In Conversation with Mohsen Mostafavi
This transcript is an informal conversation between Shovan Shah (MAUD '20) and Mohsen Mostafavi.
As the Dean of the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, what were the key strategies that you had in mind when you started your tenure, and what didn’t go as planned and why?
It was very important for me to think about the school as a whole, and to think about the relationship between the different departments and the university and beyond as a way of being able to respond not only to the disciplines that exist in the school, but also to link the Academy to practice and to the world.
Part of the key strategy is how to make sure that the Academy takes responsibility and cares about society at large, and at the same time, rethinks its own means of thinking and imagining its own methodologies in response to critical societal issues.
So, what I tried to do was to establish certain sets of beginnings. These beginnings can be themes, they can be visions, they can be ideas.
My first strategy was to add the concept of ecological urbanism in order to try and establish, or to put on the table, the value and importance of urbanization. It's through urbanization that architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, and urban design respond to societal issues.
It helped to emphasize the importance of urbanization, which is itself a kind of manifestation of our commitment to the built environment and at the same time, it's a position, it's an approach and it's an ethos. Therefore, that also necessitated a rethinking of the mechanisms and operations of the school. So that meant that we also had to work closely together to be able to have greater impact, and we had to work with the rest of the university on a host of topics.
And what didn’t go as planned?
I think for me, let's say when you start a project like that (ecological urbanism,) it's the question of the degree to which you have success. Ultimately, it’s about achieving those things on many levels.
There have been a lot of successes when we were able to hire people. We've hired some amazing people. We've created programs that have brought amazing students.
I think for me, one of the frustrations of the Academy is that it's not always as fast as you're hoping, in terms of when you make a plan and how quickly you can implement things because it takes a very long time to hire faculty. It takes a long time to initiate new courses and to make sure that those courses are a great success. It takes a long time to create new affiliations, new connections, new forms of collaboration.
I think that the relationship between a certain set of ideas and the speed at which you're able to respond to those ideas is always a challenge, but you know, you have to remain optimistic. You must persevere, and you have to work with colleagues. Part of the importance of the Academy is that there are different positions. It's not like running a business, where you can basically decide and then just implement. Here you develop certain ideas which are collaborative, and you really have to convince people and engage people. I think that it is a very different process than when you are outside of the institution.
But it also leads to the expression of different positions and different opinions, it leads to expressions of disagreement.
The idea that the students, as well as the faculty, will have a multiplicity of opinions and positions, I think that's really part of the value of a place like the GSD. The school utilizes the expertise, the knowledge and the benefits of different disciplines to come together and to address these positions. Not only in the sense of collaboration, but also in a way that produces new forms of knowledge. And I think that's also a challenge.
I know you're interested in urban design and questions of urbanization; this area is not something that can any longer be fulfilled simply by urban design or by planning or by architecture. It requires us to think differently about how we're responding. The tools that we have utilized, you know, until recently, are insufficient to deal with the complexities and the challenges that we face.
The excitement for the Academy is to also be the innovator of new methodologies, new tools, and new approaches. This is how we will get to the point where we can really have new forms of responses that haven't been necessarily thought about too much. We're willing to experiment and discover new directions for how we deal with the future.
In your time as dean of GSD, you have increased the number of students dramatically, especially with the MDes Programs. What was your intention with that move for the school?
It's a very good question. I've been really trying to be equally dedicated to all parts of the GSD, but I have been particularly dedicated to the Advanced Studies program, including the MDE Program.
Part of this strategy is to create new forms of collaboration, not just for the sake of collaboration, but to say that in order for the GSD to be more intellectually effective, we need to have the intellectual resources for people to be able to work together.
It means that, as a baseline, the responsiveness of the GSD to its core mission is contingent on the capacity of the different disciplines to work together. If you have a situation where, you know, one part of the school is dramatically larger than others, it's very hard for the smaller components to attend to their daily routine of courses, teaching and research and also be in a position where they can participate.
Part of the transformation of the MDes program was really based on its intellectual agenda. We said that it would be very interesting to see how the transformation of the program could be much more directly linked to topics that we identified as being critical to the future of the built environment. The various tracks were then either modified, or new ones were established.
So, most of the tracks that we have now have been established during my tenure. They didn't exist in this same format, with the exception of a couple things like the Real Estate program and the Energy & Environment program. But even those programs have been modified in the sense that the Real Estate program has become much more directly linked to the built environment.
So we identified topics such as Art, Design, and the Public Domain, Critical Conservation, Risk and Resilience (which originally had a very complex title called “Anticipatory Spatial Practices,” which nobody could pronounce) and Urbanism, Landscape, Ecology. These were important in terms of how the faculty came together and helped to identify the specific themes that we felt were going to be critical to concentrate on. And it's the ideas that really led the way to attract more students.
We didn't start by saying, “We want to have a bigger, ambitious program.”
We started by saying, “We want to have a different program, intellectually.”
Therefore, we also wanted to give this program, you know, a certain greater level of autonomy. That produced an incredibly exciting combination of tracks that can work very much in collaboration with each other. You could study Urbanism, Landscape, Ecology and do it perhaps in conjunction with something like History and Philosophy of Design and Media.
I think, these kinds of connections, these sorts of cross fertilization, are very important in terms of how the MDes program has evolved. It's been incredibly successful. I think this year alone, we had a 20% increase in the number of applicants.
But it was through a long series of investigations, research, and looking for examples at industrial design programs that we decided that it would be important for us to also use this design program to promote the importance of design within the university and beyond. That led to the idea of us working together with the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences to create the Master in Design Engineering, which has been a huge success to really bring design creativity together with how to address key societal big picture questions. And similarly, you know, we've been working together with the School of Public Health to create a program on health and urbanization, which is obviously critical.
I think in this task, we have amazing faculty. Our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Michael Hayes, has been very important in the evolution of some of these programs. Martin Bechthold has been really focused on the MDE program; same with a number of other faculty who are teaching in this and other parts of the school. They had the foresight to create the connection with the School of Public Health.
So, it's very important to acknowledge that this has really been a faculty-led set of initiatives to get us to the point where the goal of these programs (like MDes and MDE) becomes clear in terms of their aspirations and what they can do. These programs are a genuine complement to the urban design program, to the planning program and to the architecture and landscape programs.
I think in the process, the MDes program has obviously built its connections to the departments and is relying on amazing faculty that are coming from architecture and landscape architecture. Yet it's also brought new voices to the school, like Krzysztof Wodiczko, an artist of international reputation. He wasn't here and we had to really go and find someone who could lead the Art, Design, and the Public Domain program, which he co-leads now with Malkit Shoshan. The evolving nature of the MDes program and the arrival of the MDE program are very important in terms of how designers are going to be responding to the built environment beyond their core disciplines of architecture and urban design.
So that's really a little bit of a background on the whole expansion of the MDes Program.
Urban Design is a bridge between architecture, landscape and planning. What are your thoughts on the discipline today?
I think that it's important to again remind ourselves that the urban design program at GSD was the first urban design program in the United States and was started by Josep Lluis Sert, one of my predecessors.
It happened after the Second World War, when part of the importance of urban design was really to think about the rebuilding of cities after the war, but the whole task of rebuilding cities was itself becoming a very important responsibility.
Any sort of original formulation of urban design, which you could say is more a form of practice than a discipline, was residing at the intersection of the different departments and the different disciplines of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Planning. Urban design would necessitate the understanding, the knowledge and the incorporation of those activities together in order to respond to change in cities. At some point this idea of urban design as a program at the intersection of the different departments morphed into putting urban design together with urban planning and creating a department. I think this is also maybe part of the reason why sometimes there's confusion about urban design as a discipline and its sense of autonomy.
However, what's interesting is that our degree titles, Master of Architecture or Landscape Architecture in Urban Design, still reflect the fact that there is a point of view, a kind of framing device, related to whether you are coming from architecture or you’re coming from landscape architecture in terms of dealing with question of urban design.
I feel that projects such as ecological urbanism are a means to question, or in some ways complement, the model we came to inherit from the legacy of Josep Lluis Sert.
The writing about cities, when we talk about urban design, you know, in many ways, we're talking about the architecture of the city. Therefore, it’s really dealing with the concept of a middle scale of architecture which is assumed in response to the transformation of large parts of our cities.
I feel bad in a way that projects need to deal more systematically with scalar issues, both at the territorial as well as the specific possibilities for the architecture, which are embedded in urban design.
So, I think ecological urbanism was, in one sense, a bit of a challenge to urban design. It’s been interesting that the work, for example, what Rahul Mehrotra has been doing on extreme urbanism relates to the work that Chris Reed did to link critical ecologies to the work that Charles Waldheim has done on landscape urbanism. They are all part-and-parcel of us questioning relationships to the topic of urbanization.
And of course that goes hand-in-hand with the way in which our colleagues in planning are thinking about the issue. Now we have, for example, the Future of the Streets research that Andres Sevtsuk is doing, the work that Diane Davis and others have been doing in planning, and the discussions that Neil Brenner has brought to the table around planetary urbanization.
I think it's very important to constantly remember that the school, for the last many years, has been finding various intellectual entry points into the topic of urbanization and urbanism. The nuances, the differences, and the accumulation of ideas and perspectives are very important. I don't think anybody has really written the history of this, what you might call the accumulation of differences of how we might deal with the urban condition, but for me it's been extremely positive.
I wish we had the opportunity to have a more distant critical perspective in relation to the work that has been produced. At the moment, we are just producing work and I feel that it will be important to go through that process in the coming years. I really believe that this form of rethinking is a necessary task for us to articulate how our response in terms of urban design is different than Sert’s generation.
You know, Sert’s generation was essentially dealing with the idea of the connection between the architectural and the urban.
My criticism is that in many ways, the ideological position of modernism, based on the separation of functions and the design of the city according to the concepts of housing, leisure, transportation, this way of thinking still exist. But since we’ve gone through a period where we have, for many good reasons, left behind the ideological position of modernism, in many respects we have developed a contemporary practice that has a more pictorial or picturesque relationship to urban design.
So we're essentially designing streetscapes and it goes back to this tradition that came up earlier, like traditions of the townscape, where we are picturing the city as a visual artifact. Not enough attention is being given to really rethinking the whole question of how one lives one's life, and to the importance of space in conjunction with questions of inequity that the space establishes.
It's also been very interesting and heartening to see colleagues like Toni Griffin establishing the Just City Lab and to see Susan Fainstein, while she was here, writing her Just City book.
So, again, if you then put Ecological Urbanism next to the Just City next to Extreme Urbanism, you'll see that the school has been the only place that has been trying to formulate a series of positions not always in agreement with each other. I've been supportive of these differences and of the conflicts that come from disagreements between us.
But we have certainly been feeling the importance of urgency, that this project needs to be promoted intellectually within the school. We have been doing this through options studios, such as the one that we had in Miami or the ones that we did in China sponsored by AECOM, where we looked at the concept of the mega plot or cross-border urbanization or rural urbanization; some of this research was done together with Chris Lee. Recently, we have done the three-year cycle of studios in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila where we really understood the kind of global level of what I've been saying about the worldliness of our actions. We are relating and working together with other societies and other communities, learning from them but also acting in that kind of context.
Then you see that the role of urban design, as part of this bigger project of urbanization, is also linked to our presence in the world. It is manifested by these kinds of multi-year studios, the latest of which is the series of studios that we have been doing with Rem Koolhaas on the future of the countryside, which is very much part of the discussion of urbanization and will result in an exhibition at the Guggenheim in the spring of 2020.
But on the other hand, in the last few weeks, we've had the beautiful studio report from Toyo Ito’s multi-year studios, which were focused on the island of Omishima. Students from architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and urban design have been working together to really deal with the revitalization of an amazing island in the south of Japan. It’s led by a lot of youth from the community and looks at how you can utilize agriculture to really bring back people to the community. Similarly, we're doing a series of multi-year studios in the south of France in the city of Arles, and we're working on an area called the Camargue.
So, I think that it's critical to acknowledge the means through which we are able to continue this investigation and this project. Getting support from different agencies allows us to work in Miami, or in China, or in other parts of Asia or in India, or in Japan.
It’s really been exceptionally rewarding to see the GSD be connected and deeply engaged with the world and the imagination of our students to not only learn from those places, but also influence local stakeholders and policymakers. I think that's a fantastic opportunity for an institution, and that's something that I'm very proud of.