Dean Spotlight: Milton S. F. Curry

School News

Dean Spotlight: Milton S. F. Curry

November 02, 2017


On Aug. 30, Dean Milton S. F. Curry gave the inaugural lecture to kick off the fall 2017 lecture series. In his lecture, titled “Citizen / Architect,” he raised a number of issues related to pedagogy, practice, the role of the architect in society, spatial justice and the importance of failing.


In the Q & A below, we followed up with him to probe a little further into some of the issues he raised and their implications for the direction of the School.


In your lecture, you raised a number of challenging issues that relate to social and spatial justice. Could you expand on this theme of exploring these issues through the lens of architecture?

I think it goes back to something I said at the beginning of the lecture about trying to create a culture at the School that is around asking foundational questions. I think so many times in the discipline, in practice, and in the academy, we short-circuit our informed creativity by jumping to the tier or threshold where the architects get involved. So if it’s around incarceration, it’s around ‘how do we design a better prison?’ We immediately jump to that question. If it’s around technology, it’s around how we push innovation through digital fabrication and through parametric modeling. If it’s around capital, it’s about designing more efficient and affordable housing; it’s going to be cost effective and seductive to developers. In all three cases, we’ve already jumped to where we think our role starts, but we’ve also missed the foundational questions that actually impact how we do our work. So in the case of urbanization and incarceration, we often don't ask the question of the pathways, of the ways in which the city is constructed, the ways in which people cohere the city that may inevitably lead them to a life of incarceration because of the way cities are designed, because of the way gentrification happens, because of the ways environmentally precarious entities and plans get located. The life spheres are already truncated by the way we design cities. It’s not about the end point as the prison. The beginning point is also an architectural question, which is why are we designing cities where crime is narrowly happening in five or 10 blocks of Baltimore or L.A.? That’s great that the other 70 percent is home free. We can also ask the question of why is the design of the cities or the maintenance of these cities producing a very efficient way for crime to be happening? That’s a question about space and architecture that is more foundational.


So for someone who is approaching this broader issue from a design standpoint or a theoretical position within design, what are some of the ways people can intervene earlier in the process in terms of educating oneself so you can think in these broader terms?

I don’t use the term “design research.” I think if we talk about the problem I just outlined, there is a forensic analysis that architects are capable of doing in partnership with people involved in social and data analytics, social science, etc. There is a way we can analyze phenomena that is spatial and physical; some of it is not, but we have a way of thinking and representing things so that we can use the forensic role of architecture, and that is a research role. It’s a forensic role to analyze and then represent that analysis visually so that communities can understand it, other designers can understand it, and policymakers can understand it. That is a research role, it’s not design. It’s using the skills we have as designers to do analysis and research. I think that’s a really important role for us, and we can distinguish that and say this is not about designing a building, it’s about representing—through our skills as designers—research.


You brought up the example of Michigan Architecture Prep, the architecture program you started in partnership with Detroit Public Schools Community District. Do you see opportunities like this for the School of Architecture, and what might you envision in terms of fostering connections with the neighborhoods around USC? Is that important, or are there other ways to talk about and act on the issues that relate to the School’s location in the city?

We will investigate how we can better serve underrepresented students – how we can tailor our approaches to recruitment and pre-degree enrichment to attract more of these students into our academic programs. It’s too early to determine exactly what programs will be effective in the Southern California context, but we are committed to thinking big.


Can you imagine other kinds of frameworks or partnerships with the city or surrounding communities?

We’re all here in the community of the School, and that presents an opportunity to leverage our location. We’re also in California, which also means the very unique, very intense conditions at the California-Mexico border. I think that these local and regional contexts including South L.A. give us the ability to get our students and faculty into these locations. In some cases, I think there will be opportunities for strategic faculty research. In other cases, students will be out there as part of courses. And they themselves may be inspired to do undergraduate and graduate research projects in these areas.

Ultimately from our institutional perspective, we don’t want to duplicate initiatives at other schools. We will closely examine what other institutions are doing and play to our unique strengths in offerings that expand career and intellectual opportunities for our students and faculty.


I appreciated how you highlighted a failed real estate/design project that you were involved in. I wish people would do more of that. What are some of the important failures students can make and learn from while they are in school?

Language is so important. With respect to this idea of failure, I look at the language of experimentation vs. exploration. I use the word exploration. To me, experimentation often refers to a kind of narcissistic or inward-looking approach to innovation. Exploration to me is stepping out of your comfort zone, to a place where you don’t know what you’re stepping into. A true explorer ventures into unknown territory. Far too often we frame experimentation in a narrow ideological way for our students or for an entire school.  I think where we have core knowledge, core expertise, when we explore, we then discover the knowledge exchange that can actually continue that exploration as opposed to what I see as experimenting within an already known paradigm that becomes very conventional. I think it’s very important for a school to push various forms of exploration, not simply rely on conventional notions of what has come to be accepted as ‘experimentation.’


Writing can be a central part of someone’s practice and exploring. Can you talk about the role of writing for you?

I think research and creative work go hand in hand when you are talking about the kinds of outputs that happen in architecture school. Architecture theory is relatively new to come out from under the umbrella of history and criticism. Writing is really helping our students and our faculty to articulate clearly. Writing can help sharpen our thinking—thinking that is on a continuum with our design intentions and motivations.


For architects such as Le Corbusier or Rem Koolhaas or Peter Eisenman, there’s a polemical dance between work that’s produced as a designer and the discourse that the designer produces through their written record. That provides a very interesting pedagogical forensics in terms of how architects think about and market their work. These reflections—through writing—offer parallel ‘thought worlds’ versus scientifically accurate accounts of their intentions, and this is an interesting area for historians and thinkers to probe over time.


Some of your work goes into the areas of race and cultural studies. You mentioned Mark Bradford and his works with maps. That seems like an important feedback loop for your work. Are there other important artists, writers or philosophers you would hope people would be more aware of?

I think from a disciplinary perspective, we’re at a moment where there are productive tensions between makers and thinkers. There’s tension between technologists and technological determinists and those that are cultural determinists. Some of those tensions are good fodder for debate. And I think we should have those debates in the open.


Mark Bradford and other contemporary artists such as Adam Pendleton, Kori Newkirk, Edgar Arceneaux, Arthur Jafa and others represent the very best of how underrepresented artists are articulating new human values and translating those into their work as a direct corollary to their lived and intellectualized experience in the world. This is powerful stuff! There are corollaries in many domains of contemporary art, yet fewer in our discipline. I’d like to be a part of that change as we become more culturally relevant to the 99 percent as a discipline and as a profession.


These issues aren’t race or class neutral.

No, they are not; nor should they be! But I think we’ve fallen into comfortable camps around these issues. We can produce something that’s digitally fabricated here, but is that accessible everywhere and should it be and what’s the cost of that? Those are questions that need to be asked not necessarily after we’ve done the experimentation but during the experimentation to inform the process of discovery and making. When we take into account the legacies of race, racism, ethnic marginalization, and sexual and gender transformations, we enrich our own understanding of the human experience, not diminish it.


You mentioned debate and I wanted to get back to that. Are there ways the School can enable these debates to occur out in the open or in a more productive way?

I think we have to convene more debates, not just lectures. We will host important thinkers from different disciplines and actually have an orchestrated debate as opposed to having just invited lectures. Sometimes in symposia you have those debates, sometimes you have those debates in final architecture reviews. This will also enable us to draw in people from the broader community to participate and to feel like there’s a conversation as opposed to a one-sided lecture or address from on high.


What advice do you have for students?

The mantra that I like to use is, ‘what impact do you want to have on the world?’ I think students should keep a diary of their answers to that question at the various stages of their educational careers and it should be informed by the explorations that take place here. And it should get deeper and deeper, and they should get more passionate as they move from one semester to the next or from undergraduate to graduate.  


Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you hoped I would or is there anything you would like to add?

I think one of the things I’ve been talking about is for the USC School of Architecture to be seen not just as an academic entity. Though the architecture gallery at the Museum of Modern Art is very small in terms of its square footage, in relation to the overall institution, it is nevertheless very prestigious and influential. In similar fashion, architecture schools, and we’re one of the larger ones, are relatively small in the context of large research universities. But we can have an outsized influence in terms of being a cultural player within the greater contexts in which we find ourselves—whether that be geographic context or the context of working across silos within the university. We want to bring people into the community of the School, whether in the School itself or another location. In this way, we can access a broader voice that our students and faculty can hear from within the city, not just from within the university. We can become a civic institution in addition to being a great academic institution.




photo: Steve Cohn