The eighth edition of inter·mission, reflecting on what it means to undertake a thesis, and how they are lived out in our school. Download PDF.
Note from the Editors
The “thesis” sits as the capstone for most academic disciplines — the highest honor, the largest hurdle. We spend the majority of our time at university chasing other people’s goals under their guidance, and at the end some of us have a brief chance to pursue our own interests and position ourselves in the world (before most of us go work for someone else again). This fleeting freedom allows for a breadth of topics and depth of investigation unseen in the rest of our curriculum, and attempts to instill students with complete ownership of both process and product (despite the frequent mandate of a house style and the claim of the university post acceptance).
Aristotle believed every thesis must be contradictory and come from authority, for who would care about conformity or baseless dissidence? As students we lack natural authority; for us, the validity must be imbued in the process, and the insight comes through originality. In some ways, inter·punct is an applied (hypo)thesis, testing the ability of an experimental platform to address a gap in the culture at the School of Architecture. To that end, this issue of inter·mission is our participation in the cyclical feedback loop that feeds the ever-changing curriculum and culture of the School. Much like the ongoing meta-thesis exhibition, we pose a thesis on theses. In this issue, we curate a range of reflections from recent SoA alumni — presenting a commentary on shifting pedagogical models, and with a slight shrug simply ask: “thesis…?”
Image of Kelly Li’s Water Imperatives project
An Architectural Thesis is an Act of Journalism
Mark J. Terra-Salomao (b.arch ‘17)
A thesis project demanding architecture students execute rigorous research is set up to fail if you don’t show them the conceptual tools they need for the job.
Architecture students aren’t scientists or logicians. Neither are many architects. We simply aren’t trained that way in school. We don’t know how to research. People make fun of English majors, but at least they can parse texts, analyze arguments, and synthesize ideas.
Architects are generalists. Dilettantes. At best, coordinators. There’s nothing wrong with that. Coordination – of ideas, materials, resources, people – is how architecture happens. How can you do that without knowing a little bit about everything?
You know who else are generalists, and usually also denigrated for it? Journalists. Wasn’t journalism supposed to die because of cable news? Or was it the internet? And yet, in the Trump era journalists are once again indispensable. Climate change is architecture’s Trump era, and architects do a poor job of keeping the flame lit during the darkness. We need to stop blaming the audience and take a look in the mirror.
Journalists are generalists who research. The best journalism relies on thorough, impeccable research. Much like scientific research, journalistic research can’t content itself with purely abstract notions. You have to go out in the field, conduct experiments, study the precedents, analyze and crosscheck data and the sources where you got them. If you can’t do that, your story doesn’t work. There’s no proof. When you can do that, the story reveals something previously unknown or misunderstood.
Architecture is journalism. Professors and critics make that clear: Tell a story! What’s the narrative? The drawings have to support the ideas. I agree. Unfortunately, thesis is a classic case of do what I say, not what I do. They want you to read some books, write a manifesto, draw three sections, build ten models, and get a standing ovation at your final review. Your boards don’t have to support your “research” at all, so long as they look like they took a long time to make. “Post-simulate it,” it being environmental data justifying my design, as an architectural educator once encouraged me.
I studied architectural design, history, and theory formally for five years. At the end of it, I understood the academic world wasn’t for me. I consider myself a lapsed universitarian. I found the dogmas and parables contained useful kernels of truth. But the daily reality of living in the monastery was stagnant and, quite literally, claustrophobic. You could say I fall on the practical, profane side of the debate. I learned more from the books I hardly had time to read and the tools I had to fight to use than from the abbots and mothers superior. At least in a real monastery they teach you the foundational theories before asking you to grapple with the highest mysteries of creation.
Make no mistake – this is not hyperbole. Architecture done right is transcendent. Just like religious awakening, or more prosaically, a thoughtful and relevant story (which may amount to the same thing anyway).
I didn’t do thesis at CMU. The why is complex, but centers on not feeling I had a story ready to tell. I did take thesis prep. It was very worthwhile because I learned I wasn’t ready to do thesis. They wanted us to compress a semester of “research” into another semester taking the form of a neat conceptual box framed by exceptionally crafted drawings. That was all too much for me.
In my opinion the best architectural theses are the life works, the oeuvres complete of masterful designers and thinkers like Corbusier, Charles and Ray Eames, Hassan Fathy, Peter Zumthor – substitute your favorite figures as you please. Their theses contain flaws, no doubt. But they derive from decades of practical and theoretical knowledge, applied and tested and retested in the field. Experimentation, if you will. Science! Or as close as you can get to it with architecture. To expect this level of refinement in a one- or two-semester thesis project is asinine.
The work of a journalist only finishes when their body finishes. The same goes for the architect. Without these storytellers’ work, society cannot make sense of the past, present, or future – and the need to critique and revise the story is constant. If you don’t believe that you shouldn’t be a journalist, or an architect.
Who is this all for?
Kyle Wing (b.arch ‘18)
The question of what point a student is ready to venture out on their own and create work is a valid question. But it is a question ultimately without a right answer.
I reject the notion that a thesis is a purely individual pursuit that produces work with singular authorship. If anything, my experience defended the necessity of codependency and collaboration with fellow classmates, faculty, and mentors. The “thesis cohort” has been a beautiful, precious thing year after year and a collaborative model that has been popularly repeated for centuries across disciplines, industries, and work environments.
The classic studio model continues to perpetuate an architectural practice that focuses on individuals and passively accepts the brief. This ultimately produces a world in which developers (and their pursuit of profit) are often the drivers of the built environment, without pushback or with little agency from architects and better yet the people they “serve.” The “architectural petting zoo” that is Hudson Yards is just one of the most recent manifestations of this playing out.
At some point in my process Hal Hayes told me (and the rest of the room) that “this was his problem with thesis,” all I had done was write a political manifesto. Without launching into a discussion about the (possibly inherent) political nature of architecture, this reproach certainly calls into question who forms and decides the direction of education.
I would be remiss to not acknowledge the necessity of a professional program to professionally prepare new professionals for the professional world. So yeah, you need your SPAIGR, you need your FAR and your ROI. I get it, architecture is a business, but is that the status quo we should continue to promote—architecture as a business?
Another conundrum here is this institution’s continued hesitancy around setting their students “free” to pursue a topic they feel is important and want to pursue. Many have said they don’t feel students at the SoA are able and ready to tackle something without the same structured guidance as studio. But the question then becomes, if your students are vastly underprepared to undertake a thesis in their last year of school, do you remove that opportunity or fix the cause? It reads to me less as a reasonable argument but more a declaration of failure.
It is possible the larger question that we should be asking here (again, as we have for at least the last century) is who does the university serve, or more specifically, who is the School of Architecture for? Who does the head serve, and the faculty underneath them? Understanding the university as a microcosm of a city has been an applied lens since the inception of the modern university, the conversation shifts and moves, but the underlying question of what agency the student (who is paying for their education) has, remains.
When the precedent is a government that refuses to listen to and serve the people, what reasonable expectation should we have of those who run our institutions?
Thesis is Anything but Standard
a Soft Suggestion to Prioritize Research and Innovation over Indifference
Amy Rosen (b.arch ‘17)
Thesis inverts the typical architecture studio pedagogical model. Rather than starting out a project “knowing” all the variables at play and seeking a solution to a particular (and spoon-fed) problem, Thesis forces students to discover larger, and frequently more controversial, problems to solve. It is without question that, at the core of all architectural studies, there is an emphasis on critical thinking. In my albeit biased opinion, successful architects consistently question what is, what can be, and what should be. This includes the ever-expanding definition of architecture in and of itself.
Thesis is successful at promoting this ability to challenge our global fabric by celebrating the vast array of constructs embedded in our society and allowing students to break free from the handicaps of typical project limitations, socio-cultural constraints, and political bias.
I was in the class of 2017 at SOA, and I was a part of a small group of students that participated in Thesis. At the end of our explorations, the only overarching theme that we could place over all of our inquiries was “what do we know” - to emphasize the fact that, through our research and periodic spells of uncertainty, we all separately and independently discovered that the concept of an architectural “solution” is ambiguous at best. Throughout history, generations of inquisitive designers have pushed our profession and made robust declarations about what is “right” and what is “fact”. It is through research and true inquiry that our profession can find strategies to actually adapt to the changing needs of our global environment.
Claiming that there are limited methodologies within which individuals can practice architecture is disgraceful. The standard Beaux Arts studio model is only productive at training future architects to duplicate tradition and maintain our incessant belief that there are singular and holistic means of training “good architects”. We must acknowledge that architecture is dependent on research. In order to truly foster innovation and creativity, students must challenge existing standards and practices. Thesis is the forum within architectural education where students are encouraged to pursue the unknown and actually mature as a result - as individuals, as designers, as thinkers, and as professionals.
My thesis was engulfed in a flood of strange investigations that celebrated the potential of architecture. Yes, I went through numerous existential crises and questioned my own identity at times, but that was because I was so invested in the questions I was asking. In the 8 studio projects I pursued prior to my thesis, I never truly felt the weight of my decisions; in my thesis, I was forced to become them.
It is a false misconception that the research and production arms of a thesis project are independent from one another. Not one of my peers that pursued thesis alongside me were capable of restricting the research portion of their project to one semester, separate from their design work. The two disparate modes of pursuing a thesis are delicately woven into one another when successfully executed; the threat of having a thesis student undertake a separate studio project simultaneously is insulting and destructive to the value and validity of theses and research as a whole. The depth and breadth of a research project relies on the commitment of the individual to their pursuits - it requires dedication, a willingness to fail, and a desire to expose the world to previously “unbelievable” possibilities.
This is why I am still investigating my thesis topic. Yes, I produced a “finalized” set of deliverables and gave a presentation of my findings to a group of “experts”, but I will probably be investigating the role of gender expression in architecture for the rest of my life. I was actually never able to submit a “final” book to conclude my study, because my question of the affordances of space and existing architectural “systems” was constantly changing. Nonetheless, I look back on my thesis as a success.
Great theses are never truly finished; rather they reveal new realms of intellectual and philosophical potentialities and capacities that can and should be pushed and challenged for years and years into the future. I pity any architecture student that does not have the opportunity to attempt true innovation by committing to a thesis, because I credit the year I spent acting on my conspiracies and testing my radical theories for informing who I am today, especially my resilience and adaptability.
Detached from the limitations of systemic order and ideological principles, I was able to investigate how concepts and methods of social interaction could create a visual vocabulary that could become three-dimensional in an abstract way. It was thesis that allowed me to declare that design processes can actually become equitable - or just relies on our ability to separate architectural practice from a fear of otherness.
Thesis is difference; thesis is provocative; thesis is anything but standard. If we lose all appreciation for the power of architectural thesis endeavors, we are continuing to propagate the qualities of our world that contribute to our oppressive culture, and we are effectively informing an apathetic future. Personally, I hope we choose innovation over indifference, such that our futures can be positive and malleable as opposed to restrictive and static.
Thoughts on the T
Sinan Goral (b.arch ‘18)
i‘m jiggling around on the T as i type this on my google pixel (RIP blackberry), so this will likely be unedited and shamelessly sent off to chitika before i make it to downtown crossing.
Y’ALL HAVE TO KEEP THESIS ALIVE.
the lack of interest in thesis is alarming. given the prowess of the school, as well as the professors both in and out of the SoA who are so deeply invested in the development of research, the threat of a dwindling thesis program is terrifying.
thesis was the most difficult challenge i’ve faced. it tested my capacity to be a good friend and lover. it taught me that i suck at time management. it amplified my reliance on jalapeño poppers. simply put, it induced a liminal state of angst.
but at the same time, it’s the healthiest and most rewarding experience that i can recall – both from my time as an undergraduate at the SoA, as well as my development as a human/primal. it made me closer to my best friends. it helped develop a weekly routine of going to kelly’s and getting free dogfish 60s and jaeger shots from the gorgeous and courteous monika jean. it served as the only platform that i’ll likely get where i can test ideas without suffering the common consequences of the real world like losing a job, losing face, or losing my mind.
the polarizing distinction that we often make between “researcher” and “practitioner” is so frustratingly moot. we all could benefit from a bit of organized playtime. apply for a grant from the FRAFAF or whatever and produce some evocative shit. like whatever i’ve seen on zain’s facebook with his nutty earth tiles is so weird but so explorative and novel. he’s probably tweaking out right about now – but he’ll grow way more through his research than someone who doesn’t do thesis.
so poke dana’s buttons and reciprocally allow her to blow your mind. go to ML’s back to fronts and do the readings. welcome kai’s criticism of theses that stray away from architecture. keep thesis alive.
also hmu if you’re ever in bos.