07/22/19 Faculty Spotlight: J. Yolande Daniels


J. Yolande Daniels will be joining the USC School of Architecture this fall as an assistant professor. Previously, she was the Eero Saarinen Visiting Professor at Yale University and a visiting professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Daniels has taught architecture at the graduate level at Columbia University, the University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, and City College and was interim director of the Master of Architecture program at Parsons School of Constructed Environments. 

Can you tell us about your background?

I am a founding principal of the architecture practice studioSUMO. I hold a master of architecture degree from Columbia University and a bachelor of science degree in environmental science from the City University of New York. 

As an undergraduate, I was encouraged by young professors at City University when I might have quit. One referred me to a summer internship in architecture after I graduated CUNY and before I entered GSAPP. I ended the internship with a solo trip across Italy and to Paris to tour architecture. It was my first time travelling out of the US since I was a child and had travelled to Europe with my parents. My father was a professional boxer and we lived in Bad Soden, Germany when I was 5. The trip was my version of the “grand tour” to see the works I had studied. It was also the start of my travels to see architecture. I returned to New York the day before classes began, and I remember being excited but also a bit off-kilter from so many new experiences. 

As a student at the GSAPP, I was excited to be in the realm of ideas, but there was also something missing. I did not have words for the experience at the time, but areas of my experience, as a black woman, were objectified or negated in the approach to architecture. After graduating, I later entered the Whitney Program, first as a Studio Fellow and then as a Critical Studies Fellow, where I began my independent journey to unite aesthetic and formal interests with ideas about architecture and the city as social forms.

What will you be teaching at USC Architecture?

I will teach a graduate studio in fall 2019 and an undergraduate studio and a research seminar in spring 2020.

What drew you to the USC School of Architecture?

When I visited USC, I found it very interesting to sit in on reviews with work that ranged from the purely formal to projects with both formal and social interests. I found the diversity encouraging. I was also very excited about being in proximity to the architecture of the LA School, to exciting digital explorations, and to the possibility of exploring Angeleno urban forms. It seems like an exciting time to be at USC and in Los Angeles, and I look forward to being among a group of new hires to join an already dynamic faculty.

What excites you about your faculty role?

At USC, I am very excited that teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate level will allow me to cover a spectrum of my interests in architecture, from representation to form-making to interrogating form. I look forward to continuing existing research and to branching out into new work. 

What are your thoughts on the current state of architecture across the globe?

As a discipline, architecture is both expanding and contracting. There is a professional entrenchment over what defines an architect and architectural practice at the same time that definitions of practice and professionalism in the field of architecture have expanded to include critiques of power and place and the acknowledgement of context. This is simultaneous to digitization and atomization of disciplines over disciplinary autonomy.

Today, there is recognition of the importance of multivalent histories. I am interested in the current moment and in the future that is not stuck in the past or running from it. Traces of the future that I occupy existed in the past of those I’ve followed. Along these lines, I wonder what traces of the future might exist in the present and how to be forward thinking. I seek to engage a speculative approach to architecture from a perspective that is influenced by social critique and science fiction: a mashup of Manfredo Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia meets Superstudio’s Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas meets Octavia Butler’s Kindred meets Samuel Delany’s Babel 17

Who or what inspires you?

As a student, the books that inspired me most in the transition from undergraduate to graduate were All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Marshall Berman and Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development by Manfredo Tafuri. I was also inspired by the drawings and hybrid models of Zaha Hadid, by the work of Superstudio, and by Bernard Tschumi’s Advertisements for Architecture series and The Manhattan Transcripts and the work of Elizabeth Diller/Diller-Scofidio. From graduate school on, the work of Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau have guided my ability to have an expansive view towards architecture and the city.

What are your research interests? What drew you to the work you are doing now?

Throughout my career in architecture, I have been involved in academic and independent projects that include research, writing, and building. The combined practices of analyzing, making, and teaching have been critical to my work. 

I co-founded studioSUMO with Sunil Bald in New York in 1995. My move to Los Angeles is an expansion of the work of the studio that ranges from institutional and cultural projects in education and the arts, to housing, research-oriented installations, and exhibitions. 

My models in architecture were those who not only built buildings, but who saw in design a larger overlapped field of concepts, patterns, and objects. This has influenced my interest in the field of architecture and has led me through my practice to explore work across a range of scales—from societal patterns that inform the design of objects, to the forming of objects, to the patterning of object-surfaces. 

My independent design research has been published in a range of anthologies that explore models of practice, the techniques of power and the way social structures give rise to physical structures as architecture and cities and other forms of representation. In addition to analyzing and building buildings, my work and pedagogy consists of modeling urban dynamics. I am excited to explore Los Angeles.

Why is now such an exciting time to study urbanism and architecture?

There is a growing demand for parity of all forms--gender, ethnicity, race, economic. The field of architecture has changed, is changing…and needs to change much more. 

It is an exciting time now because the stakes are very high. This era is defined by the global spread of capitalism that affects the field of architecture and has radically altered the shape of cities through rampant development and gentrification and the loss of a focus on social housing and community-empowered design that existed in the social revolutions of the 20th century. 

On the other hand, a field that was dominated by white men has, in my lifetime, seen an increase of women and people of different races and ethnicities enter. In a growing number of American universities, including USC Architecture, female students outnumber male. Although disparity remains in the field, as we are empowered, study, question, write, construct, publish and build, change occurs.

Any advice to current students?

Despite the turbulence (and yearnings backward) that defines the current moment, you are coming of age in a moment when boundaries are visibly shifting. It may feel uncertain as you look beyond the threshold of the university, but if you remain persistent and true to yourself and your community (however you define it), your interests can be accommodated within the expanded field of architecture. This is not to say there won’t be a struggle, but I do not know of any other moment when this has been more true for more of the population.

Related Links: USC Architecture Appoints Four New Tenure Track Faculty



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