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Civil and Environmental Engineering

M. Naomi Darling ’96

Architect; Adjunct Professor, Yale University School of Architecture; Adjunct Professor, Brown University Urban Studies Department

In the summer of 2005, while in architecture graduate school, I received a traveling fellowship to research the relationship of inside to outside in the traditional gardens of China. As I was sitting and sketching, I realized that the Chinese garden was a good analogy for my life pursuits starting with my time at Princeton. There are a myriad of pathways through Chinese gardens, and it is difficult to get a grasp of the overall garden when one enters. Instead, one must discover each garden by following one’s curiosity. What is around that path? What is on the other side of the wall that I can see a glimpse of light beyond? The pathways are not direct but meandering, exploratory, alternately framing views of distant mountains and focusing your attention on an incredibly shaped stone. I feel that my pathway in life has been similar—not necessarily on a straight and direct path, but always following my passion.

As a high school senior, I was attracted to Princeton because of the four-year architecture major within a liberal arts university, as well as a developed Japanese language program. I had been interested in architecture since building cut-out paper models as a child and helping my mother with fieldwork measuring the bases of Romanesque churches in Burgundy. Being half Japanese, I also wanted to strengthen my language skills so that one day I could work in Japan. In the spring of my freshman year, I took “Introduction to Architectural Design” with Professor Elizabeth Diller, and I loved it. I felt challenged to think in new ways, see things differently, and synthesize ideas into design. 

I decided to become an architecture major but I was interested in approaching architecture from an understanding of engineering and structures. I wanted to understand how buildings work, and thus was one of the rare students who decided to transfer into the engineering school for my sophomore year so that I could pursue the joint Program in Architecture and Engineering. I also decided to pursue a certificate in visual arts with a focus on painting and ceramics. Between the Engineering Quadrangle, the School of Architecture, and the Program in Visual Arts at 185 Nassau Street, I had three homes on campus, each satisfying a different part of my intellect and keeping me in balance.

Nurturing curiosity

Princeton is an institution that nurtures personal intellectual curiosity and passion through rigorous research, analysis, and application, especially in supporting the senior thesis. I had spent three summers working on climate research in Antarctica with a sea ice physicist and wanted to combine my passion for Antarctica with my passion for architecture and engineering. At the time, there was discussion about a new research station at the South Pole where wind and snowdrifting were prime considerations. The question I asked was, how could environmental factors shape and inform the final design? For the South Pole, this led me to develop a computational fluid dynamics model for snow drifting with my adviser, Professor Jean Prévost, that I used to test several design concepts. Throughout the process, I felt incredible intellectual freedom and support.

In many ways, the fundamental question that motivated my senior thesis is still motivating my teaching and architectural practice today. The path from there to here has not been so linear, but always has been an interest in the ways in which we as humans respond to, interact with, shape and are shaped by our natural environment. Immediately after graduation, I went to work at the Sea Education Association as an assistant scientist aboard the schooner Westward. Although this work was not directly related to engineering or architecture, the rigor of my thesis research at Princeton enabled me to advise students on oceanography-related research projects. 

Living on a boat with 35 people and navigating by the stars is also a great education in community and a way to gain a deep understanding of the movements of the sun, weather, and climate—something I still draw upon in my work as an architect. After my time as a scientist, I completed an MFA in sculpture in Melbourne, Australia. My work was installation-based; it involved creating landscapes of experience and memory of the Australian ecology within a gallery context. This work led me back to architecture, and I have since completed an M.Arch. and worked for three firms in Seattle, New Haven, and Tokyo before starting to teach and launch my own design practice.

Crossing traditional boundaries

My time at Princeton encouraged me to transcend the traditional boundaries of disciplines and make linkages across departments in pursuit of my intellectual passions. In these interstitial spaces, some of the most interesting ideas are born. In my experience, following my passions has given me great opportunities, and seemingly unrelated disciplines and experiences have come together to synthesize in unexpected and exciting ways. 

Recently, my undergraduate adviser, Professor David Billington, came to lecture at the Yale School of Architecture, where I am now on the faculty. As I sat in the audience and listened once again to Professor Billington lecture, I was struck by how many of my most deeply held beliefs about architecture and design stem from my days sitting in his classes at Princeton. My teaching at Yale has been in courses related to sustainability—one is a seminar jointly enrolled by architecture students and forestry students. The seminar brings together students from the two schools to look at how ecology can inform larger-scale urban planning. The second course, which I co-teach, focuses on basic principles of heat, light, and sound at the scale of the building, and for me unites my days solving problem sets at the EQuad with shooting the sun on the deck of the Westward. At Brown, I co-teach a seminar in the urban studies department on green cities, on the role of parks in the life of cities. 

As an architect, my design practice is now getting under way. Last year, I designed a sacred performance space for the International Festival of Sacred Art in Delhi, and currently I am working on the design of a photographer’s studio that respectfully interfaces with its site. I feel I am still on a journey and I don’t always know what is around the next bend, but Princeton gave me the tools to rigorously pursue my passions, and that is what I continue to do today.