a space for some kind of occupation. So there could be some kind of exchange, so that it would not be memorializing. Memory is very complicated and monuments, are, by definition, a remembered spot. Maybe a monument to the pause. The pause. Not the paws.