Architecture’s Attrition Problem: An Interview with Susan Surface


The Architectural Mystique

Volume 1, Issue 23
April 7, 2016


Susan Surface graduated from YSoA with an M.Arch I in 2012. Their biography describes a “designer and photographer, an organizer of events and exhibitions, and a researcher of the politics of art, design and architecture. Surface’s practice centers the creation and preservation of livable, equitable places, and demonstrates how design can support civic participation by integrating research, curatorial work, and creative production. At Design in Public, Surface is director of the Seattle Design Festival and curates exhibitions at the Center for Architecture & Design. Surface is also a curator at The Alice, an independent artist-run gallery. Surface has been an architectural designer with super-interesting!; an organizer with Architecture for Humanity and Artist Studio Affordability Project; and a researcher with C-LAB and the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.  Surface was a 2014 A-I-R at The Center For Photography at Woodstock, was a teaching fellow in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department at Yale, and earned a B.F.A. in Integrated Design from Parsons School of Design and an M.Arch from Yale School of Architecture.”  Surface reached out to Paprika! editors after Bulletin II, which covered the school’s meeting to discuss the results of the AAU Sexual Climate Survey. The following is a conversation about Surface’s experiences at YSoA and beyond with Cat Garcia-Menocal.

CGM: What has been your experience in practice?

SS: I lucked out big time in practice. Mostly because my jobs have come from people that sought me out about the issues I was interested in. I worked for was Kian Goh [ed. note: founding principal of super-interesting!, YSOA M.Arch ’99]  who reached out to me when I volunteered with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Then I worked for a small luxury residential firm which was a good learning experience -where I really learned how to do details right.   

CGM: What do you think about the school’s lack of formal training to address sexual harassment, especially for visiting faculty? A possible reason it has not been done is because of the cost or a perception that it would be unfeasible to actually train that many people every year.

SS: That’s assuming that a student will not pursue a lawsuit that will cost [the school] way more than hiring some consultants would. That lack of policy relies on students not feeling empowered to take that kind of recourse. If these people can figure out how to design an entire city, figure out how to make the most advanced buildings in the world, write the theory that is at the forefront of our profession that will determine how we all think about this industry for the next several hundred years, then they can figure out how to offer a sexual assault prevention class. It’s not that hard.

CGM: What do you think of the perception that these issues are not within the purview of (capital A-) Architecture? Patrik Schumacher’s statement following Alejandro Aravena’s Pritzker win is a recent symptom of this tension in the discipline. There seems to be strange and perhaps misleading polarization of formal and socially concerned projects.

SS: You know, it’s funny. I chat with Patrik Schumacher quite a bit and actually, this very week he is part of a symposium that addresses the social implications of parametricism. [ed.note: see “Parametricism 2.0 at the AA School of Architecture.] The premise of the symposium is that parametrics needs to move beyond the strict mechanical engineering component of how [form is made] and address the ways in which it is social. He is actually very concerned with how [social issues] shape urban form and the implications design has for shaping society… Now, he and I disagree very deeply on how society should be structured, but it’s a misunderstanding of his particular take to say that social concerns are beyond the purview of architecture.

When you get into people that focus on a social justice perspective, who tend to be more in line with the left and the tradition of Marxism, then they do butt heads. They have dismissed Schumacher’s social ideas by negating what he’s actually saying about [parametricism] having a social component. I think anyone that says this is not about social issues would actually be disagreeing with Patrik Schumacher! [laughs]  

Then there’s the other thing, which is: What is capital-A Architecture? We have to look back into the deep history of those things you see in Architectural History 101. This goddess with a little hut forming a shelter. How is that not inherently concerned with a humanity and a social [idea]? If you look at the Western history of architecture, which is what you typically learn at Yale, Eisenman is drawing from churches. He is drawing from the history of Judeo-Christianity and the Catholic church— things that were inherently concerned with proportion; they were concerned with communicating religiosity which is a way of organizing a culture and a way of embedding moral code and behavior into a space that creates reflection for that. It’s a space that people coagulate around, that monarchs and religious leaders decided was worth investment. There’s been an Enlightenment and Modernism.  Modernism was a very social project. So maybe there is a capital-A architecture that is not concerned with social issues, but that would be a complete deviation from the entire history of architecture. Something that architects have done in order to establish themselves as a profession is to create the history and the canon. Building code is a way that municipalities create these social mores by concerning themselves with public safety, materials, ADA, and environment. Anyone that thinks these are not social issues just hasn’t taken their first year history class.

CGM: How do issues of gender incorporate themselves in that history in a meaningful way, and why is it important to talk about gender or even consider gender when you’re talking about architecture and the purview of architecture?

SS: Well, a simple reason would be to say because people think it’s important. Why is it important to talk about marble? Why is it important to talk about laminated wood? Because someone has made it available as a topic that is relevant. Because architecture is a social network, it’s a way of relating to each other, I don’t even want to reduce it to a career. Wouldn’t you want or need to inform or enrich your practice by being able to address [these issues]? Anytime someone thinks that it’s not their problem or it’s not something they’re equipped to deal with, they seem very fearful, as if they don’t trust themselves to be able to engage directly with that topic, or they have somehow coasted through life in such a way that they’ve never had to. Perhaps it’s a fear that addressing it might somehow undermine the privileges that they have been afforded.

If we don’t attend to things like attrition, or why certain types of people tend to leave [architecture], then we lose a lot of the richness that those people bring to architecture. The suffragist Catherine Beecher is known as a feminist thinker and a suffragette organizer who made all these really intense designs for kitchens and homes with the intention that she could change how families lived. Think about people like Louis Khan, who had this archetype of ‘house’ which is not a specific house, but a house which could then be a space that creates a family.  It’s a little suspicious to think that that’s not borne upon how someone thinks about space and place.

CGM: Is architecture currently exclusionary and is that changing?

SS: There is something deeply exclusionary about how people become architects. It’s, to some degree gendered, but it’s also very much raced and classed. Think about how you are a student: you are a full-time student and therefore either coming from some independent means, or you have a partner that supports you, or you’ve saved up some money, or you’re living on $11,000 a year in student loans roughly because that’s about as much as Yale says one can live on beyond full tuition (at least when I was there). Imagine earning your education as a Yale student and all the workload as a single parent. Imagine earning it, as I did, with two elderly loved ones who financially depend on you. Imagine earning it as someone who is disabled. Imagine earning it when your critic decides your model must be made of Plexiglas, must be done on Friday, and you don’t have $200 to spend on Plexiglas. When I was in school I often worked in bars and did odd jobs rather than work for Pelli or another respectable local firm, and I was told by professors that this reflected poorly on my priorities. This was considered evidence that I didn’t care about my education because I was working to support myself and pay my rent. For me that indicated a faculty and administration that does not know how the other half lives. There’s this assumption that you’re at least middle class. Like if you get kicked out, you have a family home to go to, but if you’re financially responsible for that family home, what do you do?

The system is designed to keep certain types of people out. Think about who never gets to become an architect. There are only a few programs where you can enroll part time— Boston Architecture College. There a few where you can work while you’re a student and get paid.

CGM: And it’s telling that the top-tier institutions don’t really entertain that model.

SS: I don’t find it at all embarrassing to describe the circumstances from which I came, but when I explained exactly what the issue was then the response was “Oh poor thing!”

CGM: People of very specific socio-economic backgrounds are going to be dissuaded from studying architecture not because of a potentially exclusionary pedagogy, but because out in the field, the pay is low. So the question becomes why would someone of little means want to enter into such a low-paying position?

SS: Why would someone of means want to get into that profession when they know what it’s like to earn more?  Why would anyone do it? Because, for some they might feel that it’s the way they can affect the change that would benefit themselves, which is the case for me. I didn’t go into architecture altruistically, I went into it intellectually and as an advocate for myself and my people. Also, I would be in a building and think “I could make this so much better. Let me!”

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Volume 1, Issue 23
April 7, 2016