Interview with J. Meejin Yoon, Professor and Head of MIT Department of Architecture

29 January 2016

Interview by Hara Gavra

Professor Yoon, as you are working towards a cross-disciplinary perspective on architectural education, which are your biggest challenges when coming to terms with a discipline with traditionally well-preserved boundaries?

I think that the architectural discipline is always protected in the fact that it is a profession in need of architects; as long as there are buildings there will be architects. But I think the biggest struggle is with defining and redefining boundaries, both from the inside and the outside. So, from the inside there is always a question of autonomy. That the discipline needs very clear boundaries in order to be autonomous and therefore strong. But my personal belief is that as architects we have weakened our own profession over time, exactly by trying to be so autonomous, to the point that as an architect you need so many consultants now. It's like you are just a coordinator among your environmental consultant, and your highly specialized parametric, structural engineering consulting firm, and the programmers as well. I think architecture by trying to be autonomous has actually lost some of -not only scope within its own discipline, but also- its power.

Whereas, what is amazing about architecture is that it creates new worlds. It reconfigures what imagination is and translates it into new realities that can be tangible and experienced and packful. That core hasn't left and that core needs to continue and to be strengthened. But I think to strengthen it we actually have to be open to redefining the edges of our discipline, to building bridges within the internal expertise within our discipline because it has become so specific. I strongly maintain that there is a really important role for architects and, in my mind, an architect is someone that naturally connects bridges, that can bring together imagination and problem solving and create something you could never imagine if you were just problem solving or just being speculative.

So I think it has two challenges, one from within and then from the outside, what I've known is that when you redefine boundaries and you take on lets say... open data, 'what is open data sources and what does that mean for society, and citizens', and 'can u take that and incorporate that into some architectural application'...well, nobody minds from the data world, nobody minds from civic media... that's not a problem. The problem is more with the people that believe in the purity of the autonomy of the discipline.

What is the role of the design studio in this 'negotiating' process?

I think that the design studio is the most important space. Because it is a context, a pedagogy that is about experimentation. Like a set of controls in the laboratory, where we define the problem set and exclude certain things so that you can really explore questions, and like you said earlier, it's not about answering the problem, it's about asking the series of questions that allow you to engage with the process that builds new knowledge. Although not necessarily knowledge facts, but knowledge that ties speculation with real promise of impact. And I don't think you can do that in other settings. A lab, for instance, is so driven by pure research, and pure problem solving and it requires a level of rigor. But the studio allows you to ease that part. You can change the problem context pretty loosely as you go, and that is what is so important about the studio. And a critique can be like 'well, this isn't working and let's reimagine the x moment'. So, a studio is a kind of nurturing of the creative process for a whole semester. And, I feel like I'm so jealous of our students who get to be in the studio, because I don't get that luxury of time to just have the creative process nurturing anymore. In your profession you are mediating between many many things, and you are running and designing very quickly without the luxury of thoughtfulness, like 'I'm gonna explore this and if it doesn't work I will think of something else'.

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