Alumni Q+A: Ila Berman MDes ’91, DDes ’93
In August 2016, Ila Berman MDes ’91, DDes ’93 will join the prestigious list of GSD alumni who have been appointed to deanships in recent years when she assumes the role of Dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture. Other GSD alumni in deanship roles include: Amale Andraos MArch ’99 of Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; Evan Douglis MArch ’90 of the Rensselaer School of Architecture; Monica Ponce de Leon MAUD ’91 of Princeton University School of Architecture; Hashim Sarkis MArch ’89 of MIT School of Architecture and Planning; Pau Sola-MOrales MDesS ’97, DDes ’00 of the School of Architecture at the Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain; and Nader Tehrani MAUD ’91 of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at The Cooper Union.
Over the last 11 years, Berman has led three schools in different capacities, with most recently serving as the O’Donovan Director of the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo. Previously she was the Associate Dean of Tulane University School of Architecture and Director of Architecture at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
As an active member of the GSD alumni community, Berman participates in studio reviews having most recently critiqued the spring studio, Jakarta: Models of Collective Space for the Extended Metropolis, taught by Felipe Correa MAUD ’03, which examined the role of new mass transit infrastructure as a driver for new models of collective space. In this Q & A, she reflects on her time at the GSD, how her experience in the MDes and DDes programs elevated the discourse of design through research,what inspires her work, and much more.
Tell us about your background.
I was born and raised in Toronto and did my first professional degree in architecture (BArch) at Carleton University in Ottawa. The School had strong connections to the AA, Cooper Union, and Cranbrook at the time and had a reputation of taking a more theoretical and experimental approach to architecture.
When did you realize you wanted to be an architect and educator?
I knew very little about architecture when I embarked upon my first degree, although I had grown up with a father who loved abstract art and modern design. Being surrounded by images of Miro’s paintings, splattered black and white wallpaper, Eames furniture, and an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair certainly influenced me. We always lived in the only architect-designed house on the block. As an adolescent, I had a ‘studio’ in the basement of our house where I used to paint large canvases and make sculptures. I’m surprised that my parents allowed me to bring a small propane torch into the house or to cast parts of my body with casting gauze and plaster after seeing a George Segal exhibition, but it was certainly their support (or perhaps tolerance) for my own artistic and sculptural experiments that helped immensely to aid my own development. I also truly loved spatial puzzles, geometry, and math (I was part of my high school ‘math team’), as well as science and the humanities. My father had quite a good collection of philosophy books which I found myself reading at a young age considering myself to be an existentialist early on after reading Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. At the time I had wanted to do many things, so unbeknownst to me, I was a perfect candidate for architecture in some ways.
Becoming an architectural educator came much later when I had the opportunity to become a teaching fellow at both the GSD and the Carpenter Center in the School of Visual and Environmental Studies. It was a way to continue my own education while staying engaged within a highly creative environment that I always found to be truly inspiring. As a student I loved to draw, and I am often jealous of students now because they have such an expanded digital and spatial toolset in comparison to what was available when I started my architectural education. Because I believe that schools should be at the forefront of their disciplines, remaining connected to education was a way of continuing to push my own boundaries and being involved with the ongoing revolution of the design disciplines.
Why did you choose the GSD?
I wanted a school that could give me the best education possible. Harvard is an attractor and a vortex for brilliance and talent in relation to both its faculty and students who come from places dispersed across the globe. It was a very stimulating and exciting place to be which I still feel every time I return for reviews or other events.
Who or what inspires you and your work?
I am continuously inspired by thought-provoking concepts and great design. The range is very wide because my interests run both broad and deep. I just finished a book with Douglas Burnham entitled Expanded Field on art and architectural installation that emerged out of an installation that we did on the subject a few years ago at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. The project, which attempts to develop a taxonomical framework for installation practice, was very much one of passion. Installation has often inspired me because it is a means to experiment with architectural ideas and material and spatial tectonics within a laboratory—like environment while simultaneously being a strategy to foreground the conceptual, perceptual, and experiential dimensions of the architectural. I have always been truly inspired by form and the aesthetic side of our discipline. Although it sometimes plagues my social conscience, it is the thing that makes my heart beat.
Living through Hurricane Katrina was certainly an experience that had an enormous impact on my life and work. Although I would not wish a natural disaster on anyone, it made me extremely aware of the ways in which our architectural design disciplines might anticipate and respond to global crises (be they natural, political, or cultural) and the potential impact that our work might have on the world. Through this, I developed the URBANbuild program at Tulane University, a multi-pronged strategy extending across multiple disciplines and scales of operation that could mobilize the capacity of an architecture school to aid in the city’s post-disaster recovery. Simultaneously, it addressed some of the difficult problems that the city faced pre-Katrina resulting from its territorial expansion and a long history of neglect leading to urban blight and decay.
I believe that transdisciplinary forms of knowledge and practice are critical to the future of our disciplines and design institutions that enable multiple disciplines to engage each other as part of the educational process is not only far more enriching for students, but will also become far more relevant in relation to the future of practice.
Tell us about your professional career. Over the last 11 years, you led three schools in different capacities. You will be moving from the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo to be Dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture as of August 15. What drew you to this new position?
As the Associate Dean of Tulane University, the Director of Architecture at CCA in San Francisco, and most recently as the O’Donovan Director of the School of Architecture at the University of Waterloo, I’ve had the opportunity to lead three quite distinct architecture schools in different capacities. In many ways through my role overseeing the academic mission of each of these schools, I have tried to draw and build upon their individual strengths. I was drawn to UVA for a number of reasons; among them its exceptionally strong reputation for producing very competent graduates as evidenced by the number of its very successful alums.
I am also extremely interested in schools such as UVA and the GSD that house multiple disciplines—architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design/planning—in addition to supporting advanced forms of research at the post-professional and doctoral levels. I believe that transdisciplinary forms of knowledge and practice are critical to the future of our disciplines and design institutions that enable multiple disciplines to engage each other as part of the educational process is not only far more enriching for students, but will also become far more relevant in relation to the future of practice.
I also think that as much as design operates as a potential model for other disciplines—in its capacity for creative synthesis that is born out of a studio and project-based culture—specialized forms of knowledge are becoming increasingly important. Educational institutions need to be responding to this through advanced research opportunities and expanded educational models and degree structures. UVA has certainly initiated this through its post-professional and Ph.D. programs which I am interested in growing, as well as through its various institutes and curricular streams in relation to environmental negotiation, resilience, and design thinking among others. It also has generated a wide range of global initiatives in many sites in Asia, India, Africa and Europe—something that I am intent on intensifying. It is also one of the few schools that has already had three female deans preceding me—something that I read as a very good sign in relation to gender equity (and something that is still lacking in the architectural profession).
How has your engagement with the GSD shaped your vision for design education?
The GSD has been traditionally defined less by a single ideological position, than a desire to remain engaged with concerns and practices that are at the forefront of shaping the design disciplines. It has done this by drawing upon a wide range of global talent to continuously renew itself, a strategy that is certainly among its greatest strengths and a model for education to which I subscribe. This has enabled the School to remain extremely diverse in its educational offerings while ensuring its continued relevance. I have also always appreciated the depth and rigor of the work of the school, at all levels, from the core design studios to the upper-level electives and advanced degree programs. This combination of rigor and diversity has certainly influenced my own approach to design education. In my recent visit to the School this past spring for final reviews, I was highly impressed by the latest exhibition—Platform 8—which is a great indicator for me of what is happening across the courses and studios. I’m also quite pleased that Zaneta Hong (MLA ’07), the curator of the most recent Platform exhibition, will be joining the UVA faculty next year.
What is your greatest professional achievement?
I’m still optimistically hoping that this is yet to come.
Tell us about your work/life balance? What occupies you when you are not working?
I’m not sure that I’m the best model of a work/life balance, perhaps because the lines between my life and work—especially in relation to design, research, or writing—have often been very blurry. That said, I absolutely love living in urban environments, the energy and intensity of the city and the culture that this brings—great food, film, art, and design. I also love to travel since I am an explorer by nature, enjoy music and dance, and am a creature with a very strong connection to the landscape. I very much miss living on the West Coast where my partner (who is also an architect, urban designer, and educator) and I would go hiking in the mountains or to the coast on a fairly regular basis. Physical exertion and being out in the landscape is often a good counter to the hazards of spending too much time sitting in my office, studio, or in front of my computer.
How did your experience in the MDes and DDes programs elevate the discourse of design through research? Why is this important to you and for design education?
I am extremely interested in the variant relationships between thought and form, theory and making. My research at the GSD was spawned earlier in my undergraduate thesis for my first professional degree which focused on the modern evolution of abstract form and the work of more contemporary architects, such as Peter Eisenman, for whom design and theory were seemingly inseparable. Eisenman represented a significant model for my own work and research, which was not only carried through my doctoral thesis—From Grid to Matrix—in the DDes program, but was also one of the reasons that I was attracted to the program in the first place because it attempted to generate a stronger network between research and design practice than typical Ph.D. programs. It’s been great to see this program evolve. Having participated in the Projective Views on Urban Metabolism conference a couple of years ago organized by DDes students, I was very impressed by the collective endeavors of the program including such things as the New Geographies series.
Design research is somewhat revolutionary in that architecture has most often derived its models of research from other disciplines in the humanities, and social and/or applied sciences, rather than recentering the discourse of research within design theory and enabling its methods to influence and expand the definition of research within advanced educational institutions. Because creative practices were deemed to be outside of the traditional academic domains of research, architectural schools always struggle with reframing research within the realm of design, while simultaneously using other forms of externally generated research to productively expand and densify the intellectual investment in design practice.
You initiated a series of global travel programs for students, including one focused on water cities. Why is global travel important for design students?
I believe that travel and being exposed to architectural works and cities firsthand through global design studios and other opportunities are essential parts of architectural education. Over the years, I’ve run or supported a number of travel programs and international global studios including a Central European Program to Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Basel, Zurich and surrounding areas that we ran many times—both at Tulane and CCA.
Beyond the importance of the exposure that travel programs provide, I believe that it is critical that as architects, we are addressing world cultures, the diversity, and range of architectural practices, and the larger global issues that we are facing such as planetary urbanization and its effects on city territories.
The GSD taught me that an intense and stimulating environment, both within and outside the studio and classroom, is absolutely critical to architectural education.
What is the most significant thing you learned while at the GSD?
The GSD taught me that an intense and stimulating environment, both within and outside the studio and classroom, is absolutely critical to architectural education. It was likely the first time that I truly learned from everything around me.
The work generated for the Jakarta studio was very impressive, especially given the depth of the research, the complexity of the larger urban challenge and the precise architectural scale of the interventions generated by the students. Beyond the significance of understanding the role of infrastructure to mobilize and restructure urban development, one of the strengths of this series of studios is in their direct engagement with real urban issues developed in partnership with key stakeholders in these cities. The research that the studio provides serves to enhance the dialogue on these issues while the speculative proposals expand the potential scenarios for the city’s future development at the very moment that cities like Jakarta are struggling with these issues.
Was there anyone at the GSD that had great influence on you?
There were many people at the School that had a great influence on me. Certainly Michael Hays, who was my doctoral advisor and mentor, had an enormous impact on me, especially within the realm of architectural theory. He was one of the reasons that I came to the School, and I had the opportunity to be a teaching fellow for his introductory theory course which was my first foray into teaching. Michael was also running a theory lecture series at the time and had brought many people to the school that I had the opportunity to meet or study with such as Cornel West, Fredric Jameson, Beatriz Colomina, Bob Somol, Catherine Ingraham, and others. It was also at the GSD that I met Sanford Kwinter who was teaching a course in complexity theory and who became the second reader on my doctoral committee. It was Sanford who had introduced me to Deleuze, Bergson, Prigogine, Dawkins and a number of other philosophers and theorists who were likely responsible for rewiring my brain during that period. Sanford was truly an inspiration for me and many others. In the design studios, I found a shared obsession with reading form in Scott Cohen (MArch ’85) for whom I would do studio crits for on a regular basis, and I very much appreciated being at the GSD during Mack Scogin’s tenure as Chair of the Department of Architecture. It was a very exciting time, and many of my current friends and colleagues were from that time at the GSD.
What’s your favorite memory of the GSD?
I have many great memories of the GSD, but probably the most significant was my realization very early on that it was an environment where for the first time, I felt I had peers who were quite similar to me—extremely committed, curious, creative, driven, and often highly critical in relation to their own work. Despite its size, it was the first place that I felt truly at home.
What advice do you have for GSD students and alumni?
For students, I would certainly encourage them to take advantage of the many curricular and extra-curricular opportunities that exist at the School and the incredible talent of their faculty and peers in order to get the most out of their education and the environment. I would also advise students to take advantage of the faculty in other disciplines and across the campus, something that architects seldom do. It was also during my time at Harvard that I was able to sit in classes with art historians Norman Bryson and Yves-Alain Bois and to work at the Carpenter Center outside of the GSD. The intellectual capital at the University is tremendous and should not be overlooked, and the network is extremely strong both for students and alumni—something that has been of great value to me, not only during my time at the school but for many years after.
The intellectual capital at the University is tremendous and should not be overlooked, and the network is extremely strong both for students and alumni—something that has been of great value to me, not only during my time at the school but for many years after.
What would surprise us about you?
My love of architecture stems from my love of form and rhythm, and I had promised myself that if I ever gave up architecture, I would take up drumming.