Spring 2021 All-School Welcome from Dean Sarah M. Whiting

On Tuesday, January 19, 2021 Dean Sarah M. Whiting joined the GSD community on Zoom to deliver a virtual welcome to start the spring term. A transcript of the Dean’s remarks is below.

Good morning, afternoon, and evening everyone, and happy new year. I hope you all tried to have a restful holiday break. I just have to say, it’s so heartening to welcome everyone back to school for the spring semester.

Many of us had been looking forward to the new year—I know I was—and I could not wait to put 2020 behind me. Twenty-twenty, though, is clearly not going away so easily.

Today is January 19th, almost two weeks after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. I’m still reeling from that day and I’m sure many of you are, too. By nature, I’m an optimistic person, but I admit I’m finding it very hard to find any silver linings right now. Yes, we have tomorrow’s inauguration to look forward to and yes, the vaccines are promising. (Speaking at a virtual conference of arts professionals over the weekend—and even dressing the part by wearing a black turtleneck—Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested that we might reach herd immunity this fall.) And yes, my surgery over break was successful, so I’m entering the new year in good health. All of these are positive, very positive, starts to the new year.

But I can’t get the images of the rioters who broke into the Capitol out of my head. The vision of the confederate flag being carried within that space is particularly seared in my memory, confirming the work that this country has to do in reckoning with its structural racism, past and present.

The U.S. Capitol, was designed by a succession of architects—the original competition, held in 1792, was won by Dr. William Thornton, who, according to the history on the Capitol’s website, was a “gifted amateur architect who had studied medicine but rarely practiced as a doctor.” Thornton’s original design was modified by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Charles Bullfinch, among many others over time. Having partially burned in the war of 1812, it was rebuilt by European laborers working with American slaves. In short, this building embodies our country’s history as well as architectural history. In 1850, the building was expanded to create the House and Senate chambers—the two wings that swarmed with rioters early this month.

Barton Gellman, one of my favorite columnists, described in The Atlantic what happened on January 6th as attempted “democracide.” Gellman concluded that “The republic survived a sustained attempt on its life because judges and civil servants and just enough politicians did what they had to do.” In other words, our system of checks and balances worked…just barely. Just barely because we discovered that facts, evidence, and history can be hijacked more quickly and more thoroughly than anyone could have ever imagined.

We all need to be vigilant to prevent that kind of hijacking. It’s so important, so urgent, for us to pay close attention to what is happening politically, socially, economically, here in the U.S. and around the world, because yes, it does affect us. It is equally crucial for each one of us to be sure to base our research, our work, and our opinions on facts and on history that are backed up by evidence.

I point you again to our event last September with Danielle Allen and Michael Murphy discussing “Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the 21st Century,” the report issued by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that Allen co-authored. It’s available on the American Academy website. The report issues 31 recommendations, ranging from ranked voting to independent citizen-led redistricting in all 50 states, to subsidizing projects to reinvent the public functions that social media have displaced. While I would argue that every recommendation speaks to each of us as individuals, some, like redistricting and the ones challenging the space that social media has consumed, also speak to us as designers, planners, historians, and theorists.

Susan Glasser, the New Yorker’s Washington correspondent, recently recounted that in her first job out of college working on Capitol Hill as a reporter for Roll Call Newspaper, every time she walked into the Capitol building it had awed her. The building’s solidity and its spaces inspired, utterly resonating with its civic mission. How often does someone refer to buildings that way today?

Successful design (architecture, landscape, urban design, information design, product design) resonates. That doesn’t mean that it has to look like the U.S. Capitol—our world is a whole lot different from what it was in 1792. But it does mean that we have to consider the effects of what we do, and how we shape the world. Even if right now I’m challenged to find much to be optimistic about, I am unswerving in my conviction about our role.

Toward that end, we have an extraordinary array of classes this semester intended to engage us in this work: courses looking at how housing has been affected by changed notions of family, changed practices of the workplace, and changed expectations about climate impact. We have courses laying the grounds for design justice. We have courses positing the impacts of neoliberalism, of material extraction, and of symbols, ranging from confederate monuments to the national park service’s monuments. We have courses covering a dizzying range of techniques, ranging from gaming technology to optical strategies to acoustic ones. We’re looking at materials: their lifespans from extraction to building units; their agency; their heterogeneities; their burning; and their symbolisms. We’re looking at Tar Creek, Oklahoma; Sao Paolo, Brazil; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Tokyo, Japan; Harvard Square, and Nantucket Island.

Despite having fewer students this semester, we have as many if not more courses than we’ve ever had. In response to feedback from students and the Innovation Task Force, we have committed this semester to capping studios to 10 people and capping seminars and limited enrollment workshops at 12 to ensure a better “Zoom world” for everyone. We have also reworked the class schedule—the Academic Affairs staff, working with the faculty, deserve a lot of thanks for this huge effort—to ensure that classes better accommodate the 14 different time zones we find ourselves teaching to.

Smaller classes ensure stronger conversations—we even have a seminar devoted to that topic, “Talking Architecture,” focused on the art of the interview. Having witnessed the utter collapse of conversation and communication at the hand of those who believe that simply repeating falsehoods with greater volume or greater social media spread will somehow make them true, nothing could be more urgent right now than real conversation. I’ll be continuing my weekly office hours this semester, and I look forward to those conversations as well.

To facilitate even more conversation within the school, we’ll be launching a new, internal website in the coming weeks. Called GSD NOW, this website can be understood as a digital Gund Hall, and will give everyone a direct window onto so much of the activity happening across the school at any given time. It will also include virtual “trays” that encourage formal and informal collaboration. Stay tuned for more details, but for now I can say that I’m super excited by it. GSD NOW will stay with us well past the pandemic as a source for information and collaboration within the school.

And speaking of collaboration and conversation, if you weren’t tuned into the launch of Prada’s Fall Winter 2021 Menswear collection on Sunday morning, I encourage you all to go to the website. The runway show was followed by an intimate online conversation between a selection of students across the world with co-creative directors Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons. It was a remarkable acknowledgement of the value of all students, the up and coming creative generation. The GSD was represented by Celeste Martore, Ian Erikson, and Isabel Strauss. Many thanks to Assistant Professor Sean Canty for making that happen on very short notice. And as always, we have an incredible roster of lectures, conferences, and conversations in our public events calendar this term.

See what happened? Just talking about what’s going on this semester has brought my optimism back. Indeed, while we have some seemingly insurmountable challenges right now, I’m really excited by what’s going on this spring—it’s all giving 2021 a good horizon.

Couple dancing in the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Hall.
Reidel and his partner Laura in the
Williamsburgh Savings Bank Hall on their wedding day.

I want to end on a very personal note, though not related to me. Determined not to let 2020 go down in history as the worst year ever, Assistant Professor Jacob Reidel and his partner Laura took it upon themselves to end 2020 on a positive note. Characteristic of his talents as a writer, Jacob tells the story perfectly—you should hear it from him directly, but I’ll just share a couple lines: “Thanks to New York City’s ‘project cupid’ it became possible to meet with a clerk over Zoom. I’ll admit that jumping into a Zoom with the City Clerk on a random workday sandwiched between our own back-to-back work Zoom meetings was a whole new level of dissonance for us, but certainly special and memorable in its own way. Once we had that precious PDF license in hand, we only had until December 22 to complete the marriage with an officiant before it expired. We snuck an officiant, a laptop, and Laura’s parents into the old unused Williamsburgh Savings Bank Hall downstairs from our apartment, loaded up Zoom, exchanged rings, said our vows, smashed a glass, and got married!”

I suppose that I should note here that I don’t condone breaking into spaces, but the story does continue (again, quoting Jacob): “and yes, at one point a doorman caught us using the space, but when I explained to him what we were up to, he immediately melted and said ‘let me get the lights on for you!'”

A picture, a space, and a happy couple says a thousand words. Congratulations to Jacob and Laura and cheers to everyone for a light-footed and dance-filled 2021!