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About the School of Architecture at Princeton University: An Interview with Ralph Lerner

This article appeared in Dialogue, July 2000, No. 38

MF  What is the aim of the school?

RL  The primary mission of the school is easy to define; it is the education of an architect, first and foremost, and this is where most of the energy of the school is focused. Particularly critical to us within that context is the simultaneous development of the intellectual, artistic, and technical work of the architect. Since its founding in 1919 the school has always been dedicated to this goal. The first director of the school was a historian, and while technical courses were taught, even in that period there was a very heavy interest in what one might today call “history and theory.” This interest has been maintained throughout the school’s history. In the 20’s and 30’s teaching was based upon Beaux Arts principles (here I’m thinking of the early work of Jean Labatut and Sherley Morgan for example). After the Second World War, the school had a different focus. Under Labatut the school of Robert Venturi, Charles Moore and Hugh Hardy was yet again quite different, but nevertheless still focused on both the intellectual and artistic development of the architect. The importance of people like Venturi and Moore to the school at that time cannot be understated. Then in the 60’s, faculty such as Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Anthony Vidler, and Kenneth Frampton very much reinvented the mission, and the school of today in part continues to reflect that change. The current school of Liz Diller, Georges Teyssot, Beatriz Colomina, and Mario Gandelsonas might be seen as yet again a reinvention of the school’s historic mission.

I think our mission is also evident in such things as the strong emphasis we put on the Ph.D. program, which is a large part of the school. While not as large as the Masters program in terms of pure numbers, relative to other schools of architecture I know of, it probably plays a bigger role. We also put a very strong emphasis on ensuring that every area of knowledge, whether it is technical, artistic, practical, or design related, is taught in the context of its own history and theory. No area is considered supplementary to any other. Each has its own autonomy and own connection to other areas of knowledge and we explore those connections very carefully. The last aspect of our mission that is significant from a pedagogical point of view is the close interaction the school has with other disciplines of this University. We are very fortunate to be part of a highly respected research university and we benefit from this context in innumerable ways. We try to approach architecture as an area of knowledge open to a large number of other disciplines, and we expect those disciplines to be open to us. We think that’s critical to our continued vitality.

MF  After you became Dean in 1989 there seems to be more of an emphasis on history and theory. The three new tenured professors were Beatriz Colomina, Elizabeth Diller, and Mark Wigley. Why the emphasis on theory?

RL  While there is a popular perception that there is an emphasis on theory at Princeton, this perhaps is exaggerated. My own view is that we actually have an ideal balance between design, technical studies, history and theory. That balance is created by finding the best people in all these fields, bringing them together in the crucible of the school and having them interact with each other. Generally speaking that takes place in design reviews and seminars, and is the role of the lecture series as part of the curriculum. I think of the school as being balanced, rather than as having an emphasis on one particular area. In fact I‘m surprised that other schools don’t do more to achieve this balance, and here I’m thinking more particularly about other university-based schools of architecture rather than technically based schools of architecture. If the profession has a future, it seems to me the future has to be in our ability to create new knowledge, rather than simply repeat old models.

MF  Unlike other schools of architecture, the professors that teach design at Princeton also teach history and theory. How do you see the relationship between theory and design at the school?

RL  We have always sought out faculty members who are capable of teaching both. The architects on our faculty achieve a certain level of excellence through their practice -- and there are many forms of practice -- and at the same time they are able to articulate the nature of technique, practices, theories, and ideas in their teaching. This is a tradition dating back to the 60’s and 70’s, when faculty members such as Tony Vidler, Robert Maxwell and Alan Colquhoun, came here directly out of design practices, but with highly developed scholarly personas. In most cases scholarship subsequently became the focus of their activities, but they nevertheless retained a close relationship to practice. They were in essence architects who wrote about their work so well that their writing became important work in its own right. In the 80’s, and I think Princeton was the vanguard of this, there was a professionalization of history and theory, work, research, scholarship and teaching in architecture in which that formula changed. While the people at the school such as Mark Wigley, Beatriz Colomina, Georges Teyssot, and Alessandra Ponte were initially trained as architects, they also have Ph.D.s. They are professional scholars and they work seriously in that field. They don’t have the same close relationship to practice as the older generation has. Besides the introduction of computing, this is the most significant difference between the school of today, and what it was thirty years ago.

MF  There are some new faculty in the school particularly the ones teaching design studios – Ben van Berkel, Caroline Bos, Jesse Reiser, Lindy Roy. Is the school moving towards some new direction?

RL  I think the people that are teaching here now follow the tradition of the school in a general sense. However, their work is unique and I am very much looking forward to the changes that will soon be upon us. Certainly if you look at the kind of dedication that Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos have to maintaining a vigorous practice, making buildings, making cities, and at the same time to writing (publications like “Move” for example), and in the case of Elizabeth Diller the publication of “Flesh,” you will see again that while the ideas are new, the emphasis on balancing scholarship and design is pretty much in line with the school’s historic mission.

It’s true that the school will change with new people coming in. Since we are a small school, one of the advantages we have is that we can change very quickly. I believe there is a generation arising now that includes Ben van Berkel, Caroline Bos and Jesse Reiser who are asking the questions that will lead to changes in the profession. They have new and unique interests in form-making, but they are also very interested in issues like globalization, which are only just becoming to be carefully considered in relation to architecture. For example, the school has recently taken an interest in the globalization of practice, on the heterogeneous nature of architectural practice, and possibility of the information technology in architecture. These are critical areas and they cover everything from traditional areas of design, to computing, to new forms of representation. Liz Diller’s work encompasses everything from a pavilion for a world’s fair, housing in Japan, to installation art and theatre. Ben van Berkel is designing bridges, transit facilities, and urban schemes, and Jesse Reiser also works in similarly diverse areas. A person I should also mention in this context is Guy Nordenson who is a full-time faculty member at the school. I think he is one of the most interesting structural designers working today, and he is also highly capable of articulating the history, theory, and practice of what he does. Another area we are going to develop in a very quiet way at first, but I think it may become quite influential, is a program in structural design. This is not civil engineering, but program in the design of structures and the integration of structure with other aspects of architecture and engineering.

MF  How are computers used at the school? What sort of changes do you envision the computer has on the teaching and design of architecture?

RL   I don’t think it is clear what long-term effects the computer will have on architecture. We can certainly point to some significant changes that have already taken place. Trying to predict what the long-term relationship will be between the computer and architecture and the nature of practice is very difficult. If we can do that then we can predict the future of the Internet. What its new forms will be, how ubiquitous they will become, whether they will be transformed into something yet again, or remain pretty much as we see it today, is a matter of intense debate. We can all see that there is a flood of information coming in and that this information allows us to do things we have never been able to do before. What its final relationship with the practice of architecture will be is difficult to predict. I don’t want predict it nor am I in a position to. But I can tell you what I find most exciting about the way the school has changed. The computer is now fundamental to the study of architecture. Every student at the school is required to have a computer and put it on their desk. We supply the networking, the software, peripherals, and high-end machines. The studios are completely wired, in fact we are probably wired ten to fifteen years into the future. Every desk in the school has a fiber optic connection. Again, I can’t predict the future but we are ready for it. While we are not prescriptive in any way as to how the computer is used, this has become an intense matter of investigation amongst our students. For instance, if you look at the work of Ben and Caroline’s recent studio you will see each student is finding their own voice in the medium of digital representation through multiple experiments, in the same way as when architects only drew and built models. Because we are a small school we have the advantage of working with students individually, not as a mass. We expect students to develop their own voice, after all we are training a small group of people whom we expect to be the leaders of the profession in practice and in education.

MF  Do you feel the small size of the school and its location outside of an urban center is a disadvantage?

RL  This is certainly not my view. If we were a self-contained school as many other schools of architecture are, particularly the larger ones, I think I would have a different answer. While we are a small school of architecture, we are in a research university filled with small departments. It is our intense interaction with these departments that combats this potential problem. I believe smallness is a great strength of the school. It allows us to move quickly and interact with students individually. It allows tremendous flexibility in the curriculum, and for the inter-disciplinary connections that I already mentioned. Once upon a time, isolation was a problem but now we are fully part of the New York metropolitan region. In fact many of our faculty live in New York and are very much part of the activities in the “capital.” I don’t think we suffer from, nor do we sense any isolation. In fact there is a sense here that you can work intensively in Princeton, free of the distraction, and also take part in New York activities. We have an intense studio culture in which students work very closely together in the studio and often don’t go home at night. Although our size is small, our student body is very diverse. Over 40% of our students are foreign and they come from all over the world. Unlike other schools our funding is not restricted to American students only. This allows us to get the best students from all sorts of backgrounds, working closely together, without the dispersal common in larger, urban based schools of architecture.

MF  Princeton requires a thesis for everyone, even for the post-professional degree. Can you talk briefly about the role of the thesis and why it is so necessary?

RL  Thesis is one of the pillars of the school. The thesis is that moment in which the student begins to take all the disparate work that they have done at the school, and synthesize it into a project which contributes to pushing forward the boundaries of architectural knowledge. They can create new areas of inquiry or expand existing ones. We have a small number of students that actually create new knowledge and that’s very exciting for us. We think that this moment in the school when students set an intellectual and architectural problem for themselves and work on it using a research-based method or in the form of a semester-long project is absolutely critical to the health of the school. Thesis is also an important form of feedback for us, and an important form of artistic and intellectual independence for our students from which they greatly benefit. In fact the thesis is required for all undergraduate students in the University. Our undergraduates now do a project in the form of a book, which is a pure research project. While it may have a high degree of design built into it, nevertheless it is a research project similar to other disciplines throughout the University. The masters students do a different kind of thesis, which is more design based. Then of course, the Ph.D. students have to write their dissertations. So there are three different forms of thesis depending on which program the students are in, and which are distinct to that program. The only school that I know of in this country in which the thesis is institutionalized in the same way is Harvard, and it has served them quite well also. I am surprised that other schools don’t have it.

MF  Unlike other schools, Princeton doesn’t seem to have much in terms of publications.

RL  This is one of the disadvantages of a small school. Putting together a staff and doing publications have always been difficult for us. Our faculty all publish regularly and we work very closely with Princeton Architectural Press which of course was created here. In the first five years of my Deanship there were a significant amount of publications including, “Sexuality and Space,” “Fetish” and “Sweet Disorder and the Carefully Careless: Theory and Criticism in Architecture.” We haven’t been focused on this so much in the past five years. I think the faculty in essence finds the task too intensive an obligation. So we are now more focused on supporting the faculty in publishing their own work.

MF  What sort of relationship do you see between the school and the profession. What kind of influences would you like to have?

RL  The kinds of ideas that are being discussed today will filter through to the profession via our graduating students. Our students have always taken leadership roles in the profession and teaching. I think it is pretty clear that Princeton has always been a premier site for the creation of the teachers of architecture, certainly relatively to our size. There are now new generations of students in other schools who are being taught by Princeton graduates. Regarding the profession, you can look at any generation, from the late 40’s with Venturi to Greg Lynn today, and see the influence of our students on the practice of architecture. This pattern keeps being repeated. There are lots of other examples I can give you, including the three new partners at KPF who are all graduates of Princeton. I think that fact alone speaks for itself.

The interview was held on May 4, 2000 at Princeton University.