02/28/19 Faculty Spotlight: Erin Kasimow
Erin Kasimow is principal of multidisciplinary creative design firm EEK STUDIO and a lecturer at the USC School of Architecture. She received an undergraduate degree in studio art from Wesleyan University before pursuing an M.Arch at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. A Los Angeles native, Erin has worked in several design offices across the city, including Michael Maltzan Architecture, Bestor Architecture, and Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, and is inspired by the eclectic, dynamic culture that makes the city unique.
Can you tell us about your background?
Before I went to architecture school, my background was in photography. In high school, I shot a lot of banal or anonymous landscapes and forgotten places, which I continued as a college student at Wesleyan University. The images were aesthetic and formal, but they also represented an opportunity to find stories in unlikely settings. I’m an LA native and my hometown has certainly informed and shaped my frame of reference for viewing the world.
Growing up in a place that is constantly shape-shifting and defying the traditional definitions of a city left me with a penchant for juxtaposition and contradictions, high and low culture, and finding beauty that is slightly askew. My mentor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where I went for my M.Arch, was Mack Scogin, who really inspires his students to produce work that is highly personal and draws from all aspects of their backgrounds and interests.
My early photographic work resurfaced in the locations I chose to research and feature in grad school—places like the Salton Sea and Detroit, which have complex histories and conflicted beauty in their physical landscapes. These ideas from my thesis spun off into a fellowship year of funded travel after I finished at the GSD. I went to Germany, India, and China, documenting new and old ruins and their architectural stories. There was never any question that I would eventually return to California. When I did, I worked in various design offices in LA for a few years before starting my own practice and beginning to teach at USC five years ago.
What do you teach at USC Architecture?
I currently teach and coordinate a large part of the first-year B.Arch fall curriculum, both the 102A Design Studio and 105 Visual Representation course. Both courses celebrate Los Angeles and the rich history of architectural and artistic practices that are based here. In 102A, the students develop fundamental skills through critical analysis of notable houses around the city.
I rewrote the 105 course three years ago with Laurel Broughton as a way to think about how other disciplines can inform architectural representation. In that course, we look at a lot of artists, writers, and creatives as a supplement to the foundation that students are acquiring in 102A. This spring I am leading a fifth-year degree project studio that explores the intersection of food, design, architecture, and performance art. The students spent the beginning of the semester designing a portable meal kit, and for their final projects, they will be developing a restaurant concept. The course culminates in a dinner party that serves as their last design review of architecture school.
What drew you to the USC School of Architecture?
This school doesn’t represent one dogmatic pedagogy. It supports a diversity of thought and approaches and leaves room for many types of students and faculty members to find their places and interests within our discipline. I think we are incredibly fortunate to have so many experienced and emerging practitioners on the faculty who are actively contributing to the built fabric and culture of Los Angeles, and bringing real-world experience to disciplinary pursuits.
What excites you about your faculty role?
So much! This academic year has been especially interesting in that it is bookended by teaching students at the beginning and the end of their time at USC. The contrasts between those stages is profound and it’s quite humbling to be a part of both experiences. They’re seminal in such different ways.
Who or what inspires you?
I find a lot of inspiration in pop culture, lately in television where I believe the extended nature of a series allows for creative formats, non-linear storytelling, and character development. There is such an assortment of rich content available right now, and I am inspired by the vast array of stories I see flooding streaming services. I especially love recent shows that take place in LA like Transparent and Insecure. These are projects lauded for diverse and expanded narratives, and they also portray Los Angeles in a way that is broader than what has been shown on film and TV in the past. Recently, I’ve actually been writing on this subject and speaking about it at academic conferences.
What are your research interests? What drew you to the work you are doing now?
As I mentioned, lately I have been writing a lot on Los Angeles and the character it plays in pop culture. I have always been interested in the production of images with my own photography and projects in architecture school, which followed me as I traveled and conducted research after graduating. Over the years, much of this focus has returned to my hometown and depictions of it in art and media. In my research and design practice, I often reference these representations when developing a project, whether it’s through the paintings of David Hockney, the writings of Joan Didion, or The Long Goodbye and Six Feet Under. I think understanding how architecture and place can color and contextualize individual stories and experiences is an interesting way of thinking about design and can lead to more inclusive proposals.
Why is now such an exciting time to study urbanism and architecture?
The current political and cultural climate has made it apparent that, as educators, we have to interrogate the models we’ve previously subscribed to and consider how we can update our practices and traditions. This should always be happening in our institution, but right now there is a sense of urgency that I am particularly galvanized by. This semester, my students have been participating in alternative methods and formats of critique and review, and these tests have yielded newfound joy and fun without sacrificing the quality of intellectual inquiry and criticality.
Any advice to current students?
Proactivity is key. Make all of your educational and professional experiences what you want them to be. Don’t be passive: question and interrogate everything. Bring what you care about into your work, no matter how random or weird or far from architecture those things might seem. Don't underestimate your instructor’s desire to accommodate and honor those individual passions. I am so impressed and energized by students who express conviction and individuality in their work, especially when it ties back into a greater understanding and awareness of the world around them.