Window of opportunity
Allen reshaping architecture school with an open approach to new ideas
By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ -- When nine graduate students at the School of Architecture walked into their first design class at Princeton this fall, Dean Stan Allen was sitting at the head of the table, poised to start the first lesson. It was a role he relished.
"That seems to me a very important moment to reach these students," said Allen, who each year teaches the first 500-level "Architecture Design Studio" that all entering three-year master's degree candidates take. "I am basically the first design teacher that they're exposed to at the graduate level, and it allows me to set a tone for the program."
The tone he has set -- in the classroom and beyond -- since taking over as dean in July 2002 is one of openness. "He makes people feel they've not only been heard, but their voice has been part of the decision," said Peter Eisenman, who has been affiliated with Princeton's architecture school since 1963.
"He leaves his office door open," observed Carolyn Yerkes, who is earning a master's degree at the school. "At a lot of schools, your dean is too important to talk to you. Stan is the farthest from that I can imagine."
Being accessible is crucial in a rapidly evolving field like architecture, according to Allen.
"Part of the job of a dean is to be open to the potential of change and the unexpected, but at the same time to strategically work to put in place the structural and organizational things that will make that future possible," Allen said.
To position the school for the future, Allen is reshaping curricula, rethinking the teaching of computer technologies, emphasizing interdisciplinary collaborations and exposing students to fresh ideas through visiting professors and academic conferences. His open-door style and his command of his field are helping Allen create an inviting atmosphere at the school. Faculty, students and alumni say they are impressed and energized by Allen's leadership.
New elements in the curriculum
Allen's tenure as dean commenced 14 years after he earned a master of architecture degree at Princeton. Before his return, he spent 12 years at Columbia University, where he was a faculty member and served as director of the master of science program in advanced architectural design. A practicing architect for more than 15 years, he also is founding principal and director of Field Operations, an interdisciplinary design practice he started in 1999 with landscape architect James Corner. The practice, which specializes in designs for urban sites and public spaces, recently won a competition to design a use for the 3,200-acre Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, N.Y.
As an architect and an educator, Allen's work has ventured into a number of areas.
"He's one of the people who has been able to move within the different aspects of the discipline very well," said Reinhold Martin, an assistant professor of architecture at Columbia and a 1995 alumnus of Princeton's architecture school. "He's a very articulate writer as well as a good designer. At Columbia, Stan's role on the faculty was quite crucial. He was somebody who was able to engage many of the different trajectories going through the school."
Connecting the theoretical and practical aspects of the discipline is one of Allen's priorities. He plans to rework the design studio courses so that students learn building technologies at the same time as design. Often, schools of architecture focus on design, leaving structure and environmental technology to be taught separately, Allen said.
"We want students to have opportunities to integrate the structural and mechanical and technical issues, not as an afterthought but as part of the design process, as an integral part of thinking about design from the beginning," he said.
This year, Allen is bringing in three visiting professors who have strong backgrounds in integrating those two facets of architecture. Spanish architects Iñaki Abalos and Juan Herreros, known for their innovative use of building technologies, will be on campus in the spring teaching an advanced graduate studio class as the Jean Labatut Professors in Architecture. And Marc Mimram, a French architect and engineer, will teach another advanced design studio.
"It's exciting to see the directional shift he's introduced to the school in some of the design studio curricula," said Leslie Witt, a student in the master's degree program.
Allen also is addressing the way that changes in computer technology have affected the practice of architecture. Instead of teaching basic computer skills in formal courses, separate from the design studio where those skills are put into practice, Allen has introduced a series of Digital Media Workshops, taught by recent architecture graduates. The workshops, for entering students, run parallel to their year-long studio class, in which they learn the basic skills of architectural design. In addition, upper-level students have access to one-on-one computer tutorials, and advanced computer seminars have been added to the curriculum.
"Because the technology is changing so quickly, you can't teach it in a formulaic way," Allen said. "You really have to give students the intellectual and conceptual skills so that they will be able to respond to technological changes in the future."
The school has hired a new faculty member, Miles Ritter, who will be teaching a class that explores the effects of computer-aided design on architecture. And George Liaro-poulos-Legendre, who specializes in computer applications in design, is a visiting lecturer this semester.
An interdisciplinary approach
Allen is pleased with the ties the architecture school has forged with other departments, and he plans to reinforce them.
"One of the things I really enjoy about Princeton is that it is authentically interdisciplinary," he said. "There is a lot of exchange with other departments, and it allows us to teach architecture in a very broad, cultural way, and to really think of architecture as a cultural practice that works in relationship to the humanities, to the technical disciplines and to questions of public policy."
As an example, Allen cited a conference being held this fall titled "Architecture and Public Policy: A Symposium in Honor of Robert Gutman," which is co-sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Three other symposia are planned for this year. A major design conference, "Design Intelligence: The Expanded Field," will bring together practitioners from around the world to present the innovative work they are doing. A conference honoring Robert Geddes, the first dean of the architecture school, will explore the history of the school and the future of architectural education. And in the spring, graduate students will organize a symposium to present their research on the history of doctoral programs in architecture.
A responsive demeanor
Allen is very knowledgeable and highly approachable, say colleagues, which has fostered an open, welcoming environment at the school.
"In an academic setting it's extremely important to give people a feeling of security and confidence in talking about ideas and testing ideas," said Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture and a member of the Princeton class of 1972. Upon first meeting Allen, "I had the impression that he was just what the school needed," said Plater-Zyberk, who is a member of the architecture school's advisory council.
"He has a real gift for going into any topic in depth and mastering it," said Robert Gutman, a lecturer in architecture who has been a member of the Princeton faculty since 1969. "He commands tremendous respect in the field -- I've heard this from faculty members and architects around the country. That's a great asset in a school. And I think students particularly find him responsive at the same time that he's critical."
They also find him fun. Yerkes and her classmates were feeling stressed out last year as they approached the day of the first major review of their work for the design studio class, which was taught by Allen. A few days before the review, Allen brought a quirky deck of cards to class and asked each student to take two cards and read aloud from them. The "Oblique Strategies" cards, designed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt as a tool for addressing difficulties in the creative process, each have a short bit of peculiar advice on them, such as "Go to an extreme, move back to a more comfortable place" or "Work at a different speed."
"No matter what the card said, Stan would nod and say, 'Yes, yes, this definitely applies to your project. Especially your project!'" Yerkes said. "He does goofy little things to take the pressure off. Architecture school can be a little pretentious. Stan just made sure it didn't get too intense."