Letter from the Acting Dean | Elizabeth O'Donnell

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The 2013-2014 academic year has been an extraordinarily significant one for The Cooper Union and for the School of Architecture as well, with the faculty, students and staff of the school fully engaging both challenges and opportunities presented at every level of our historic institution. The year began in July with the announcement by our Board of Trustees to establish a “Working Group” to undertake a good faith effort to seek an alternative to undergraduate tuition that would sustain the institution’s long-term financial viability and strengthen its academic excellence. With the same ambitions and goals, the School of Architecture launched two new summer programs; one for students to investigate advanced digital technologies in architectural research, design and representation, and a second for those students who were seeking their first encounter with the discipline. Both studios extended the School of Architecture’s unique vision and pedagogy to new students, both national and international, with characteristic passion and intensity. 

Also that summer, for only the second time in forty years, following Dean Anthony Vidler’s decision to return to full-time teaching after serving as dean of the school for twelve years, a committee was elected by the faculty to conduct an international search for a new dean. Chaired by Professor Diana Agrest, the committee began its work in August with an open call for nominations to all faculty, students and alumni of the school as well as leaders of schools of architecture and many distinguished friends in practice throughout North America and beyond. As of this writing, the search is still active.

During the fall semester, the Working Group, comprised of 18 members of The Cooper Union community, including Professor Diane Lewis, as well as a fourth year student and an alumnus of the school, met frequently and worked tirelessly to develop a comprehensive set of recommendations for the Board of Trustees that ranged from spending reductions, to administrative and faculty restructuring, to repurposing space. Other efforts were also started in response to the institution’s financial crisis: Professor Sue Gussow taught a four-week drawing master class to support both the Annual Fund and the School of Architecture; students launched a website to raise money for a “one year fund” to offset the potential tuition bills of the freshman class entering in fall 2014.

Throughout all the public debate and committee work and advocacy, the extreme dedication by faculty and students alike to investigate the discipline of architecture, to interrogate its essential principles while expanding its potential field, remained sharply focused, redoubling efforts in both the studio and classroom. From the first year’s investigation of the “architectonics of free speech” and the “foundations of architecture” to the thesis projects that addressed the social impacts of climate change, secrecy, spectacle and surveillance, mobile housing, historic/industrial preservation and many other issues through projects located in New York; El Choco, Columbia; L’Aquila, Italy; India, the Arctic and other places around the globe, the work in the studio reflected a deep commitment to a close reading of place and the pressing issues of contemporary life through the making of an architecture both provocative and beautiful, at scales from the most intimate to the most broadly conceived.

We are very proud of our many alumni who have been recognized with awards and prizes. We are especially gratified by this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize, one of the most important and distinguished awards in the profession, awarded to Shigeru Ban (AR ’84), whose dream since high school in Japan had been to study architecture at The Cooper Union with Dean John Hejduk. His exquisitely beautiful designs, humanitarian efforts and optimistic spirit are an inspiration to architects around the world.

Our faculty, who have always been one of the great strengths of the school, have been recognized with awards, publications, invitations to lecture and the making of a film, including: a special award from the Buckminster Fuller Challenge; publications in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, the Architect’s Newspaper and Architectural Review; and lectures at the Society of Architectural Historians Conference, the American Collegiate Schools of Architecture Conference, Yale University, Ohio State University, the New Museum and the Center for Architecture, among many others. Lessons from Modernism: Environmental Design Strategies in Architecture 1925–1970, from the exhibition of the same name held at The Cooper Union in 2013 was published by the Monacelli Press, the film The Making of an Avant Garde: The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, 1967–1984 has been screened internationally, and the book Open City, presenting twelve years of work by the fourth year architectural urbanism studio is nearing publication. The School of Architecture Archive assisted in many of these projects and presented an exhibition of the collages of Bernard Hoesli and designed and produced the book The Great White Whale is Black on the work of Professor Tony Candido.

We marked the passing of Lebbeus Woods, a brilliant teacher, radical artist, visionary architect, and writer of clarity and precision with a two-day symposium that featured thirty speakers and drew an audience of over six hundred. His loss created a void here at the school that continues to be felt; but his presence remains, in the work of the students who learned from and with him, and in his voice of resistance that continues to resonate and inspire in the halls and studios of the school today.

It has been a tremendous honor for me to serve as Acting Dean during this time of historic change and I am deeply grateful for the wisdom, tireless support and help I received throughout the year from the staff and faculty of the school. I am grateful to our students as well, for their boundless optimism, fearless explorations, extraordinary work ethic, their commitment to community and to the school, their engaged citizenship and for our shared love for making architecture.

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.