Students in Dialogue: A Conversation with Dutra Brown

Headshot of Dutra Brown against grey background

What is it like to be a Master in Architecture II (MArch II) student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD)? In this series of candid conversations between students, Ian Erickson (MArch I ’25) speaks with Dutra Brown (MArch II ’22) about working on commissioned built projects while still a student, her decision to come to the GSD, and her post-graduation goals.

Ian Erickson: What ideas are most interesting to you right now?

Dutra Brown: I’ve been thinking a lot about embodied forms of knowledge. This past semester, “The House: A Machine, Queer and Simple”—the option studio co-taught by Andrew Holder—participated in movement workshops led by the artists Gerard and Kelly, who also co-taught the studio. The workshops informed our architecture projects by giving us an alternative way of thinking about how we as designers articulate and define space.

What were you doing before you came to the GSD?

I was living in Los Angeles and getting my bachelor of architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). The summer leading up to the start of the fall semester at the GSD I was working on a design-build pop-up for a wellness retail company called Flamingo Estate in Los Angeles. I was actually only able to do the project because school was remote, and so I was able to stay in Los Angeles and see the build-out through. I completed the project with a collaborator, ceramics artist Alex Reed, who also needed to be close to the project, as we were fabricating a lot of bespoke ceramic tiles. It was the first design project that I did under my own name that got built in real life, and it was incredibly rewarding to watch unfold while I was balancing the academic work of the first semester of graduate school.

View of wellness installation, frames by bright green foliage.
View of installation at Flamingo Estate, Los Angeles designed and crafted Dutra Brown and Alex Reed. Photo by Erik Christian Hogstedt.

What led to your decision to come to the GSD specifically?

I actually did the GSD’s career discovery program in 2013 after my freshman year at NYU, where I was undeclared. I loved it so much that I immediately transferred into an architecture program for the remainder of college. Given that attending the summer program was a huge turning point in my life and education, I really wanted to apply to attend the GSD for a full degree program. Also, the faculty here are very engaged in their own built practices, which I wanted to learn from. The vibrancy with which the GSD approaches building was very exciting to me and also distinct from my undergrad degree, where I was working on a lot of speculative projects. So, for me, it was also an attempt to jump outside of my comfort zone.

Did you have a favorite course at the GSD?

My favorite course was my most recent studio with Toshiko Mori, “Between Wilderness and Civilization.” The studio brief was to design your own program for Monson, Maine, an aging rural town that currently has 600 residents and a lot of job loss due to the recent closure of a paper mill and furniture manufacturing company. The Libra Foundation is investing in the town’s future by calling for proposals to construct an innovation lab in a 72-acre abandoned farm located right outside of town. We had a lot of conversations with people who lived in Monson and other stakeholders, and it became almost like a thesis, where you have to choose your program and understand the social, political, and economic implications of the program that you’re choosing. It made me realize there is all this work that you have to do before you even touch design.

Study model of green house
Model of Brown’s final project for, “The House: A Machine, Queer and Simple,” final project for option studio. Image courtesy Dutra Brown.
shavings of orange tree bark with a criss-cross of darker branches on top
Material study for Toshiko Mori’s, “Between Wilderness and Civilization” studio.

How have you grown through your graduate studies at the GSD?

I think becoming more aware of how design intentions are read by communities outside of the design field has been formative for me.

What are your next steps now that you’ve graduated?

This summer I’m working to finish up the design of an ongoing interior renovation project for two guest cabins. The project makes use of some recycled material from the pop-up that I was talking about previously; so the first thing I worked on when I started at the GSD is also going to be the thing that brackets the end of my time here. Hopefully by the end of next summer we will break ground on construction. It’s really fulfilling to be able to take what I have learned about design and building during grad school and immediately apply it to real-world projects.

Editor’s Note: This conversation was conducted in Spring 2022. Dutra Brown graduated with the class of 2022 and is now based in Los Angeles.