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Reconstructing Architecture and Planning

MIT’s new dean is shaking things up.

Adele Naude Santos, an internationally acclaimed architect and urban designer, became dean of the School of Architecture and Planning in February 2004. TR recently sat down with her and talked about her vision for the future and how her leadership is changing the school.

Every school has a unique culture. What have you discovered about this school that poses a central problem and how do you propose to change that?

I’ve discovered that the departments don’t talk to each other as much as they should. There are really three cultures here–the culture of architecture, the culture of urban studies and planning, and the culture of the Media Lab–and they are extremely different. One of my roles is to integrate the school, talking about the one-school concept rather than the three separate parts, because I think there’s potential synergy here that would make this a completely unique school.

Other than being part of the same administrative division, what do these three units share that could promote this synergy?

In some manner or other, all of us in this school do design. Out of this has come the notion of what I call the Design Lab. It would cut across the three areas of the school and bring together people who would like to collaborate on research. There are a number of projects that are already on the table that we can start to work on collectively.

When you first came you talked about strengthening the school’s connection to the rest of MIT. What do you have in mind there?

We are not as visible as we should be. My feeling is that we have not made the connections we should make within the institution, and we’re not playing as important a role as we could. In the case of the Media Lab, I’ve been pushing to think of that as a department doing more teaching at the undergraduate level. We’re also trying to see if there are some collective courses we can put together as a school that would appeal to undergraduates Institute-wide. I think there are lots of undergraduates who would like to dip into the waters of design who aren’t going to be architects or planners.

I think we also should start to look at playing a more important role within the arts community. The School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and the School of Architecture and Planning have split the art sphere. They’ve got the poets and musicians, and we have the artists [in the Visual Arts Program in Course IV and the Center for Advanced Visual Studies]. There’s definitely linkage that could occur across there.

You’ve spent the last six months as interim head of architecture, as well as dean. What changes have you initiated in that department?

There’s going to be quite a lot of change taking place in architecture itself. My desire has been to increase the profile of the program, to give it more of a design focus. We’re known for history and theory and building technology, and we have a fairly strong tradition in urbanism, but we are not considered a premier design school. We can be all those good things and more. We’re also a very small school, so I’ve spent some time negotiating with the provost [Bob Brown] to increase the size of the master of architecture program. We right now have only 80 students and we need to be closer to 115. We’ll phase it over the next four years. Once we have more students who are focusing on architectural design, the better off we’ll be.

The addition to the Media Lab designed by Fumihiko Maki has been on hold for several years. How would this building help your school?

We desperately need space. Where would I put the Design Lab that I want to create? Now, if the Maki was to proceed, it would solve a whole chunk of my problems. That would help me bring a whole piece of the school together. The idea is that we take the visual artists and put them over there. Comparative Media Studies would be part of that. This Design Lab would be part of that. I feel very passionately about it, but we’ve got to raise some money.

What do you see as the future for the school?

I want this to be the place where people really have to come, because this is MIT and we’ve got the most fascinating faculty, we’re inventing things and pushing the boundaries of knowledge. We absolutely should be doing that. We should be doing a lot about building technology, such as testing new materials. We need to be on the cutting edge of research of an environmental nature. We need to be able to test products and processes at full scale. We have the intellectual and research capability to do this, but we’ve been inhibited because of lack of equipment and space. We don’t have state-of-the-art facilities. In digital fabrication, we’re probably ahead of the curve, but we’ve got to be sure we’re better than most, and again it’s a space thing. What we need is lab space to be able to do this kind of stuff. – By Sally Atwood

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