Architecture, Design, Action: Preston Scott Cohen on Dismantling Systemic Racism in Pedagogy and Practice

Illustration of Preston Scott Cohen, Gerald M. McCue Professor in Architecture and Director of the Master in Architecture II Program, with text

Preston Scott Cohen, Gerald M. McCue Professor in Architecture and Director of the Master in Architecture II Program

June 22, 2020: Do you support the Notes on Credibility?

Yes, and I signed in support of it. It is a carefully considered series of imperatives and principles. One of its most challenging demands—that at least 50 percent of course source material be BIPOC-authored—will force us to confront the extent to which the design fields have been exclusionary. For the moment, let’s just consider modern architecture in the US beginning in 1865, the year the first American architecture school was founded and the Civil War ended. Since then, few Black American architects or Black-owned American firms have been commissioned to author the kinds of projects that ultimately become didactic exemplars of the classical, modern, and contemporary canons. We will have to reckon with the prevailing tendency to valorize authors, authorship, and stated intentions, as opposed to buildings designed and produced collectively or anonymously.

The overwhelmingly non-Black voices in the academy today are very focused on diversifying the established canons by including the study of global POC cultures. That’s fine and great. But until we significantly change the composition of the faculty, what will we have achieved and who will we have educated?

What sort of structural changes do you think are necessary at the GSD to support more Black architects and designers?

Roughly speaking, there are two means of change. On the one hand, there are the mandates in the Notes on Credibility. On the other hand, there must be a process initiated by the school’s leadership to include many more Black Americans in the field.

Compared to the other arts—literature, music, theater, and the visual arts, for example—the design disciplines have made virtually no progress, even since the civil rights movement.

The GSD could truly change course by building a new teaching infrastructure that will have an impact on our school and on other design schools, both undergraduate and graduate. The ultimate outcome would be a substantially more diverse student applicant pool. The idea is to establish new GSD-based teaching fellowships, one in each department. While here, fellows would teach required core studios, courses, and electives.

These would be similar to the fellowships at the University of Michigan, Ohio State, and Rice that have launched many significant design, teaching, and practice careers for people who have gone on to become professors in design schools all over the country. But whereas none of these fellowships have had the intention to combat the white-centric biases and the privileged social networks engrained in the design professions, the new GSD fellowship would be dedicated to advancing underrepresented minorities in design education in the United States. We would need to work out the protocols to conform to the rules that limit our capacity to be explicit, in this regard.

You have said that the fellowship would be focused on spatial justice. What do you mean by that?

It would be about spatial justice, but in a new way that doesn’t make eligibility contingent upon teaching and research topics that are literally related to equity and justice. The idea is to ground the fellowship in a very specific and powerful statement of principle, something like this: In the American context—given how exclusionary and entrenched the design fields have always been—just changing the people who actually lead, teach, and shape the built environment is an act of spatial justice.

There is a long tradition of hiring excellent but inexperienced recent graduates to teach. Almost all of the people whose careers begin this way were brought up through a supportive social network that perpetuates the exclusion of Black people. If we want to bring about real change, we cannot only draw in faculty from the usual exclusionary networks and then proceed to mitigate systemic racism by theoretical or pedagogical means that the predominantly white faculty and students find comfortable.

What kind of changes need to happen at the top of the academic hierarchy?

There has never been a Black American tenured professor in Architecture or Landscape Architecture at the GSD. And since its founding, there has only been one tenured Black professor in Planning, Jerome Lindsey, in the early 1970s. For nearly two decades, I, along with my senior colleagues, have been responsible for this abominable reality.

Until non-Black faculty share real power with numerous Black people, there can be no spatial justice. The schools can’t just continue to be a bunch of non-Black academics telling each other how to be inclusive and equitable, and trying to be cognizant of Black culture, while at the same time preserving the status quo—an overwhelming majority of non-Black faculty, student applicants, and practitioners.

Conducting faculty searches that aim to poach the best POC from other schools is a selfish act that does nothing to expand the field. My hope is that we will make it a central goal to add many new voices to the faculties of schools around the country and to tenure numerous Black American professors at the GSD itself, in the years to come.

Preston Scott Cohen is the Gerald M. McCue Professor of Architecture and the director of the Master in Architecture II Program. He was chair of the Department of Architecture from 2008 to 2013. He is the founding principal of Preston Scott Cohen, Inc. and has received numerous honors including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and induction as an Academician of the National Academy in New York.