Challenging the traditional structure of the master’s thesis project, this innovative school opens a new chapter in the way architecture is taught
Occupying a privileged position in the history of architectural pedagogy, the reputation of the Irwin S Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union as a centre of invention and creativity stretches back to its foundation in 1859. Since then, the institution − which admits undergraduates solely on merit, awarding full scholarships to all − has provided opportunities to not only experiment with the practice of architecture but also with how to teach it. John Hejduk and Roger Canon’s Education of an Architect of 1971, now in its third iteration, gave perspective to thisdebate, positioning student endeavours at the nerve centre of wider processes of spatial innovation.
The notion of an elite academy that acts as a hotbox of creativity on behalf of society at large is not far removed from the aspirations of its founder, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper,who sought to nurture a new generation of thinkers and doers at the heart of the city. Today’s Cooper Union, complete with its recent addition − a Morphosis-designed block, featuring warpedscreens on the outside and a giant fishnet spiralling up its central stair − still occupies a central position in downtown New York.
The school’s spirit of invention continues to burn, if somewhat dampened by the anxieties that permeate our age of economic uncertainty, environmental instability, and unseen risks to life and limb. Perhaps less bombastic in their battle against banality than their 19th- or 20th-century forebears, some in the faculty now see the school as an enclave beset by a widespread contempt for intelligence that stifles creative play. This contempt, fuelled by implacable market demands and infinite IT possibilities, manifests as what David Turnbull, a professor at the school for six years, describes as ‘cynical reason that haunts the discipline’. As a result, students and staff fall back on the school’s protection, at the risk of finding themselves accused of paranoia about the world outside.
The gauntlet thrown down by acknowledging the difficulties of dealing even-handedly with this world, and architecture’s impotence in the face of it, is taken up in the ‘thesis’ project tackled in the final year of the five-year degree. Given the polemical nature of the challenge, which is structured as a research endeavour, students are invited to produce their thesis proposition − the work of the first semester − as a book. The rationale for producing a book, rather than a building, discloses a pedagogical fit between teaching aims and learning outcomes. Students at this level are expected to assume the responsibilities implied by participating in the knowledge economy, and so to pick out their own paths across the educational terrain. As Hayley Eber who, with Turnbull and colleague Urtzi Grau, completes the thesis team explains: ‘we adopt a bottom-up teaching approach, whereby the student drives the discussion, as a way to encourage critical work that is self-generated.’ This is not about letting students run free, but rather about empowering them with the most important lesson: learning how to learn.
Some immediately grasp the power of the book format, using it to bring order to topic choices that respond to a range of global and local concerns, some focus towards the self, and others on far-flung sites: from Gaza to Ghana, from Dharavi to the Dead Sea. A knee-jerk tendency towards narrative in turn offers opportunities to deconstruct the storylines often unwittingly adopted by architectural projects. These semantic loops circumscribe learning challenges which build up the capability for synthesis that Turnbull and his team are after: ‘A student’s capacity to structure an argument is important. We insist on empathy as a motive to complement literacy and verbal dexterity.’
At first, graduate Galen Wolfe-Pauly struggled with the task, relentlessly compiling information until he realised it would be pointless to bind ‘everything he ever knew’ into a book. A climbing-wall offered an alternative, vertical terrain on which to map and organise his research. He filmed his ascents up the wall, recording the trajectory of his centre of gravity and analysing the speed and movement of his wrists and ankles using finely-tuned sensors. An advanced mathematics course supplied the expertise needed to script codes that generated drawings of his climbing body.
Andrejs Rauchut’s project embraced literary metaphor, deliberately misreading The Comedy of Errors as a design brief. He stage-managed a ‘constellation of architectural set-pieces’ to reconfigure the public space economy of New York’s Staten Island. Following Shakespeare, he enacted his urban development scenario in a single day, mobilising an imaginary consultation process in which commuters and residents are caught up with actors in the twists and turns of the plot. His book, oversized and bound in wood, opens to form a display table designed to temporarily occupy the site as street furniture.
This article is part of a series examining the state of architectural education across the world. More discussions of academies and schools from other nations can be found in Pedagogy.