ARCHITECTURE AT THE HEART OF CULTURE
The UC system's Los Angeles location has long been one of the United States' leading public universities, consistently ranking as one of the best public schools for higher education in the country. The Department of Architecture and Urban Design—offering one professional graduate program, a post professional program and granting three additional academic degrees—is no exception. Their graduate program recently placed sixth, and first among public institutions, by Design Intelligence’s 2018 annual survey on the top Architecture Graduate Programs.
Situated within the School of the Arts and Architecture, UCLA's A.UD is housed alongside programs in the visual arts, design, media arts, world arts and cultures, and dance, where it plays a vital role in the cultural and artistic life of the campus and the broader Los Angeles community. Last year, the Department underwent an administrative changing of the guards when Heather Roberge—who has been a member of the faculty since 2002—was appointed to the position of chair, taking over for Neil Denari. So what's next for the school? Archinect spoke with Roberge about how her time as a faculty member will inform her new position, how the department's positioning within the School of Arts and Architecture is reflected in its programming, and the school's role as a leading public university.
You have been teaching at the school since 2002. What insights from that teaching experience do you think will inform your role as Chair of UCLA Architecture and Urban Design?
One of the advantages of having taught at UCLA A.UD since 2002 is that I have helped establish several of our degree programs, giving me a breadth of experience with the curricula and opportunities of each program. In these various roles, I’ve tried to develop synergies between the programs to accelerate our collective research, support faculty interests, and generate student support. While I primarily teach design, I’ve taught at all levels of the professional curriculum from fabrication seminars to core design studios to year-long research studios. I’m interested in design pedagogy that responds to conceptual questions with innovative and articulate formal and technical solutions. This broad interest helps me choreograph the design sequence in relation to non-studio coursework.
At UCLA, the Department of Architecture and Urban Design is housed within the larger School of Arts and Architecture. How do you think this positioning plays into its programming?
Being a part of UCLA Arts and Architecture puts our department in close contact with other forms of creative cultural production. Our school is also home to UCLA’s public units— the Center for Art and Performance and the Hammer and Fowler Museums, making UCLA an attractor for an international community of talented artists, scholars and visitors and an exciting venue from which to engage audiences. This large, productive creative community locates us at the heart of contemporary culture. This large, productive creative community locates us at the heart of contemporary culture.
What plans do you have to strengthen collaboration within the department?
Digital tools, protocols and software allow creative fields to work with the same media and similar methods. This eliminates obstacles to working collaboratively and fosters interdisciplinary research. Our post graduate program at the IDEAS campus is an incubator for collaboration with industry partners. Students and faculty work with thought leaders from the entertainment, transportation and technology industries. Recent collaborations with RedBull, Boeing, Microsoft and Hyperloop Transportation Technologies considered how emerging developments in these industries might impact the built environment. These collaborations allow us to apply the analytical and design processes of architecture and urban design to problems originating outside our discipline. By engaging with experts from other fields, we have the opportunity to expand architecture’s field of influence and leverage design to propose alternative futures.
Student: Siqi Zhang. For Jimenez Lai's studio 'Reality and Fiction: a magical realism of power."
Briefly describe the school’s pedagogical stance on architectural education. How would you characterize the programming?
Our goal is to tackle with equal emphasis, innovation and foundations. While this may apply most directly to our M.Arch I program, this ethos is widespread. We have five degree programs and of course, we cannot have a single, unified stance. Our pedagogy is tailored to the particular audience and objectives of each program. In our M.Arch I program, a strength of our curriculum is its integration of historical scholarship and design—we interrogate the relationship of design and its forms of expression to the development of conceptual speculations. Our exceptional faculty ask students to engage in research from the earliest moments of our programs. Pedagogical rigor and expertise invigorates the questions asked in the design curriculum with historical, technical and methodological concerns. This makes the design work much more interesting. Intellectual ambition is strengthened by historical analysis, cultural awareness, technical insight and precise, geometric or written articulation.
What kind of student do you think would flourish at UCLA?
What’s interesting is that we have at least two kinds of students: one type joins A.UD with some background in architectural education and the other joins from a liberal arts or scientific background. This combination produces a cohort of students from diverse fields, working side-by-side. For us, this produces an ideal community. All of this is to say, there’s not one kind of student who succeeds at UCLA. The co-mingling of numerous forms of knowledge shared by creative people of varied experiences gives breadth to the studio environment. Different perspectives come to bear on the same questions; students learn from one another and the various perspectives through which they respond to, what at first appears to be, simply a problem requiring a solution.
You also run a design practice here in Los Angeles, Murmur. How do you balance your practice with teaching?
My days are really long! I’ve always loved the practice of design and seeing projects fully materialize. As a teacher, I often hide professional lessons in unusual academic problems. It’s how I address foundational principles while encouraging the innovative responses afforded through design research.
To me, it’s important that students learn from the more ideal answers that can be produced through rigorous pedagogy, where factors are taken off the table to tackle a concern directly and without undue compromise. For example, one of our core studios foregrounds the role of structural ideas in the production of architectural organization. When dealing with such a question in practice, solutions are materially hybrid and often geometrically non-uniform whereas in pedagogy, for the purpose of producing understanding, students tend to pursue more coherent, less contaminated solutions. The constraints of practice, where complexity increases due to the need to consider multiple factors simultaneously, aren’t present.
In practice, I explore media that are not germane to architecture, studying techniques from ceramics, garment making, and metalworking—techniques that if applied in architecture, typically inform the production of building components. I look to these forms of creative production for the kinds of lessons they can offer, developing expertise in areas such as material behavior, geometric description and a wide variety of manufacturing processes.
Do you think it is important for the leader of an architecture school to still to be a practicing architect?
I don’t think architecture schools must be led by practitioners. An architectural education should prepare students to be intellectual and cultural leaders, and this requires more than professional training. Understanding the cultural, environmental, social and political implications of the built environment requires a student’s exposure to broad surveys of history, technology, philosophy and design. An academic setting is invigorating precisely because not all faculty have the same set of experiences nor the same relationship to the field. Faculty, through their pedagogy, model different ways of framing inquiry and different methods for producing new forms of knowledge.
We don’t think of ourselves as simply training professional architects or urban designers; we train educators, curators, scholars and creative artists. We help to produce professional architects but also industrial designers, storytellers and art directors. It’s rewarding to see our alumni producing compelling projects and impacting culture broadly. We see a value in questioning the architect’s role in society and expanding the responsibilities and creative opportunities of future architects.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing your students today?
Our students face a number of significant challenges, and these amount to urgent matters of concern. First and foremost is the growing cost of higher education. With LA’s housing shortage, the cost of housing has risen dramatically over the past decade. This adds to the financial burden of being a student. After graduation, our students, like most workers, are impacted by nearly stagnant wages. When compensation doesn’t keep pace with inflation and cost of living, it is difficult to make a living wage, particularly with the burden of large student loans. As future designers, our students will be asked to address chronic housing shortages, stringent environmental performance standards, automation of design by machines, and other forces that challenge architectural knowledge and methods. They will have to reassert their relevance in the face of these pressures, arguing for the value they bring to the built environment. If one can write an algorithm to lay out a hospital while quantifying construction costs, minimizing building area and shortening service runs or egress paths, then what is the role for the interdisciplinary, generalist mind that architectural education nurtures? Who advocates for the public good, for experience, or for new forms of creative expression? Who questions the impact of new technologies on our habits, environments and collective experiences? If we understand the built environment as part of cultural production, then we have to have advocates for the public, for communities and for the qualitative and social effects of the built environment.
Do you think that requires an ethical responsibility in architectural education and how do you teach that?
The profession of architecture establishes certain ethical obligations for practice, which our students learn about in professional practice coursework. In addition, the teaching of the history of architecture, of critical and analytical methods, of client and community engagement, etc. all train students to engage knowledge and people with empathy. In architecture, we are trained to be critical observers, and public advocates. This emphasis on the collective good is the most commonly shared ethical stance in the field. We are trained to think about inhabitants, to think about their experiences and the effects of a proposed structure on its surrounding context and beyond. Underlying all of this are humanistic and empathic ideals that are repeatedly reintroduced by architecture’s canon.
One’s professional identity or university affiliation does not supplant one’s own identity. Students spend two decades or more being shaped by their contexts, and when they arrive at school, we add another layer of identity to the one they have cultivated. One’s ethics are part of this identity and while faculty and pedagogy models certain ways of thinking and acting ethically, these experiences simply offer other perspectives to consider and from which to proceed. Students bring their own concerns and ethical points of views as well.
What tools does the school, specifically, and the profession, more generally, have to deal with the financial burden of education as well as the long process for licensure?
The cost of higher education is a deep, systemic problem and architecture students are but one group experiencing this. It is also a group that, unlike law or medicine, receives less compensation than some other professional fields. Given the breadth of experience and knowledge needed to practice architecture, I don’t believe that licensure should occur upon graduation. There are advantages to practicing in a professional environment prior to practicing alone, without the supervision and support of an experienced team of professionals.
There is an interest now in licensure upon graduation which places curricular pressure on architecture programs. I am most concerned that this trend will put downward pressure on the wages of architects further eroding fees for architectural services. Delaying licensure recognizes that the practice of architecture requires a broad base of knowledge and experience and this recognition reinforces the economic value of our tireless efforts.
With regards to the cost of education and the burden of student debt, schools are working quite diligently to expand scholarship opportunities and to offer need-based scholarships. A.UD has added new programs serving teens and undeclared college students to generate teaching and funding opportunities for students as well as improve our outreach to future students.
Do you think being within a public university places any responsibilities or duties on the school that a private institution might not have to deal with in the same way?
Yes, of course. Anyone who is committed to education as part of what he or she does should be concerned about access to education. Every citizen should be concerned about access and affordability regardless of whether the education is offered by a private or public institution. Education impacts the kind of society we live in and as a public institution, our mandate is to maintain the accessibility of our programs to a broad and diverse public. We balance our ideals against declining public financial support of our public universities. We have to be strong advocates for public investment in education at all levels and maintain the strength of our academic programs while being fiscally responsible.
By the end of your tenure, what will you have hoped to strengthen about the school?
The quality of education here is very strong, but nevertheless we continually examine and refine our efforts in response to our evolving interests and as a reflection of shifts in culture and technology. This year, UCLA Architecture and Urban Design’s graduate program ranked in the top 10 of Design Intelligence’s annual survey; We ranked 6th, and importantly, first among public institutions. This makes us extremely proud for many of the reasons I’ve explained. We continue to develop and support intelligent and talented designers, creative educators and notable scholars. As part of my tenure, I’d like to foster a stronger collective project that engages Los Angeles’ city leaders in the future of the city. The city’s issues are complex but ripe for critical engagement and intelligent responses. LA’s urban fabric is quickly changing as new housing, infrastructure and public transportation projects take shape. Our students and faculty model the impact of different approaches to the city in response to and often as a critique of current forms of development. We are in the planning stages of several upcoming exhibitions of our urban research in DTLA and are developing additional formats for engaging the public with our work and incorporating public feedback into our proposals.