A Conversation With Wes Jones, Newly Appointed Director of Graduate Architecture

School News

A Conversation With Wes Jones, Newly Appointed Director of Graduate Architecture

September 17, 2015


Wes Jones is known for charting his own course in architecture. Since founding Jones, Partners: Architecture (J,P:A) in 1993 in Los Angeles, he has been defining new territory and new approaches to contemporary modernism, believing in the “hopeful, open-minded attitude of that tradition“ while pushing the boundaries of technology to create environments that engage and inspire. According to the firm’s description, J,P:A acts “like a small, obsessive design practice intent on changing the world by demonstrating the way things should really be.” For more than twenty years, Jones has brought this same intensity, optimism, and sense of mission to his role as a professor, having taught at Harvard, Princeton, IIT, Columbia, UCLA, Ohio State University, and SCI-Arc. He has also held the Frank Gehry Chair at the University of Toronto and was Howard Friedman Professor of Practice at UC Berkeley. He now brings this rich teaching and leadership experience to USC, where he assumes the role of Director of Graduate Architecture.


“We are very excited Wes is joining us, especially in this leadership role,” says Gail Peter Borden, Discipline Head of Architecture and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. “This represents an entirely new chapter of opportunity and he is assuming leadership of a program that just received full accreditation for the longest term in its history and has recently expanded to include the three-year first professional master of architecture and a revamped post-professional sequence. Wes's design prowess, always focused on the pragmatic and aesthetic, is an ideal fit for our program and the legacy of the school.”


What are you most excited about in your new position as director of graduate architecture?


WJ: Right now I'm just trying to come up to speed. This is a big ship with a lot of moving parts and a lot of tradition. I have a lot of ideas but I'm working to learn as much as I can about it and come in without preconceptions.


The thing that I’m personally most excited about is the fact that this is a legit school within a university setting and all of the high standards and potential resources that that represents. If we can figure out how to keep the one and make use of the other, I think there are some real opportunities here. It’s also exciting that the graduate program is relatively new even though the school itself has a long history, more than a hundred years now. Most of that history, I think, has been focused on the undergrad program.


A lot of hard work has already gone into setting up the program and now that it’s going full steam it’s possible to see what we are working with and can start to give the program some identity and a particular character appropriate to the school and the region.


Where do you want to take the graduate program?


WJ: I have three main interests that I’m hoping to put together into a coherent program. Above all, though, I want the developing character of the program to be related to USC tradition, and to be seen as emergent, rather than imposed.


First, I’m interested in seeing us become a program that, like the university itself, is a unique product of Southern California. We’re in a special place at an exceptional time and we should emphasize that. In Southern California the benign climate and dramatic landscape have created an atmosphere that is at once relaxed but open to adventure. So we get surfing and hotrods, but we also get the aerospace industry and Hollywood. It’s a place for serious people who don't want to be constrained by the conventions of that seriousness, who want rigor to be a springboard to innovation rather than a channel to conformity.


Second, I want to figure out a way to tease the sensibility or brand out of the vocational and professional foundations of the school. After what could be argued was the highpoint of the school’s influence in Southern California, during the Case Study period when most of the practitioners hailed from here, the school has been dismissed as a vocational school. Now that the school has committed to catching up with the times, I’d like to see if we can’t do this without disavowing that past association with pencils and vellum. See if we can’t forge a character that rehabilitates that past rather than overwrites it. Wouldn’t it be a cool and useful trick to discover a formalism, for example, that makes use of the new tools, that depends on them, but is not so patently opposed to reality or economic possibility? Koolhaas did it by remixing modernism, maybe we can figure out how to make egress requirements sexy.


Third, which is the way we might be able to do this, I think, is to recognize that the new “world picture,” as Heidegger and Wittgenstein, and others, have called it, is “the Game,” and to embrace this free-for-all, market-driven, competitive, open-source (those are not necessarily opposed ideas), creative, advantage-seeking spirit in our pedagogy. As I mentioned in my long rambling question to Jose Sanchez at his lecture, I have been working on the relationship between architecture and games—specifically the spirit of the game—for about a decade now, through writing and studios at the GSD, and now feel I am in a position, here as Grad Director, to implement some of these ideas in a real world setting. What this might mean is not only creating, with the help of people like Jose, games that have a directly pedagogical role in the architecture school, but fostering an overall environment here that feeds on the students’ natural gamesmanship, drawing them into the pedagogical enterprise as players rather than just receivers of knowledge.


In all this we want to be known for things that aren’t just visually flashy, but which also have substance. We are certainly capable of producing flash, and the temptation exists to follow that capability to a higher profile for the school. But if you look back at the last 100 years of the USC School of Architecture, what really comes through is substance—the faculty builds, the graduates distinguish themselves out in the profession, and the students are doing the solid work expected in a world class university. I’m hoping we can graduate alumni that continue their solid—but spirited—work out in the world where they will become recognized as a credit to the program, and conversely that the program continues to be such that these alumni can reference it with pride as they move on in their careers. Being a USC graduate should mean something and not just disappear into the resume to be overwritten by later job titles. There are some schools that enjoy such exceptional resonance, I think we all know which ones they are, and there is no reason that USC can’t become one of them.


In terms of “flashy” work, do you think that in general there is an overemphasis on flashy parametric work in architectural pedagogy these days?


WJ: All design is parametric and always has been, since “parametric” really means using limits and rules—parameters—to judge, and advance, the ongoing work. Even supercharged by digital technology it's still just a tool. It can be skewed toward the visual and expressive but it is really more useful for actually solving problems. One way it does this well, that incidentally suits it to the complexities of the profession and the kinds of wicked problems architects so often find themselves addressing, is its capability for creating precisely related alternatives. This usage also forces the designer to be aware of the judgment regime capable of choosing among those alternatives. We want to encourage using tools like this but we also want to be more conscious of what we're using them for.


There has been a connection made by some folks who are known for digitally driven parametric work between their signature forms and performance. In fact, Thom Mayne, one of the two Pritzker Laureate alumni from here, uses a term “performalism” to describe such work. I think that’s a great idea, an update of the old “form follows function” rubric, but it is seldom taken seriously much less achieved by most who profess to work that way. If architecture is supposed to put us in contact with how the world works, which I believe, then I think we can tell the difference when performance and form are actually congruent. When they are not, despite claims to the contrary, it makes the work seem especially superficial and, dare I say, dishonest.


For those who don't know you, how long have you been teaching and how long have you been at USC?


WJ: Well, I've been teaching since the mid-nineties. I guess you can do the math. I have taught at lots of schools but my longest consistent stretch was when I was commuting back east to Harvard and Princeton and then more recently the last decade I’ve pretty much been full time at SCI-Arc. I've also done several studios at Columbia. And from all this I get a very strong sense of how USC might position itself among all the choices for graduate level education. While I’ve only been here at USC for one semester now, I have given talks and been on reviews here for much longer—since before the present grad program existed—and this gives me a good perspective on what makes USC a special place.


What’s the ideal role of the graduate program at USC?


WJ: The grad program here has to be seen first in relation to the long, strong undergraduate tradition. But not as simply a continuation of that; like most graduate programs only a very small percentage of our students are coming from our own undergraduate program. Like the undergraduate program the grad program has a responsibility to produce professionals, ready to enter the field as practitioners. But, in addition, it has an opportunity to take advantage of the varied backgrounds of the incoming students, all of whom, of course, have at least college level experience and can be seen as colleagues and contributors as well as students.


So what this means is that the graduate program can operate with more self-awareness and perspective regarding pedagogical issues, and range further and deeper when it comes to research and professional activities requiring a higher level performance. You can expect graduate students, who have all been through a lot of educational experiences already, to be able to contribute not only to the refinement of the educational process itself based on their experience, but also to the actual content of the lessons, by offering up the expertise or knowledge they might bring from their “previous lives.” Of these I think the more pressing issue these days is “the education of the architect.” So much has changed with our tools and the world, yet much of the architect’s education is based on a model that predates those changes. There is a lot of literature out there about how the new digital environment relates to education, but in architecture that relationship has primarily been to design outcomes, rather than learning. In architecture I think learning happens through experience, by building a capacity for judgment, rather than by being “taught” or memorizing anything. But those experiences are different now. The students come from a world that has a decidedly greater virtual component—with which they are as equally comfortable as the physical stuff of architecture and the built environment. We need to bring these together more intelligently, and the graduate students’ familiarity with both education and that digital context can be very helpful in making this connection. Maybe a liberating respect for the underlying game ethos of our present civilization will facilitate this.


Of course, it is an old truism that upper level undergraduates are more skillful than graduate students, thanks to their longer tenure in the field, but it’s equally true that the graduate students compete better when it comes to judgment because of their often greater worldliness. The architect needs both, and it is very healthy to have the two programs together in one place like this where they can push each other forward.


How does your practice intersect with academia?


WJ: Though I have always thought of myself as a practitioner, it is true that I have spent an increasing amount of time in academia. This wouldn’t happen if I didn’t think it was beneficial, hopefully both directions—the students from my professional experience, and the office from the research at school. Depending on the situation this exchange is skewed one way or the other for me. Sometimes I will use studio to explore an idea that I feel is important but has not yet had an opportunity to come up in my practice. The studio I conducted last semester on “near figure” is an example. In this studio I was able to learn with the students as we all explored the logic and ramifications of this formal idea, and I think this had the additional benefit of putting us more directly into a collegial relationship. At other times, when I feel that I’ve learned something in my practice that could be imparted to the students in more of a “master class” format I’ve taught that way, and the students benefit then from my unique professional expertise. Studios related to the use of steel or ISO shipping containers would be examples of that.


The upshot is that while I’ve thought of myself as either a practitioner or an academic, as if the roles were distinct, in fact for most of my career it would be impossible to truly separate the two.


What do you think about NCARB’s move toward having students achieve their licenses upon graduation, or at least getting closer to attaining a license? Is this something you would advocate and a door that should be held open for students?


WJ: I think it's probably an inevitability given the changing nature of the profession and we should be at the forefront of that. So much of the actual work that we think of as architecture is being done now with software that the most recent graduates know much better than the associates and principals for whom they work that there is a possibility for an inefficient and dangerous disconnect in the work flow. The recent graduates become disenfranchised “cad monkeys” and lose sight of the bigger picture, while those above lose the advantage of knowing their projects as intimately as they once did when everyone was working with the same tools. The licensure system is based on an older tradition where experience was the key marker of the architect, so much so that it was possible to gain licensure through experience gained in an office alone, with no schooling. That’s no longer the case. While experience is still huge, it is, for better or worse, not the engine driving the process any more.


I will say that this is truer of the larger firm than the smaller firm, since the smaller firm is still able to operate with the inefficiencies of the older system, where the software remains more of a drawing tool than a database information system (BIM, Revit), and the entire office can be expected to be “up to date.” I think the kind of experience that used to make the difference does matter more in this more intimate production setting. Also of course there are the economic issues: do newly graduated licensed architects get priced out of the system entirely if they are still being seen as cad monkeys?


USC can address precisely these issues by ensuring that our graduates come out with both the skills and the judgment—to use the skills for good rather than evil—by continuing and reinforcing the tradition of substance over flash I mentioned earlier. In that case our graduates will be treated as true architects rather than being prized only for their digital skills.


What is the responsibility of the architect today?


WJ: Architecture is a profession and a discipline; the responsibility of the architect does not change just because the tools or even the culture changes. The architect’s responsibility is rooted deeper than these, in the ethical underpinnings of architecture, which themselves derive from architecture’s central place in determining our environment. Architecture places us in the world, and the architect must determine for themselves what the world is or should be—without hearing from the vast majority of folks who will inhabit the work or possibility of leaning on any kind of received tradition. Huge responsibility. To deserve that responsibility they have to invest their work with their best effort, with a level of care and concern that goes way beyond what would be necessary if it was just a job.


Today this responsibility extends beyond the concerns of any individual building, too, all the way to the city as an aggregation of the design choices the architect makes and the environment as the plenum of resources enabling those choices. Both of these are in crisis these days and architecture will be responsible in a big way for addressing their problems.


What inspires you?


WJ: At this point I really don't look very much at what other people are doing. We don't have any subscriptions to magazines. I tend to be inspired more by technology rather than the work of any specific architect. In particular, I’m constantly amazed when advanced technology results in beautiful design as an unintended consequence. For example, the AC 45 and AC 72 classes of catamarans that were created to contest the America’s Cup are pure machines for transforming wind power into maneuverable speed and they are breathtakingly beautiful. At the same time I’m hyperconscious of the irony that they would be less beautiful—not to mention less fast—if the designers had aimed for beauty in the first place. This is not just “form follows function” but “form IS function.” What I mean by this is that there is no separation of the terms, neither can be thought apart from the other, much less judged separately. Of course, this is what the designers and architects who worked under the former banner were implying, but they were either fooling themselves or the rest of us when they claimed that their work had no interest beyond performance.


However, I’m always mindful of the difference between architecture and engineering, so I can only think of these examples as inspiration rather than models. We want to be as good as them, but we can’t be like them. As architects we have to admit form, expression, and affect as legitimate “functions” or “performance” in their own right, but we have to do this while maintaining the standards that in engineering are objective or quantifiable. In other words, a performalism should not just be the result of using performance as an alibi, but should somehow embody the purposefulness we sense in the engineered version without the architect’s signature hogging the limelight. ♦