Originally posted Nov. 27 at The Daily Princetonian.
When Alejandro Zaera-Polo was appointed as the new dean of the School of Architecture in March, student reactions were mixed. An informal poll circulated among the school’s graduate students in March found that only five of 58 respondents approved of Zaera-Polo’s selection.
The day after University President Shirley Tilghman announced Zaera-Polo’s appointment, 25 graduate students gathered at Tilghman’s open office hours to present her with a letter voicing their complaints.
Almost one full semester into his deanship, Zaera-Polo said he welcomes the criticism. He has already met with some of the students who complained last semester to try to assuage their concerns.
“In my first meeting with the students, I actually thanked them for making such a fuss,” Zaera-Polo said. “In the recent history of schools of architecture, three of the most famous and long-lasting deans were also received with exactly the same fears and antagonism.”
A graduate student granted anonymity to speak freely with The Daily Princetonian in March said Zaera-Polo was “uninterested in architecture as a critical cultural practice,” referring to the School of Architecture’s traditional focus on the history and theory of architecture rather than architecture as a practical discipline.
Zaera-Polo has addressed these concerns head-on.
“I think there was a perception that I am a hardcore practitioner who wants to turn the school into Harvard or Yale,” Zaera-Polo said, referring to two universities whose architecture programs have traditionally focused more on practice. “There’s nothing further from the truth.”
In addition to meeting with the students who voiced complaints, he has made clear his intentions to move the school into innovative fields — for example, sustainability, computation and digital design — while retaining its unique identity as a program more focused on knowledge than on practice.
Zaera-Polo said his plans for the school include making use of other departments at the University to draw connections between the School of Architecture and the scientific and engineering disciplines, a direction toward which he says the field of architecture as a whole is moving. The school has established a new tenure-track professorship shared with the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment that will bring an expert in the field of environmental design to the school.
He added he is exploring potential connections with the civil and environmental engineering department and the Lewis Center for the Arts. He said he hopes to create a center that will explore the interface between computation and physical space, specifically the ways in which robotics and sensors can be used to build and optimize buildings or to fabricate objects.
Zaera-Polo was educated and has taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, which he said was “all about generating professionals.” The Princeton tradition, he says, is tilted toward architecture as a sort of “non-instrumental knowledge.”
He said he does not think the school should focus on educating practicing architects but to graduate students who are “visionaries with a certain expertise.”
“The people who come out of Princeton should not be the people who are hired by Frank Gehry or me or other important architects who are searching for the guys who will do the work,” Zaera-Polo said. “Princeton graduates should be almost disabled from working for other people. They should be trained for independence.”
Hans Tursack GS says Zaera-Polo has made his plans for the direction of the school clear to students. Tursack points to “What I Did Next,” a weekly public lecture series curated and moderated by Zaera-Polo, as evidence of the new dean’s willingness to engage and discuss with students the future of the school and of architecture in general.
The lecture series, with which Zaera-Polo was involved while serving as a visiting professor prior to his deanship, brings University architecture alumni back to campus to speak with students and debate issues in the field.
“He’s very much into these open questions, like whether or not the school should move into digital design when we’ve historically been about theory and history,” Tursack said.
Tursack also said Zaera-Polo has shown support for a number of student-led initiatives, including funding audio equipment and allotting studio space for Attention, an audio journal spearheaded by Ph.D. candidate Joseph Bedford.
“I’m enjoying it so far,” he said. “I feel like I’m on holiday, almost. I’m getting used to dealing with ants and spiders and squirrels and all kinds of animals. We’ll see later if I get some sort of craving for urbanity.”