AAP Responds to Six Weeks of COVID Crisis
It has been but a few weeks since COVID-19 strongly impacted the U.S. and New York State, but the effect of the crisis on AAP has been profound since the earlier phases of the spreading pandemic. The Cornell in Rome Program was suspended about six weeks ago, AAP's New York City classes were disrupted shortly after, and finally, Cornell's Ithaca campus was almost entirely shut down within the space of a week.
In early March, the first of many messages encouraging awareness and caution began to appear in inboxes across campus, after which, a flood of information about mitigation measures and regulations appeared almost daily. The week of March 9–13 saw announcements that travel would be restricted, students would not return from spring break, the university would shift entirely to virtual instruction by April 6, and faculty and most staff would vacate campus spaces.
Despite the shock, faculty, students, and staff in all locations, as well as alumni everywhere, responded with remarkable displays of heart, thoughtfulness, and compassion through myriad acts of kindness and creativity, both large and small. In a statement to the Cornell community released on March 17, university president Martha Pollack acknowledged that lives changed "in ways that are almost incomprehensible," yet many were finding ways to inspire and innovate.
Gale and Ira Drukier Dean J. Meejin Yoon also sent a message to the AAP community. She wrote, "I have seen our community come together not only with great care and compassion but with remarkable resilience." Her message commended the community's willingness to learn in new ways and recognized a shared "commitment to doing things we do not yet know we can do" — qualities that have lifted the college during this unprecedented time.
In Response: Rome, New York City, Quarantine, and Campus
In Italy, the Cornell in Rome Program was the first to adapt and act when classes were suspended on March 2. Administrative Director Annalisa Maione, Program Coordinator Isotta Venuti, and AAP staff in Ithaca swiftly coordinated travel arrangements for the 39 undergraduate students in Rome to the U.S. and their home countries. Eleven students who could not return home due to travel restrictions were housed in Ithaca and provided for in quarantine.
"Our students faced this initial quarantine as soon as they returned from Rome," Maione said. "Some were again quarantined after returning to their homes. I am impressed by the strength that some of them have shown since they left Italy and have been touched by messages of concern for the faculty and staff who remain in Rome."
Jenn Michael, director of AAP Student Services, said the process of bringing students home from Rome was an intense show of support. A crew led by Facilities Building Coordinator Beth Sprankle prepared nine rooms in Miller Heller House and two more in private apartments off-campus, stocking them with snacks, essentials, and cleaning supplies. Michael was the daily connection between the Rome students and the college, working with Cornell Health, the county health department, parents, and the students.
"I brought them anything from yoga mats to contact solution to laundry products, and specialty foods for specific diets," Michael said.
Rome-based classes resumed virtually on March 23, requiring faculty to come up with new approaches to teaching and sometimes accommodating 11 or more time zones. The Cornell in Rome exhibition of ongoing and final student work will be reviewed virtually and is displayed on their dedicated Instagram account in lieu of physical space.
At AAP's New York City studio, classes were suspended as of March 12 and virtual instruction began just three days later. Robert (Bob) Balder, the Gensler Executive Director of AAP NYC, said their efforts at that time focused almost exclusively on relocating B.F.A. and M. Arch. I students from the studio at 26 Broadway, setting up virtual learning platforms, and ensuring students could resume their spring semester studies in safe environments.
"Our New York City students have worked through the phases of loss and have proven to be very resilient," Balder said in early April. "Our day-to-day goals are to remain safe and continue to support our students through online instruction to the completion of the spring semester."
On the Ithaca campus, Alexis White (M.F.A. '20) is a graduate residence fellow in the West Campus cooperative housing complex and among the few who are still living in campus residences. She shared her reaction to the escalating COVID-19 university-wide messages announcing the suspension of classes on March 13, the New York State on PAUSE–required closure of college facilities on March 20, and the closing of the dorms on March 29.
"Each message felt like a yo-yo dropping from my hand, but the yo-yo was not coming back up," she said. "We have to bend down, pick it up, untangle the string, and re-wind it."
Patrick Brennan (M.F.A. '20), another art student who will graduate this spring, primarily focuses on painting but has since developed a series of drawings and works on paper. "The idea of losing our space is the worst, but finding ways through adaptive materials and a fluid, stream of conscious approach, we can keep working. That's always been the strength of drawing for me — by any means necessary," said Brennan.
In line with the rest of campus, all of AAP's facilities were closed for non-essential purposes, though exceptions would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the dean and provost. One exception was made in response to a call from colleagues across campus for urgently needed medical personal protection equipment (PPE). Dean Yoon authorized the reopening of the 3D printing lab in Sibley Hall for "Operation PPE" in an effort to produce equipment as quickly and abundantly as possible. Yoon and Associate Professor Jenny Sabin, the Arthur L. and Isabel B. Wiesenberger Professor in Architecture, contacted dozens of AAP students, alumni, and colleagues to share files and information for production. Within 24 hours, Sabin and Director of Facilities Frank Parish, along with what Sabin referred to as a rapidly formed "distributed network of power," began fabricating face shields for medical personnel in New York City. Thousands of shields were produced and delivered by the expanding, interconnected network of architects and design practitioners with 3D printers.
The appeal struck an emotional chord with two other members of the AAP alumni community who joined the effort.
"It reminded me of my ties to the Cornell community," said Gary Handel (B.Arch. '78), coprincipal of Handel Architects. "Only by working together as a community, using our skills, talents, networks, and connections, can we change this situation."
Vivian Kuan (B.Arch. '90), executive director of the award-winning smart cities design group Terreform ONE, said that she and fellow entrepreneurs, designers, and fabricators in Brooklyn's NewLab responded to the call to action despite their own challenges. "In times of crisis, it's affirming to know how close the AAP community remains, and how we were able to collectively mobilize our networks and our resources to help serve the community’s needs," Kuan said.
Students contributed, as well. In a story for The Verge, CRP alumna Isabel Ling (B.S. URS '19) covered contributions by Jesus Luna (M.Arch. '20) and Manying Chen (B.Arch. ’20) who joined the effort by using their personal 3D printers.
Chen is one of many international students who have remained in Ithaca, unable to return to her home in Beijing. In a note written to her friend Morgan Judge-Tyson (B.Arch. '20), Chen described the challenge of preparing her thesis in solitude:
"On March 13, I brought everything back from the studio after just moving in a month before. Then I cleaned my room, reorganized my bookshelf, and found the best place to store my large drawings is under my bed. Somehow, I got a little bit of my strength back by doing those things, taking some control again," she said. "It is hard as many things we have dreamed for years are deprived of happening, and many goodbyes were said too early. I've never been an optimist, but I believe that we will get through it together, graduate, and be proud of each other. Therefore, I wait here patiently, in Ithaca, this special corner of the world and the place we met."
In CRP, faculty and students have both reached outward to peers and colleagues around the world and come together within the department to share knowledge and resources, and to support each other in isolation.
Associate Professor Neema Kudva, a house professor and dean in the Becker House cooperative residence noted the willingness of senior faculty to adopt entirely new modes of teaching after decades of familiar classroom and meeting settings. CRP faculty formed a support group to share knowledge and offer thoughts on the transition to virtual instruction. The effort was led by CRP's Assistant Professor Nick Klein, Associate Professor Jenni Minner, and Assistant Professor Linda Shi.
Associate Professor of the Practice George Frantz said he is in constant communication with peers in China, where he was planning to travel this semester with students before grounded by precautionary travel restrictions. Frantz has worked with his colleague at Tongji University on establishing a substitute project site for an upcoming class, exchanged notes on distance learning, and tracked the pandemic in China and in the U.S. "The good news is that Tongji is hoping to be back in the classrooms at the end of April," Frantz said.
Graduate teaching and research assistant Nicole Nomura (M.R.P. '22) said fellow CRP students have helped in various ways, from staying home to flatten the curve and organizing a virtual Seder dinner, to participating in a record-setting residence hall blood drive and making face masks behind rows of sewing machines in Cornell's Bartels Hall.
There is still no clear end in sight for the COVID-19 emergency, but Yoon reflected on the heart and soul exhibited by the AAP community during the enormous changes of the past six weeks.
"Our creativity and care reveal, fuel, and strengthen both our community and our mission," Yoon said. "Our commitment and actions, not only as global citizens, but as designers, planners, scholars, artists, and innovators will influence how we emerge from this crisis. I have no doubt that we will come out on the other side with lessons learned and tools to better the ways we live, work, create, and engage — and, that as a college we will continue to step up to go above and beyond."
By Patti Witten
For those without a 3D printer or digital fabrication skills, please see #GetUsPPE to explore other ways in which you can help.
Donate funds to help procure PPE for production through the coalition of makers and health care workers NYC Makes PPE. Organizations represented in the coalition include Weill Cornell, Columbia University Makerspace, and SHoP Architects.