Dean Mostafavi talks innovation with Blueprint Magazine

Mohsen Mostafavi
Photo: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office

As the GSD looks ahead to an ambitious academic year of groundbreaking initiatives, including our inaugural class of Design Engineering students and broadening research agenda, the topic of innovation is salient. Dean Mostafavi sat down with Blueprint magazine to talk innovation, invention, and collaboration.

I think a lot of the time when you talk about innovation, people make a distinction between innovation and invention. Innovation to me is not necessarily something that is brand new, but it’s really a certain set of ideas that push the discipline further forward. It can be based on organizational ideas or disciplinary knowledge, and it can work at a multiplicity of different levels. As you work within an academy, you want its work to have certain innovative dimensions, to drive the way in which you think through questions of pedagogy, research and practice. People use the internet more and more, and that means they don’t necessarily use the library in the same way that they used to. When many architectural schools were designed, the library was at the heart of the space and having access to knowledge was something that was critical to how people imagined and thought about things. Part of the challenge is how we can redefine the space of the library to make it a much more exciting, innovative space within our architectural schools. It’s also a question of how the studio structure is set up and the ethos of the student body.

Innovations happen when people look at things in a much more focused manner; it’s difficult to be innovative by trying to do lots and lots of things.

Mohsen Mostafavi Dean

Innovations happen when people look at things in a much more focused manner; it’s difficult to be innovative by trying to do lots and lots of things. Part of the idea of innovation within the academy is you take a certain condition or body of knowledge and you delve into it much more deeply. I find there are actually an incredible number of students who are incredibly innovative with their projects due to the fact that they have a particular interest in what they are doing and then they push those ideas.

It’s also a situation where the nature of our discipline is changing and we actually arrive at new forms of innovation from the cross-fertilisation of different disciplines and interaction with others. We need to not just focus on innovation as something that the students do, but as a response to the conditions that we face. The role of the academy needs to change. The academy is not only a place where people go to learn, but they also come to use the academy as a centre in investigation and discourse, concerned with a whole set of societal issues. But in order for us to be able to respond to those conditions, we also need to transform, to innovate our own practices, because a lot of the time our historical practices are simply not good enough, they don’t have the capacity to respond to the new conditions that we find.

At the GSD, we talk about the idea of disciplinary knowledge and trans-disciplinary practices. Disciplinary knowledge means we’re interested in enhancing the knowledge of a certain discipline, trans-disciplinary practices means that people from a variety of different practices come together. I think that today’s disciplines don’t have the capacity to respond to societal conditions by themselves, therefore we need to innovate new forms of knowledge at the intersection of different disciplines.

This is nothing terribly new, but the academy doesn’t necessarily work like that because it’s more of a silo. How do you, given the kind of boundaries of departments, create some version of what happens in the real world as a kind of incubator or model for pedagogy, that is in itself something different and innovative? While I acknowledge the fact that collaboration happens within contemporary practice, the nature and form of that collaboration could be up for review, so part of what we need to do is also construct alternative forms of collaboration in order to enhance the outcome.

We are lucky at GSD, the intention of having multiple disciplines within one school has been there from the beginning. I think what we’re trying to do now is really break the idea of silos by getting people to work more closely together. For example we have what we call option studios for people who are further on in their postgraduate studies, open to students from different disciplines. We have structures in place that without forcing them provide the framework to be able to choose to participate in a studio with a focus on something other than their area of specialisation. But we also try to talk about it, invite people as part of our lecture programme, have exhibitions; you need multiple things at multiple scales to enable forms of collaboration.

In response to the idea that innovation doesn’t really occur within architecture but exists outside of the discipline, I think that is partly true, it’s no secret that the rate at which digital technologies and social media have evolved is so vast compared to the incredibly slow rate of progress for modes and methods of practice in a discipline like architecture. But I think precisely because of the fact that things are happening in society, we also have the responsibility to see what will be our reaction to those conditions, and it is our reaction that produces innovation.

This interview appears in the July 2016 issue of Blueprint, #347.