Architecture Non-fiction

Specters of Cooper

These thoughts have taken a while to put down, partly because of so many implications in each (you will see the drift to rant mode)….

The Cooper Union’s current predicament is shitty, no matter what road is taken. However, the shittiest fact to swallow is that there seems to be an unwillingness to take risks anymore (strangely so, as some of the management decisions that led to this were risky), or at the very least to welcome radical thought. Such was the practice in the Great Hall in the 1850s and 60s when it first came to be, allowing proponents of universal education, women’s rights, civil rights, and other humanitarian causes as much ground in debate as the status quo. Simply approaching any forum in that manner drastically improves the chance for minorities to gain that which they seek.

“Women’s meeting at Cooper Union Hall, Cooper Institute New York City, to organize the ‘Women’s Central Association of Relief’ for the Army.”
#GazaWebCast Thursday, August 14th, 2014. The Great Hall, Cooper Union New York City. Photo by Bud Korotzer. Image via Flickr. Shared via Creative Comments CC BY 2.0.

The simple fact that the Cooper Union’s Working Group proposal was rejected signals that a shift has taken place in the a priori thinking emanating from the school’s core (forget the reasons, because we can speculate forever). Note, I don’t want to call it a bad shift outright. What many cannot unsee is a Cooper Union without its ideology– but ideology is by definition formless. If the institution really is changing its philosophy (perhaps more its philosophy of approaching today’s issues), then we simply need to seek out other places for its principles to settle. I want to poke around at a macroscopic scale to get a sense of where to go next.

John Hejduk:

One thing I can speak to is my own student experience. In retrospect, the seeds for this separation of body and ideology may have been planted longer ago than we think. Aside from Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, the most-repeated name in the architecture studio was that of John Hejduk. And certainly for good reason. His energy and teaching style were legendary even before he passed away– I remember circa 2009 the entire school crammed into the lecture room to watch a video of him, speaking about some of his work, some of his life, some of his pedagogy. I never had the luck to be taught by him. However, sometimes I unmistakably felt his presence, if for no other reason than the school was still somewhat in mourning. The school was unable to let go of his legacy (that is partially the definition of ‘legacy’). And as a result, cracks began forming as the spirit of the school and the body of new students & faculty began drifting apart: the spirit trying to figure out a way to uphold a successful formula without a practitioner, and the body trying to figure out new things, like how to design in Rhino and use a CNC machine. This forceful push forward should be credited largely to Anthony Vidler who ushered out the old generation (the Abrahams and Eisenmans) and introduced voices less weighted by the specter of Hejduk. It is important, like in the Great Hall’s heyday, and in any pedagogical philosophy at all, that even this new crop of professors be learning something as well, and not be an authoritarian voice on any subject (especially not in design)– this presence & urgency of learning is one way to equalize the playing field and foster a dynamic learning environment. Who knows how long Hejduk will be missed? Who knows how long the 9-square grid will prominently feature on the home test? But the right question I think we should be asking is: “What is the Hejduk pedagogy of the 2010s?” Allowing a principled organization to evolve is a two-step procedure: first, said principles need to be analyzed from the point of view of their authors, then, they need to be translated to a contemporary context and compared.

“Just pretend I’m not here.”

Peter Cooper:

I suspect the same scale of mourning took place after Peter Cooper’s death in 1883. The question must have certainly been raised: how do we carry on Peter Cooper’s legacy? Is it worth it? What will the financial and ethical costs be? How different will we need to be from the rest of the system in order to bring this ideology out into full relief? I also suspect that there had been some tweaking of that ideology in order to prevent the progressive instincts of the institution’s constituents from abandoning Peter Cooper’s mission statement (and I don’t mean “Free As Air And Water” here– I mean, whatever the specific plans and policies were put in place immediately after his death). Again, it is the case of compromise between the past and the future.

The Dual Value of Academia:

I was asked recently about the reason I’d ever go back to school– things are going pretty well for me in the professional world, so why should I? The reason is as follows (and the reason school is generally such a desirable place to be for many): when you’re in the workforce, you are valued primarily based on your output. In school, you are valued based on both your input and output.

The assumption that learning is meant solely for an academic setting is completely false. Job seekers know that one of the reasons people pursue a job is because there are things they can learn from that position. The entire job market operates according to the belief in some vague currency, or the idea that your value as an employee can be summed up, summarized, and compared with others. At the very basest, we do the same thing with our daily social interactions (hence the popularity of social media: they allow us to pin a number, and some value, to our popularity). Getting hired or not hinges essentially on this single-sum figure, a figure with no units or numbers, something so abstract it must remain so lest it disclose its obsoleteness. Employers know they’d much rather use this simple method and be vague and inaccurate rather than attempt to delve into the complexities of every candidate’s potential. Thus the mystery single-value rating system is perpetuated in the professional field.

In the workforce, the heart of the system is external to you, thus it only matters what you contribute to it (from yourself). In academia, however, the heart of that same system migrates inwards, meaning it is equally important what you put in it as what you put out. Your value is no longer that single abstract number, but is twofold. If I started a 4 year program at the bottom of my class and by 3rd year am level with my classmates, then I should be venerated for it. My worth and deserving of a place in that spot are based on how I develop from what I learn and how the outside environment benefits from my development. Education, as a general and pure understanding, is that setting in which the ‘system’ being served is actually subservient to the individual. Furthermore, it is understood that pure education is not a perfectly efficient process. It is understood that you can fuck up. Because it is not the end product itself that matters.

This is the state of mind in which radical thoughts can be nurtured and allowed to interact with status quo ideas, and each can argue their benefits equally.

On a related note: there have been thoughts on the economic repercussions of competitive learning & working environments. In other words: if I work hard, how will my resulting level of success be affected by how hard my colleagues work in comparison? Some say the relationship is direct (the more they succeed, the likelier I am to succeed), some say it’s inverse (the more they succeed, the less likely I am to succeed), some say there’s no relation, and others say that it’s dependent on luck and rests on so many factors that it’s useless to even attempt to calculate. Here, the strange aforementioned value judgment plays a beneficial role: as long as I can only guess my peers’ true value (their input + output: the sum of their thoughts, doubts, revelations, failures, successes, etc), and as long as everyone holds their cards close to their chest, I am going to assume the highest value for them in order to push myself further. This way the speculative social currency we deal in perpetuates an increase in actual value. In a strange way, it’s like a bubble that never bursts.

The Working Group plan, and the entire Cooper community opposed to tuition, continually references the need to preserve the egalitarian spirit among accepted students, that tuition will obliterate it. I’m still unsure what they mean by this spirit. The professors, curricula, and workspace will remain the same, and I think the chance is slim that daily contemplation of my debt will adversely affect my hard work once I’m inside. Part of that spirit is the above-mentioned competition, which actually boosts productivity and learning (to a limit, we suppose). The tuition plan affects prospective students more than it does the ones that finally do walk into the studio. Assuming that an accepted class of 30 architects will start to internally discriminate between differing financial dispositions is naive and sounds more likely to occur in middle school. To preserve this spirit, there can still be things done about making Cooper Union more accessible to potential students aside from the tuition issue. Chat recently told me about his poor experience visiting Cooper after getting accepted. The office was disorganized, no one was prepared to give him a tour, the doorman didn’t let him enter at first, and even when he got in he sensed a don’t bother me attitude. By contrast, MICA was much more accommodating. He ended up attending MICA, a decision which hinged largely on those visits.

Army of Policies:

A fellow graduate, who recently left a job working in continuing education at the school, reported that there is a clause in the standard Cooper employee severance form which reads to the effect of thou shalt not speak ill of Cooper Union after leaving, otherwise thou shan’t receive serverance. Who knew such a clause existed? It got me thinking what other policies, of whatever size, had been put in place for the benefit of the school (but were in fact stifling it).

Giving Back:

Freakonomics recently put up a podcast on the economics of charitable giving. It turns out there are tons of studies on this– studies whose conclusions caution us against allowing our understanding and response to charity to become overly simplified. The lesson is: always look a few steps deeper into well-established charities, see if there are any suspect flips of logic (i.e., is giving actually going to damage a party in need?), and look for alternate channels if possible. This is especially the case with Cooper, as individual support plays quite a different role there than in a typical not-for-profit. The best pool I found to donate to is the One Year Fund, which attempted to cover the tuition costs of one class in the school of architecture through its 5 years. At least the way it was set up, using crowdsourcing as its basis, the effort achieved that directness and efficiency which sometimes gets lost in the broadest donation channels.

Alumni make up the lion’s share of Annual Fund donations, which is similar to most colleges, but likely motivated differently. Having been accepted to a school based only on the quality of the work in the application, students grow to acknowledge their talents and ambitions sooner and with a greater sense of urgency, and the aforementioned “value to society” comes into closer focus. Following graduation, this would imply an equally greater sense of urgency and intent upon donating. Up until now, having paid virtually nothing to attend it, donating funds after graduation carry much more weight at Cooper because of that acknowledgement of one’s value– but one also thinks: will it ever be enough? Seeing that a donation record was set in 2012 shows that the rest of the schools administrative and financial decisions hold much greater sway over the school’s fiscal health. It’s upsetting to think that donating, which alumni do with such purpose and good intentions, ultimately has such a marginal effect. Will we see the patterns of donating (from alumni or not) shift to more closely resemble a more typical private college?

In general, this relates to a theory I have about The American Dream– a trajectory which begins in poverty and ends in great wealth founded on enterprise. I believe this common conception is abbreviated. Hand-in-hand with the misconception of the American Dream goes the misunderstanding of basic capitalism. If I were to accumulate an enormous fortune through a company or through the stock market, I may have worked hard of course, but always humming in the background are the policies and regulations of the economy. The amount of work that that system has done in my aid can easily be overlooked. We all know that a healthy form of capitalism is a fluid network where ‘money’ is constantly circulating. So, the moment I come into any profit, to keep the system from clogging up, I need to recirculate some of it as soon as I can. Thus, the true American Dream is achieved the moment you give back. There are numerous examples (Bill GatesHenry FordSam Simon) of people who got it right.

The case may be different when dealing with millions of people and millions of dollars– that is, economy on a governmental scale, and how their money gets distributed. It may be that the less egalitarian a government aims to be, the better it is at successfully funding developments with a greater good in mind like schools, hospitals, parks, public housing, and transport.

To wit: I recently read an interview with Stephen Holl in Pin-Up Magazine.

PAdL: Are you seeing a difference between communism and democracy in these different working environments? Top-down decision making versus something where there are so many opinions that something or someone is always interrupting?

SH: It’s much more complicated. You could say that China is the most capitalist country on the face of the earth. They have economic structures that are making more money than anything. The steel industry in China has taken over because they’re upgraded all their steel techniques. We’ll never get it back because we couldn’t even buy all the equipment to bring it up to the level of what they can do now. The money in America goes to very rich people and they hide it in the Cayman Islands. The money in China goes into public works. They build infrastructure. They build high-speed trains that go 250 miles an hour and connect 42 cities. Our Amtrak can barely get to Washington, D.C. What China has done in terms of public infrastructure and public transport in the past ten years makes the U.S. look like a third-world country.

So in his experience, China does a better job at redistributing excess wealth, at least in the outset, and they can do it at a much larger scale than the US.

In this regard, The Cooper Union once again finds itself in a strange grey space: a cloister dedicated to individual development, founded upon the altruism of one wealthy man, yet one which also runs on another fuel and currency: that of fostering community and a greater-than-me attitude. It is something of a utopia– something because it actually has the potential to be a real, sustainable success in the milieu of such a lean and cutthroat economic environment. But the attitude with the school has been just as steadfast in opposition to that environment, against great odds and despite the temptation of following easy trends. And it is that opposition, that attitude, that potential which is every bit worth fighting for. I trust enough in the students and faculty (the bottom rungs of the bureaucratic ladder) to know that they will acknowledge these conditions in the face of change. The quality of the education need not suffer.

By the.vonz.himanen

Ivan Himanen is an architect, writer, and artist based in New York City.

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