Interview with Dean Kleinman

December 4, 2008

Kent Kleinman is the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. His scholarly focus is 20th-century European Modernism, and his publications include Villa Müller: A Work of Adolf Loos; Rudolf Arnheim: Revealing Vision; Mies van der Rohe: The Krefeld Villas; and a forthcoming translation of Jan Turnovsky’s The Poetics of a Wall Projection. Prior to coming to Cornell, he was professor and dean of the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons, the New School for Design; a faculty member at the University of Michigan; and professor and chair of architecture at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Kleinman has also taught at schools in Vienna, Berlin, Copenhagen, and Zürich. He was awarded the Senior Public Goods Fellow (Mellon Foundation) at the University of Michigan in 2002 and has received four Graham Foundation grants; the national Bruner Prize; and numerous other awards. Kleinman is a registered architect in California and received his professional degree in architecture from the University of California-Berkeley.

How do you feel about coming to AAP in a time of change and growth, particularly with the impending Milstein Hall project? 

AAP is full of opportunities, and it is a privilege to join a college that is the intellectual home of generations of leaders in architecture, art, and planning. AAP’s graduates and faculty have shaped design culture across the globe. The students and faculty are sharp and bright and absolutely committed to excellence. Here I should recognize the good work done by my predecessor Moshen Mostafavi, who reintegrated the college into an international network of designers. Arriving in Ithaca, I immediately felt welcomed by the college and the university. But it would also be fair to say that the college has a dauntingly grand reputation. The bar is high.

I know that Milstein Hall is very much on people’s minds. I am, of course, familiar with the long history of searching for the right architectural response to the challenge of expanding the college’s physical plant. It is critical that we take care of the needs of our students and faculty who for far too long have been teaching and learning in inadequate spaces. The architecture program is ranked among the very best in the world, yet our accreditation is at risk if we do not rectify our deficient physical plant. We need to address this issue with a sense of urgency, and I am gratified to know that President [David] Skorton and Interim Provost [David] Harris share this concern. Rem Koolhaas has designed a structure that certainly provides the needed space, but, more importantly, Milstein Hall will allow us to teach and work in new ways. The building includes a large lecture hall, critique space, and a flexible landscape of studio workspace. The various spaces are linked visually with one another so that a student in any given area cannot avoid seeing — and hopefully being intrigued by — what’s going on in adjacent spaces, even into Sibley and Rand halls. Uniting students and faculty around ongoing work is encouraged and made possible by this design. From a pedagogical point of view, it’s going to be transformative. 

All good architecture plays a role that exceeds the needs of its immediate client. Architecture is always also a cultural and civic act. In the case of Milstein Hall, I think it is important that we build in a fashion that respects the architectural legacy of the setting while advancing the standards of excellence and inquiry that Cornell embodies. I am convinced that we have a design that delivers both the pedagogical instrument we need and one that contributes in a very substantial way to the quality and renown of the institution. I have come to think of Milstein Hall not so much as a singular building but as a kind of civic gesture, a piece of urban fabric. In a very subtle way it activates the northern edge of the Arts Quad while remaining deferential to the historical structures. It acts as a visual bridge between the quad itself and the spectacular nature in the gorge behind Sibley — and here the word “behind” is precisely the problematic condition that Rem addresses with his design. As a site-design strategy, Milstein Hall transforms the “backside” into a “frontside” by replacing the existing, unlovely parking lot with a unique kind of public outdoor room. Sibley, Rand, and the Foundry function to define three sides of this room, and the bottom of the studio plate acts as ceiling. Together with the Johnson Museum — which I think is one of the truly great buildings on any college campus and a real testament to the vision of the campus and civic leadership when it was built — the site to the south of Sibley becomes spatially defined and dignified as an extension of the campus proper.

I should add that Milstein Hall is just one part of a bigger equation — that is, what happens to Rand, what happens to Sibley, to Tjaden, to the Foundry? There are new programming opportunities that we are just beginning to explore. 

What about the recent expansion of the college’s New York City program, in both academics and professional practice?

The New York City presence — AAP NYC — should be seen in the context of our overall geographic footprint: Ithaca-Rome-New York. Each locale enables students to study art and design methods and approaches that are specific to a place and a culture of shaping the built world. Rome offers lessons in how the form of the city and its elements are constructed from the layers of history, a kind of “archeological” approach to design thinking and making. The city pushes back on designers with the weight of history. New York is the opposite. New York offers unparalleled access to emerging design and art practices and fast-paced speculative design work. In New York, the average lifespan of a restaurant remodel is two years! While this is bad news for restaurateurs, the pace and frenzy of New York fosters a design culture that takes risks, experiments, and expands the imagination. New York also offers our planning and architecture students exposure to one of the most fascinating attempts to align market-driven urban development with a vision of sustainable urban growth. I am referring here specifically to the mayor’s PLANYC 2030, which is one of the most sweeping attempts at sustainable urban reform in the United States. The triad of Ithaca-Rome-New York is pedagogically meaningful and helps educate designers, planners, and artists that have a global consciousness. Of course I am aware that huge blocks of design cultures are not represented in this Western-centric triad, and it is not difficult to imagine additional outposts for AAP.

At the time of your appointment, then-provost Biddy Martin noted you would bring “a strong interdisciplinary perspective” to the college and the university. How do you foresee applying that perspective at Cornell, and for all three areas of the college?

Interdisciplinary is getting a lot of play currently, and it pays to take a critical look at what we mean by it. I subscribe to disciplinary expertise; I believe in the deep study of a field, whether in architecture or art or planning. You don’t give up your discipline and become a generalist. Rather, as you become deeply knowledgeable in your field you also become profoundly aware of all that you do not know; you touch more and more areas that stimulate your curiosity. It is my hope that expertise breeds curiosity. One role of an academic institution is to open doors for curious minds, and I have found that when such minds meet, true interdisciplinary work can thrive. What I am thinking of here is, of course, different from the traditional hierarchical paradigm so familiar to architects working with consultants. More and more problems facing society are of a type where the very formation of the problem is itself a problem. For example, designing a coal power plant for sub-Saharan Africa assumes centralized power production. Wrong problem, no matter how wonderful the power plant is, if one is trying to reduce greenhouse gasses! (Recently the World Bank issued an RFQ for the design of decentralized solar-powered L.E.D. lighting units for sub-Saharan Africa — and inspired competition. Cornell could have fielded an incredible, interdisciplinary team!) It is interesting to me how many such problems are, in fact, design problems, and how many really demand a fairly flat hierarchy of diverse fields of expertise at the table from the initial conception of the problem at hand. 

Have you identified any particular issues you’d like to address as priorities in the college?

Building the next generation of excellent teachers — the existing generation are world famous as such — is a priority. In the next five or so years many senior AAP faculty will retire, and finding the next-generation faculty is something we have to pay a lot of attention to. This cuts across all three departments.

The three-department model for the college is not a limit — we could add a department, we could do dual degrees with other departments, we could do minors in other departments. Landscape architecture, media studies, and interior design are fields I want to get to know much better, and I want our students to filter back and forth. Our students shouldn’t be limited by administrative structures.